The Lost Decade

THE LOST DECADE 2010 – 2020
By Polly Toynbee and David Walker

Given the horrors of the last ten years and the “rightward lurch” toward authoritarianism in Western countries, it’s easy to forget the opportunity costs. Nothing, like something, happens anywhere, as Philip Larkin once observed.

So while all the bad somethings marched on – the dismantling of democracy and the rule of law being the chief examples – the nothings piled up too. Nothing done to address the threat of climate change. No attempt to repair crumbling infrastructure. No growth in wages (what led the Bank of England to call this a “lost decade” in the UK). Problems that were already going to be difficult to deal with were on the way to becoming irremediable given the level of social and economic breakdown.

This political survey of the second decade of the twenty-first century in Britain manages to cover most of the bad things that happened as well as the good things that didn’t. Strictly in terms of politics these years were marked by a Tory ascendancy, and an increasingly radical one at that. The hard-right turn of the Tories is likened to what happened with the Russian Revolution from 1905 to 1917, and the French Revolution going from the Girondins to the Jacobins. It’s hard to feel good about such historical comparisons.

But why did this happen? As is the case with any dramatic social transformation we have to look at both long-term and more proximate causes, and a quest to find any single explanation will likely come up short. For Brexit as for the election of Trump we can point fingers everywhere. Bad times (“austerity” in Britain) often lead to bad politics.

“Brexit is polymorphous; it’s simultaneously about England and the UK, about the UK and Europe; about attitudes, instincts, sensibilities, places, races, self-image, reputation; about institutions, not just parliament. It’s a long list.” Given all this, it’s little surprise that Brexit itself was a mess of contradictions: little England nationalism allied with free-trade libertarianism. Though one supposes that the nationalism was for the plebs while libertarianism, as always, was something only to be enjoyed by those at the top.

Still, if I had to single out just a couple of causes for Britain’s malaise (not so different from our own in North America), I’d settle on the following.

In the first place: voter passivity. In their interviews, Toynbee and Walker express some surprise at voters who had little knowledge or even curiosity about what was happening. Given a chance to initiate fair voting reforms in 2011, voters stayed home: only two out of five showed up, and 68% of those plumped for the status quo. This apathy – product of a general sense of personal well-being (politically, not always a good thing) – allowed the energized base of the right to set the course. Yes, the best lack all conviction and the worst really are full of passionate intensity.

The second point that I think is worth flagging is the generational divide. I’m reluctant to bash the Boomers more than I have already, but if the shoe fits then they should wear it. Whatever one thinks of how things have turned out, this is very much the world the Boomers made, and one they continue to dominate politically and economically. In the Brexit vote “victory was swung by Tory voters . . . who were relatively prosperous. And older. Age tipped the outcome everywhere: retired people in strongly pro-remain London backed leave in similar proportions to the retired of Yorkshire, the north-west and Wales.” Next up, the 2017 election “was the first where age was a stronger predictor of voting intention than social class.”

There’s more to this than the relatively recent (Boomer-driven) development that has seen seniors become an economic elite, or at least better-off, on average, than any other age demographic. Older people are also the most resistant to change. As has often been remarked, we usually get more conservative as we get older, and harken back to imagined good ol’ days when Britain or America were great. Privilege then becomes a double-edged sword.

Older people were some of the most satisfied according to the well-being scores – yet also the most dissatisfied, if their voting patterns said anything about their emotional state. In the UK, life satisfaction now reached its peak between the ages of seventy and seventy-four. The “old” felt life was most worthwhile, as indeed it certainly was for most of them, economically. Odd, though, that the group most regretting lost Britishness were, on these measures, personally today’s happiest.

Why did the most spoiled generation in the history of civilization (remember that this is a Western phenomenon) turn out like this? In large part, I think, precisely because they were so spoiled. Neoliberalism wasn’t a reaction against the counterculture of the 1960s but its natural fruition. Having been given the world, what could the Boomers want but more? Alas, “To age is to crumble” (Toynbee and Walker are talking about infrastructure here). The response to that inevitable fate has been bitterness and rage. The mess that’s left will be for someone else to clean up.

Review first published online July 18, 2022. The Boomers never gave up. A November 2022 YouGov poll of British voters found that 56% of people thought the decision to leave the EU was wrong and only 32% still thought it was right. The only age group to register a majority still in favour of Brexit (and this was six years later, after its failure was abundantly clear) was the over-65s.  57% of that cohort supported Brexit, with the other age brackets breaking down as 37% of 50-64s, 21% of 21-49s, and 11% of 18-24s.

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