Who remembers the 1980s?
Today’s forty-year old voter came of political age within the 1990s.
Seismic political events of the 1980s…
The race riots at the start of the decade…
The IRA’s attack on the Conservative Party conference in Brighton in 1984…
The melting of the Cold War, and Gorbachev and Reagan shaking hands…
The fall of the Berlin Wall…
These events are encounteed through BBC broadcasts from childhood rather than being experienced as felt realities. In their earliest teens, the forty year old voter tasted not the self-consciously spectacular leadership of Thatcher but the stale, grey flannel of John Major and the grim work culture of the newly-thriving UK financial services sector. The first time many now forty-year old children in the UK were touched by party politics was when they were warned off eggs because of the salmonella scare.
Things can only get better?
Then came Tony Blair. He was young (sort of), he was ambitious (in spades) and he knew how to take the City’s wealth and spin it into a cultural phenomenon. He and his buddies Mandelson, Straw, Campbell and Brown moved old red Labour rightwards and rechristened it New Labour.
Thatcher was bankers; Blair was management consultants, branding, cappuccinos, pesto, delis and rocket salad with a balsamic glaze.
New Labour were the yuppies of the 1990s: comfortable with big business, wealth, media, style and design, soft power and cultural diplomacy.
They were socially progressive but stripped of proletarian militancy
They were interested in building up the UK film industry rather than the UK steel industry.
Thatcher's greatest achievement?
Having shucked off its last big badge of Empire with the handover of Hong Kong, the UK briefly flowered into a trendy, lifestyle-enhanced, multicultural global destination, famous for its modern tolerance and diversity, fully integrated with the rest of Europe – as it would be for ever. Thatcher said it was okay to be rich and greedy; Blair said was okay to be famous and ambitious, and if your fame came from creativity (as it did for the Young British Artists of the Sensation exhibition in 1997), and if your ambition led to wealth and power – well, that was hardly a sin.
Blair's wars begin
At a wider level, Britain’s heyday occurred against the backdrop and aftermath of multiple conflicts including the Rwandan civil war of 1990-1993 and the Yugoslav wars which raged throughout the 1990s.
The accumulated trauma, political fragility, the genocidal and rapacious violation of human rights and the woefully late (in the case of Rwanda) or controversial interventions (in the case of Nato’s 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia) established the 20th century as one marked by militarised conflict from beginning to end.
Clinton: cool guy
President Bush Snr wasn’t as forgettable as John Major, but he too suffered by following the glossy leadership of Reagan. By 1993, America was ready to pivot back to the Democrats for a dose of telegenic, priapic charisma. Former Arkansas governor Bill Clinton was at once a good old Southern boy and a polished Washington liberal, a social progressive and an ambitious player, the partner of a formidable woman and a sexual predator who was undone, in classic if not classy style, by his sleazy behaviour with an intern.
Then it was back to the Bush dynasty and in stepped brainless Bush Jnr, possibly illegally, for a fresh round of war games.
Al Qaeda interrupts the party
The Cool Britannia era of confidence, creativity and possibility came to a shocking end with the 9/11 attacks in 2001 by the hitherto unknown terror group, Al Qaeda.
The Western world entered a new phase of curiosity and suspicion about Islam, of mistrust of those who were dark-skinned, regardless of religion or nationality, and the cementing of stigmatising stereotypes about Middle Eastern politics, culture and society.
Bush Jnr threw out inflammatory, generalised slogans like ‘Axis of Evil’ and ‘War on Terror’. He pushed for military action in Afghanistan and Iraq and created Guantanamo Bay in 2002. It was from 9/11 onwards that political events accelerated, alongside many other trends, into the world we inhabit now.
New Labour gets old
While Blair may have believed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, above all he wanted to be allies with America and tend the ‘special relationship’ (which waned under Cameron-Obama and died after May, Brexit and Trump).
Blair was more willing to hang on to the coat-tails of Bush Jnr than to listen to the millions of people who marched against the Iraq War, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and dozens of soldiers.
Blair’s handover to Gordon Brown was a footnote at the sordid end of a once optimistic, now shameful political career.
Where did all the money go?
As plays like Enron and films like The Big Short, Boiler Room and The Wolf of Wall Street spelled out, the global banking boom was built on bets, lies and bad-faith agreements, leading to the 2008 global financial crisis which caused the spectacular demise of banks like Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch.
In 2010 Tory PM David Cameron filled the Cabinet with his friends and many wealthy aristocrats he’d known from school and university. Instead of building more houses, investing in the NHS or making corporations pay the correct amount of tax Chancellor George Osborne reacted with a swingeing (he might say ‘stringent’) raft of income-generating (he might say ‘cost-cutting’) measures affecting numerous essential social services from free legal aid to Sure Start centres and domestic violence refuges.
The Arab Spring becomes a winter for liberty
From 2010 onwards, the mantra of protestors in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Bahrain was an inspiring symbol of resistance against dictators like Mubarak, Gaddafi, Assad and their authoritarian regimes.
The ‘Arab Spring’ was a refreshing blast of defiance and creativity as protestors used street theatre, blogging, comics, citizen journalism and secular civil society models to envision the kind of state they wanted. However, in most cases, the authorities’ crackdown on ‘insurgents’ meant the revolutionaries were violently suppressed or – as in Syria – the uprisings turned into long, brutal civil wars.
The ‘Arab spring’ was part of a wider wave of popular protest which began with the anti Iraq War marches and recurred all over Europe in response to gross capitalism, inequality and austerity as well as the arrogance and privilege of financial and political elites. The Occupy movement was active in the financial districts in New York and London, embodying the anti-corporate manifesto in Naomi Klein’s prescient first book, No Logo (1999).
The new terrorism
The Taliban looks staid in comparison with ISIS and Boko Haram, which use religion as an excuse for instigating savagely regressive regimes; preaching hatred; recruiting and training individuals for terrorist activities; and taking responsibility for the violent stunts of individuals who want to sow division and fear. The voter of 40 must now accept the possibility of random attacks like the Manchester Arena, London Bridge, Borough Market and Parsons Green incidents, in which the perpetrators seem to have acted on their own, without coercion by any major group.
Tech giants become the new superpowers
For the forty year old of today, word-processing GCSE essays was seen as fancy. Email came in around the mid to late 1990s but it wasn’t until nearly a decade later that everything – newspapers, shopping, communications, arguments, personal diaries, political discussions, activism, reportage, analysis, photographs, films, TV, banking, music – all went online and tech giants became the new superpowers. Globalisation and digitisation have resulted in an infinite, image saturated, information-rich online realm but also fostered addiction, shortened attention spans, sedentary working, lazy recall and the collapse of multiple job sectors and professional roles.
Being watched and watching ourselves
Since 9/11, an age of vigilance, suspicion and appearance-based profiling has emerged. It’s an era in which people police each other and report anything that seems unusual.
The UK is a heavily-watched society, not just in terms of the number of CCTVs on the street but also through GCHQ and NSA tracking of email and phone communications, financial transactions and online searches.
We are also hyper-conscious of ourselves as watching and watchable objects. We take selfies, photograph our meals and use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to advertise what we are doing, thinking and feeling, as if we are all now (unpaid) journalists of everything.
The refugee crisis
The refugee crisis of 2012 onwards has been caused by people escaping wars, fragile states, extreme poverty, political persecution and the effects of climate change in many countries. While the majority of refugees are displaced to other developing countries, Europe has struggled to respond to the relatively tiny proportion who head towards it.
Germany’s policy has been an open one; Greek and Italian coastal authorities struggle with arrivals in boats via the Mediterranean and the Aegean seas; the Home Office in the UK operates a system of denial, disbelief and detention for asylum seekers and Hungary has opted for a militarised, fenced border patrolled by the army.
The voter of forty is newly accustomed to images of human desperation, drowned bodies and exhausted people in the greatest humanitarian crisis since the world wars.
The rise of populist philistinism
The tabloid press have constructed a toxic rhetorical arc in which various often unrelated factors – radical Islam, terrorism, headscarves, multiculturalism, racial diversity, refugees, migrants to Britain from Eastern Europe, unstable employment, hatred of wealthy elites, under-investment in quality education-housing-and-healthcare – are conflated together by despairing Little Englanders. Nationalistic, insular, philistine and mono-cultural ideas have moved into a normalised centre of political debate.
This tendency is not unique: post-election Germany must include the neo-Nazi AFD party in its government; in France, the Netherlands and Austria the far right were defeated in elections, but their ideas have become mainstream; and Hungary’s President represents refugees as a tide of Muslim invaders threatening Christian Europe.
Brexit is a cataclysm in the life of any forty year old, regardless of how they voted. The vote acted as a lightning rod for the latent debates around race, colour, identity, culture and belonging in Britain. It has split families and friendship groups and created unholy alliances: old-money elites mourning for Imperial greatness alongside philistines who don’t like foreigners on the Leave side; and, on the Remain side, ardent cultural Europeanists with bankers who want to operate internationally without relocating to Frankfurt. David Cameron quit the next morning, Prime Minister May had the mess dumped in her lap and both main parties looked at a half-and-half opinion poll and decided that ‘the people have spoken’. At best it’s a hassle that’ll take years and won’t address Brexiteers’ underlying grievances about work, education, health and housing. At worst it’s a catastrophic act of self-harm.
Much more than a 'whitelash'
The American election at the end of 2016 added its own toxic stamp to European trends of increasing populism, insularity, despair at job precarity and poorly maintained essential services and suspicion of established players. Yes, there was a ‘whitelash’ against the previous black President and a great deal of misogyny against Hillary Clinton, but Donald Trump’s election was also an active endorsement of Trump himself.
Early 2017 saw the inauguration of an incoherent, volatile man who boasts about sexual assault, is slow to condemn US mass shootings and white supremacist demonstrations, pulled America out of the Paris climate change agreement, mocks the disabled, wants a border wall with Mexico, alienated NATO, wants a war with North Korea and signed an executive order withdrawing aid from international charities which provide abortion services.
The second coming but is JC really the messiah?
The Labour leader started off as a quirky outlier in 2015. His principles are faithful to old Labour values, but something about his methods sets the alarm bells ringing. Corbyn’s allies – men like Len McClusky and John McDonnell – are bruisers whose tactics are intimidating and combative and the aggressive young men in his inane cheerleading cult, Momentum, bully dissenters out of the way. In precarious times, Labour offers investment in the welfare state, infrastructure and vital support services. Their differentiation from the Conservatives is to be welcomed – if we have a multi-party system then the parties should represent different things. But on Brexit, they are suspiciously mute; their vision is insular and national, not internationalist.
Extreme weather patterns are now the norm and it’s generally accepted that humans’ interaction with our ecosystem has influenced its changes of temperature, conditions and migratory and extinction patterns. Any voter of 40 will remember the great UK storm of 1987, which gave us all a day off junior school. That was still during the era that ‘eco warriors’ were mocked for their concerns and scientists like James Lovelock and Rachel Carson were seen as paranoid cranks. Now bees are dying out, flowers are blooming at the wrong time of the year, shelves of ice are dropping away at the poles and freak hurricanes and storms – from Harvey to Irma to José – are giving us the message loud and clear.
The End of Days?
The British voter of 40 inhabits a precarious, online-addicted world of insecurity, inequality, suspicion and fear of violence, in which entertainment is abundant and governments are authoritarian.
Halfway through their lives they may still be in unstable work despite good qualifications.
They may be resigned to delaying parenthood until they can stabilise their shared living situation or move out of their parents’ house.
The current aggressiveness of political debate (from all sides) mirrors the nastiness of online abusiveness and reflects the anxiety of citizens fighting for survival in a century just as troubled as the last.