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The people’s decade: how will history come to define the 2010s?

The past ten years may be depicted as a tale of two Etonians: David Cameron and Boris Johnson

18 January 2020

7:00 AM

18 January 2020

7:00 AM

The 1960s were swinging. The 1970s were stagflationary. In the 1980s we made loadsamoney and greed was good. The 1990s were dot.commy. And the 2000s were the boom and bust decade.

Characterising ten-year periods in this casual way is something journalists love to do. It’s deplorably unscientific and yet pleasingly decentralised. A consensus simply emerged that the 1960s were swinging, even if the overwhelming majority of human beings did not turn on, tune in and drop out. The overall quantities of love and war were roughly the same as in the 1950s.

Historians shouldn’t object. Such epithets give us something to argue against. (‘Far from being “swinging”, for most people the 1960s were indistinguishable from the previous decade…’ and so on.) But before the revisionism can begin, we need the consensus. So how is the past decade going to be remembered? As the Trumpy 2010s? And what will this new one be like? The Thunbergian 2020s, perhaps? Or maybe just — if Greta turns out to be right and Australia barbecues itself to ash, Venice joins Atlantis beneath the waves, and Asia asphyxiates — the Last Decade?

For future historians of British politics, the 2010s may be depicted as a rather old-fashioned tale of two Etonians: one suave, smartly turned-out and always well prepared; the other rambunctious, dishevelled and often obviously winging it.

David Cameron won enough votes and seats in the election of May 2010 to oust Gordon Brown from 10 Downing Street, ending the New Labour era by forming a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. Cameron saw off the proponents of Scottish independence in September 2014 and won an outright Tory majority in May 2015. Yet power slipped from his grasp because his nemesis Boris Johnson backed Brexit in the following year’s referendum on European Union membership.

What if Cameron had not made his fateful January 2013 promise of a referendum? What if he had not stuck so tenaciously with Remain — or if Johnson had played safe and not opted for Leave? We can’t know. But it was the schism between the two men that plunged Britain into a protracted political crisis almost no one had foreseen at the beginning of the decade. (Almost no one. In 2011, I told readers of the Wall Street Journal that Brexit was much more likely to happen by 2021 than Grexit — Greece’s exit from the European Monetary Union, which was widely anticipated at that time.)

Yet the great divorce between the UK and the EU was about more than a public schoolboy rivalry. British voters’ disenchantment with Brussels had deeper roots. It reflected legitimate disgruntlement with the EU policy of free movement of people, which had driven net immigration to unprecedented heights. And it reflected a reasonable perception that Europe’s leaders had mishandled the consequences of the 2008-09 financial crisis, not to mention the misnamed Arab Spring.

Four key themes of the 2010s were sluggish post-crisis growth, the recurrent threat of Islamist extremism, the West’s relative decline compared with China, and the increasing influence of the big American technology companies. Each drove a shift from the global to the national. In Britain the result was Brexit, but there were similar populist reactions all over the world, from Donald Trump’s election in the United States to Jair Bolsonaro’s in Brazil.

I would therefore like to propose that the past ten years be known as ‘the people’s decade’ — a time when nationalist, populist strongmen generally got the better of the ‘progressive’ left. To me, this always seemed the most likely trend after the 2008-09 financial crisis, because populist politicians tend to flourish when voters are fed up with globalism and attracted to tariffs, immigration restriction and domestic stimulus.

To be sure, the populism of the left had its successes in the 2010s — not least in generating widespread public anxiety about climate change and income inequality. But it was never clear how politically crucial these issues were in the UK. CO2 emissions fell by 26 per cent over the decade, and measures of inequality — such as the Gini co-efficient before and after housing costs — declined.

By most economic measures, in fact, the Tories did rather well over the past decade. Employment grew by 13 per cent, higher than in France or Germany. According to IMF data, average economic growth was higher too. Unemployment went from nearly 8 per cent to 3.8 per cent — again better than France or Germany. That success helps explain why the Labour party — under its most left-wing leader ever, Jeremy Corbyn — failed to win.

So what comes next? National conservatism (a more accurate term than populism) appeals most to older and less educated voters. Over the next ten years, their electoral importance is bound to decline, while the influence of millennials and Generation Z — who are ‘woke’ to the point of preferring socialism to capitalism — is certain to grow.

A first intimation of this swing of pendulum could come as early as this spring, if Americans suddenly wake up to the non-trivial probability of Bernie Sanders as the Democratic nominee for president. But this will be premature. Trump will win in November, and he’ll win comfortably if his opponent is a socialist. And elsewhere — not only in Britain but also in Brazil — national conservatism will continue to deliver. By contrast, those (notably in Europe) who embrace progressive goals on inequality and climate will under-perform politically, at least in the short run. It will only be in the second half of the decade that the Great Awokening starts delivering electoral victories to the left.

That should not surprise us, as decades tend to get defined by their later years. The 1960s were not that swinging in 1960, after all. The Quarrymen had only just become The Beatles. Harold Macmillan (yes, another Etonian) was prime minister. Dwight Eisenhower was president.

From here until roughly the halfway mark, then, the 2020s will stay Trumpy and Brexity. On both sides of the Atlantic, I venture to predict, the pendulum will not swing leftwards until 2024. And by 2029 — when I shall turn 65 and Greta Thunberg 26 — the new decade will have found its epithet.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford.


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