At first sight, 2015 is, at best, a warm-up out for the standout year of the 2010s — the liberal Ragnarök of 2016. The former is to the latter what William IV is Queen Victoria; George Lazenby to Roger Moore; Sha Na Na to Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock.
But appearances can be deceptive. Take a closer look and it becomes clear that 2015 was one of the hinges of history — a pivotal year around which everything changed. Before we get onto world events, just consider what happened at home.
2015 was an election year in the UK. It seems like another era now — but the shock result laid the ground for everything that was to follow. The election results in 2017 and 2019 were unexpected too, but at least in those years the pollsters correctly predicted the winning party, if not the winning margin. In 2015, however, we were expecting Labour to be the largest party and Ed Miliband to become Prime Minister. Then reality happened.
In 2010, David Cameron first fooled the country
Labour limped in second with just 31% of the vote. They also lost their Scottish heartland. The SNP took almost every seat, leaving Labour with just one. A humiliated Ed Miliband resigned immediately and went off to Ibiza. Five years previously, at the start of his leadership, he’d spoken of a “new generation” of Brownite politicians. But in 2015, it proved to be the last generation. David Miliband (remember him?) had already quit Parliament and the country, while Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander (remember them?) both lost their seats. However, this was just the start of their troubles. The fatal blow was yet to fall.
I’ll come back to that in a bit. But first, a brief word about the Liberal Democrats — who were reduced from 57 seats to just eight. They’d expected to be punished for entering into coalition with the Conservatives, but this was beyond all expectations. A cruel twist of fate was that Nick Clegg was one of the few Lib Dems not to lose his seat. Having been deputy PM, he returned to the Commons as the outgoing leader of the fifth party of British politics (only to be unseated by Jared O’Mara two years later).
To make matters worse, the prime beneficiary of the Lib Dem collapse was the Conservative Party. In fact, the blues picked up so many yellow seats that they gained a wholly unexpected majority — the first for the Tories since 1997. And yet this moment of triumph for David Cameron and George Osborne would be their undoing. Having promised a referendum on the UK’s membership of European Union, they were now honour-bound to deliver one. And we all know how that worked out for them.
But let’s stay in 2015 and move on to the other big event of the British political year: the Labour leadership contest. This was meant to be a two-horse race between Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper, both of them surviving members of Ed Miliband’s new generation. Liz Kendall was the Blairite no-hoper. Eventually, a candidate of party’s Left was also rustled-up — with a number of moderate Labour MPs lending him their nominations out of a sense of fair play. Big mistake.
By the time they realised Jeremy Corbyn was all-too-popular with the party’s newly expanded membership (another Miliband legacy), it was too late. When the votes were counted, he won on the first round. The new generation hadn’t just lost the election, they’d lost their party. Permanently, it would seem.
Is this the end for Labour?
So, yes, 2015 was the year that changed British politics forever. Even something as unrevolutionary as the re-election of a Conservative Prime Minister contained seeds of chaos. Though Tory strategists must have delighted in the result, the Conservative vote share barely improved on 2010. The majority was a fluke produced by the happy coincidence of the Lib Dem collapse and two voter rebellions (SNP north of the border, UKIP south of it) that happened to hurt Labour more than the Tories. The volatility and unhappiness of the electorate should have filled the political establishment with dread. Instead, they looked ahead to the approaching referendum with confidence. Another big mistake.
Meanwhile in America, there was a parallel failure to read the runes. With Barack Obama’s presidency drawing to a close, the race for the Republican and Democratic nominations was underway. It was pretty much all sewn-up in advance for Hillary Clinton (enough to see off a vigorous challenge from Bernie Sanders), but there was no such consensus among the Republicans. What was conventionally assumed to be a joke bid by Donald Trump gathered momentum. By July 2015, opinion polls showed him in the lead. By the end of 2015, he was established as the clear favourite.
Trump did not hide what he stood for. In the things he said and how he comported himself, his contempt for the political establishment — including that of his own party — was clearly signalled. By 2016 it was probably too late to stop him, but in 2015 mainstream Republicans could have united around a credible candidate. As for the Democrats, some thought could have been given as to how to avoid playing into Trump’s hands. But they obviously decided not to go for that.
Why were the liberal elites so sure of their own position? Perhaps because 2015 marked the end point of what could be called the Long Financial Emergency. This began in 2007 with the Credit Crunch, it was followed by the banking meltdown of 2008, then the Great Recession and eventually the escalating Eurozone crisis.
The latter came to a head with a confrontation between Greece and the so-called ‘Troika’ (i.e. the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF). In January 2015, the Greek general election brought the hard Left to power. Alexis Tsipras became Prime Minister and Yanis Varoufakis finance minister. Demands for further austerity were rejected in the ‘Oxi’ referendum in July. The people had spoken. However, the EU wasn’t listening. The Greek government was presented with an offer it couldn’t refuse. Tsipras gave in, Varoufakis resigned. The Eurozone and its reckless bankers were saved — but at the cost of imposing permanent austerity on the Greek people.
How the world forgot the financial crash
And that, for the foreseeable future, was that. The end not just of the Eurozone crisis (or at least the first Eurozone crisis), but the moment at which the Long Financial Emergency gave way to the Great Economic Amnesia. It’s not that we’ve solved our fundamental economic problems, we just stopped talking about them.
Still, the political threat to the established order was apparently over. Despite everything, Greece was the only western country to elect an avowedly anti-capitalist government — and that was quickly brought to heel.
This could have been the year that Greece was forced out of the Eurozone. This in turn could have brought down the entire single currency, which would have triggered a new global economic crisis. Sometimes a period in history is as significant for what didn’t happen.
Yet just as one disaster was averted another was escalating. The Mediterranean migration crisis did not begin in 2015, nor did it end there. Thousands have died and continue to die trying to get to Europe on overcrowded, unseaworthy vessels. But in this was the year that a vast and complex tragedy was captured in one heartbreaking image — a photograph of the tiny, lifeless form of Alan Kurdi — a three-year-old Syrian boy found drowned on a Turkish beach.
2015 was also the year when the German government announced an open-door policy for hundreds of thousands of refugees — a decision that provoked a populist backlash within Germany and its European neighbours, especially those traversed by the main migration routes.
How to beat the politics of punishment
Anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment drew upon other events in 2015, which began with the murderous attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris and carried on with further atrocities including the horrific Bataclan massacre, also in Paris. These outrages were, of course, cynically exploited by anti-establishment politicians. But the populists were inadvertently helped along by those in authority who clearly failed to address the concerns of their frightened electorates.
This should go down in history as the year of establishment complacency. A year when the elites thought that they’d weathered the storms of the banking crisis. A year when they felt they could continue along the path of rapid social and cultural change — while offering no hope of meaningful economic reform. A year in which the Clintons and Camerons of this world assumed they’d be the ones who shaped the rest of the decade.
In a way, they did.