The pivotal year of the past decade — the one that, had things gone differently, would have made Britain today a radically different country — wasn’t 2016, the year of the vote to leave the European Union. It was 2010.
Many of the stories that dominated the news agenda early that year, though, seem quaint in retrospect. The then-chancellor Alistair Darling cut stamp duty for first-time buyers and increased taxes for the better off. The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, was recorded disparaging a member of the public who ranted to him about Eastern Europeans “flocking” to Britain as a “bigoted woman”. Volcanic ash closed British airspace for a few days.
At May’s general election there was a change of government after 13 years; yet it hardly seemed a seismic event at the time. A tired Labour administration was replaced by a coalition government headed by two slick television performers who promised a “new politics” in which “compromise, give and take, reasonable, civilised, grown-up behaviour is not a sign of weakness but of strength”. Asked what he thought of new Prime Minister David Cameron, the late polemicist Christopher Hitchens replied: “He doesn’t make me think.” This summed up the mood of many, who felt that Cameron was, as Hitchens put it, “content free”.
Indeed, many were fooled by Cameron’s — and to a lesser extent Clegg’s — presentation as leaders of a moderate liberal reforming government, including many former Labour voters, who failed to anticipate just how radical the coalition would be. Cameron was a “new kind of Conservative” alright, but largely in the sense that his conservatism was inextricably wedded to a flavour of economic liberalism which had very little to do with traditional conservatism at all.
By September 2010 the chancellor, George Osborne, was ready to “wield the axe”, as the BBC put it at the time. Funding for the police was to be cut by 20% over four years, the budget for new social housing reduced by 60% over the same period and the justice department faced cuts of 6%, with 3,000 fewer prison places.
Significant in terms of what would transpire during the Brexit referendum was the unprecedented rolling-back of the public realm. The austerity programme introduced by the Coalition government was made up of 89% spending cuts and 11% net tax rises. In the end the Coalition reduced public spending as a proportion of GDP by as much in five years as Margaret Thatcher managed in 11.
The impact in many parts of Britain was severe. There were a million requests for emergency food aid in the last year of the Coalition Government. Morbid online jokes about deceased individuals being declared “fit for work” by the Department of Work and Pensions functioned as a coping mechanism for a society in which people really did drop dead after being declared fit for work. The DWP was run at the time by the severe figure of Iain Duncan Smith, who might as well have been lifted straight from the bureaucratic apparatus of one of Charles Dickens’ workhouses or boarding schools.
Of course, austerity didn’t cause Brexit. But it did contribute to the disillusionment many felt with the Westminster establishment — disillusionment based on feelings of abandonment by the powers that be. In working-class towns such as Blackpool, Rugeley and Ebbw Vale — towns I spent time in in 2016 during my six-month trip around the country to research my book Hired — Brussels functioned as a lightning rod for the disillusionment caused by economic decline and deindustrialisation.
All around there were reasons to want to ‘take back control’, as the anti-EU slogan had urged people to do. “Look at this country and look at how it was thriving in the Fifties, Sixties, even up to the Seventies, but since we joined the EU it’s just gone down,” a former miner at the shuttered Bryn Colliery in Port Talbot told me.
Austerity made life harder still, reducing peoples’ benefits at a time when zero-hours contacts and insecure work required a comprehensive social safety net rather than one deliberately riddled with holes. Homelessness was so bad in some of the places I visited that it felt as if there were a person under a pile of corrugated cardboard in nearly every shop and restaurant doorway. A study from Sheffield Hallam University from published in 2015, shortly before I embarked on my journey, found that 21% of people who had their benefits sanctioned became homeless as a result.
There was much speculation following the referendum as to the cause of the result. London journalists were sent off to explore working-class communities that were said to have been ‘left behind’ by capitalism — and which had consequently rebelled against the status quo as represented by Brussels. Other liberal commentators damned their fellow countrymen as spluttering racists and unreconstructed bigots. The EU — for these intolerant champions of tolerance at least — was synonymous with contemporary bohemian affluence: the free movement of cheap labour and capital, free trade, rule by avocado-eating technocrats etc.
Few of them expected the referendum vote to favour Brexit at any rate. Moreover, the palpable shock of that summer morning in 2016 led many to lose their intellectual footing. Newspaper columns were filled with histrionic pronouncements of ‘creeping fascism’ and impending economic collapse; 2016 was dubbed liberal democracy’s annus horribilis.
Had Gordon Brown scraped through in 2010 a Labour government would undoubtedly have made cuts. But they would have been nowhere near as deep as Osborne’s. This takes on some significance when we are talking about a narrow vote to Leave in the referendum of 2016, a referendum that Labour would never have called in the first place. To say that these two decisions have reverberated across the decades since is an understatement.
The Labour administration that was thrown out in 2010 was certainly exhausted after 13 years in power. It was assailed on all sides by a corporate media which, apart from the Daily Mirror and, curiously, the Daily Mail, had never taken to Gordon Brown, whom it unceasingly mocked as gaffe prone and ‘dour’. By contrast, Cameron and Clegg were politicians well-suited to the television and social media age. Their vacuous soundbites, sharply pressed suits and phosphorescent smiles captured the mood of a country that was tired of Brown’s bureaucratic profligacy and had grown suspicious that the undeserving were taking advantage. As the British Social Attitudes survey reports, “The level of agreement with spending more on welfare benefits for the poor fell from 61% in 1989 to 27% in 2009.”
And so the British public voted for a PR man to be their Prime Minister. Eventually it would become apparent that Cameron’s peculiar self-confidence came not from any exceptional political skill but from a sense of entitlement drummed into him by a traditional upper-class upbringing. But not before the fateful decision had been made to vote him in a second time, this time with a majority. Incredulity ensues among the young when I tell them that Cameron was once considered a safe pair of hands by the British establishment. Looking back through the archives, I am pleased to report that in 2015 I described this widespread misconception as a “façade”.
The British establishment of the late 20th and early 21st century resembles a curiously incestuous beast. Cameron got his first job in politics because Lord Lexden, who was deputy director of the Conservative Research Department at the time, received an anonymous telephone call from Buckingham Palace tipping him off about “an outstanding young man”.
Britain has been paying the price for this lack of judgment by the palace (Was it Prince Andrew who made the call perhaps?) ever since. But then who are we to judge when, as a country, we voted Cameron into office — not once but twice?
The trouble started before Cameron of course. There was a colossal loss of public trust in politicians over the Iraq war, the MP’s expenses scandal and the global financial crisis. But it was the decision to elect Cameron in 2010 — a politician whose measure President Barack Obama had two years earlier when he reportedly described him as ‘lightweight’ — which set us on the path to where we are today. BC — Before Cameron — the situation was recoverable. After, not so much.