History, and especially political history, can be a funny thing. We Brits particularly like to believe that our politics is not prone to the radical or revolutionary, as mild, and moderate as our summer weather. The governing class clings religiously to preconceived notions of what it takes to win an election; don’t run from the fringes, stick to the bread-and-butter issues, and plant you flag firmly on the often elusive “centre ground”.
But even a cursory overview of the last few years, yet alone the last century, shows us that this is invariably not the case. True, British politics is usually governed by a dominant consensus, When the voting public broadly agree on the veracity of a certain set of principles as a rulebook for government, the centre ground is strong, and more “radical” voices are pushed to the fringes. The 2001,2005 and even 2010 elections were a case in point, Labour, the Conservatives, and the Lib-Dems challenged each other forcefully over issues such as trustworthiness, character, leadership, and foreign policy, but at the fundamental ideological level, none of them wanted to upset the apple cart. Corbyn’s Labour Party on the other hand, appear increasingly intent on chucking the cart, dumping all the apples, and selling us some oranges that every mainstream politician for the last quarter-century was convinced no one would ever want to buy, and almost half the British electorate are cheering him on.
So, what explains this sudden change in the political climate? Why is the social mood an increasingly socialist mood? What has caused the collapse of the centre ground and brought about the greatest ideological divide between the parties for a generation?
Well, the key word there is generation.
Politics at any point in history is operated within a loose set of ideological rules governing what the relationship between the state and society should be, but as these political cultures erode and develop, each generational cohort perceives their relationship with society completely differently and consequently, have completely different opinions. These “political regimes” lasts roughly 40 to 50 years, the time it takes for a generation to be born and reach midlife. Every 80 years, roughly the course of an average human lifespan in the West, the course of national life is thus dramatically shaped and changed, twice. At a time where it is becoming increasingly clear that age divides British political opinion more than anything, it may be worth looking more closely at what generational change can tell us about why our politics is in the state it’s in, and where we may be heading in the next 10 years as millenials begin to hit their electoral prime.
The first time in living memory that the British political system was radically transformed was 1945, just as a generation of young men were returning home from World War Two. Up until this point, the principles of Gladstonian Liberalism had dominated the British political system. The business of the British Empire was business, and no major party felt comfortable challenging the individualistic self-confidence of the time. The so called “greatest generation” were born to parents who believed that the government should give people their rights but not stand in the way of all the commercial opportunities the so-called “roaring twenties” provided.
By the end of the war however, the attitudes of British youth had changed drastically. Coming of age during the economic crisis of the 1930’s, The Wartime generation felt (perhaps quite rightly) that they were owed a different kind of social contract by their government, the political volatility of the mid-century which had fostered the growth of communitarian philosophies such as socialism and nationalism which were adopted in earnest by the team-orientated young optimists who stormed the beaches of Normandy. Consequently, instead of voting Winston Churchill’s Tories back in for their Nazi-busting heroics, in 1945, being the entitled little snowflakes that they were, Britain’s young war veterans turned out overwhelmingly for Clement Atlee’s unequivocally radical Labour, promising to turn Britain into a “New Jerusalem” with greater opportunities for workers, strong trade unions and the guarantee of using Keynesian economics to pay for government support for everyone from cradle to grave. Atlee’s government was truly transformative because it was governing a population that had to reconsider their place in the world. Whilst their parents and grandparents had grown up will the swaggering confidence and plenty of Pax Britannica, the Greatest Generation had to come to terms with restoring an exhausted, bankrupt, bolshie little democracy, and it largely involved nurses, pensions, and false teeth more than ruling the waves.
As this generation aged into retirement, the apparently ‘radical’ solutions of 1945 became the new political normal. The Labour Party were doggedly devoted to maintaining the welfare state and were backed up by increasingly overbearing unions. The Tories came to terms with this new ‘regime’ by falling back on a Disraelian “one nation” tradition to accommodate the popularity of Labour’s reforms. For my grandparent’s generation, the so-called “Silents” born between the Roaring 20’s and the Baby Boom, a consensus around the central ideas of Atlee’s Britain simply was Politics. Even the decade-long Punch and Judy Contest between Harold Wilson and Edward Heath in the 60’s and 70’s was essentially a battle between two parties that agreed on pretty much everything from a mixed economy, the national insurance system and comprehensive schooling. Heath did try sporadically to lock horns with the Unions, but it was a disaster.
And then came the Baby Boomers…
People often forget it now, But Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party enjoyed overwhelming support amongst younger voters in the 1980’s. This is because Thatcher was offering young Baby Boomers what they had really wanted as they entered midlife. The Boomers, growing up in the 50’s and 60’s as people were increasingly eager to take pot-shots at the establishment, found the big government institutions championed by their wartime parents overbearing at best and oppressive at worst. For their elders, the institutions of the state were the instruments of social progress, but for the Boomers of the hippy era, they were simply “The Man”, another obstacle in the way of the Consciousness Revolution to be taken down. By the end of the ‘Winter of Discontent’, the politics of Post War Britain had become completely discredited and young voters flocked to support the radical right-wing solutions offered by Thatcher.
Cutting the state and liberating the financial markets may have been the real two-fingered salute to Atlee’s legacy desired by conservative ideologues, but it was the right-to-buy programme rolled out in 1980 that really guaranteed the loyalty of a generation. By allowing people at family-starting age to buy their way out of tenancy, Thatcher had effectively created a generation of share-holding, home-owning Tories.
Forty years later, we are still living in Thatcher’s Britain. Our financial markets have never been more powerful, the “commanding heights” of the economy have stayed well out of public hands and trade unions have been effectively neutralised. Until the 2010’s, individualism was as popular as it had been since the 1920’s. This has been borne out in the social and political attitudes of “Thatcher’s Children”; Generation X.
Generation Xers, now in their 40’s and 50’s, have spent their entire working lives living under a “neoliberal” political consensus. Perhaps the most entrepreneurial generation in British History, the Xers entered an uncertain job market during the early 1990’s in which traditional, steady income occupations and the bulk of management positions were still being clogged up by a large cohort of Boomers, so had to find more adaptive ways to make a living during the “dot-com” equity boom. Living in a country where individualism was flourishing, and governments were mistrusted, Xers have tended to adopt a politics that has been both socially and economically liberal. Unwilling to question the key tenets of Thatcherism, but increasingly disenchanted with the Conservative Party’s reputation for “sleaze” and perpetuating the Baby Boomer’s consumer binge, they enthusiastically backed New Labour in 1997, 2001 and 2005.
Tony Blair’s government was, of course, itself a product of the Thatcher Revolution. The “third way” philosophy Labour pursued in the 90’s, particularly the rewriting of Clause four, was billed as a coming to terms with the modern Britain created by Thatcher’s opening of the floodgates to the global market economy, but it was equally about appealing to the aspirational instincts of the ‘Cool Britannia’ generation. By pursuing a liberal agenda that attempted to reconcile moderate social justice with economic dynamism, Tony Blair had finally identified the political middle ground for a new era. Despite its novel parliamentary mechanics, the Coalition government too was strictly bound by this conceptualisation of the national mood, it flirted with genuine efforts at political reconstruction, notably taking the lowest earners out of income tax entirely, but ultimately couldn’t budge from the centre ground.
So why are millenials, and their political preferences, so different?
Well, that can largely be put down to Thatcher’s Buccaneering, free-market Britain suffering a law of diminishing returns for each successive generation. The Baby Boomers have reaped the benefit of the successive waves of consumer booms and bull markets that characterised the 1980’s, the mid 90’s and the noughties, accumulating not just housing assets and healthy pensions (in personal savings rather than state pension schemes) but also more disposable income than any generation in British history. Even now, Boomers account for 47% of all UK consumer spending and still hold more than 55% of the wealth, as well as 40% continuing to work full-time, further scuppering the job market for younger cohorts. Their position as net asset-holders has also made them reliably loyal conservative voters.
Generation X however have been slightly short-changed by neoliberal deregulation. As making your way in modern Britain became more costly and competitive, they have been left holding the bag when it goes wrong. Xers were hit hard in the recessions of 2000 and 2008. Compared to boomers they kept a much larger percentage of their wealth tied up in homes, so when housing markets have plummeted, and employment dipped due to unrestrained market bubbles, it has been Xer jobs that have been cut.
Millenials have been the most handicapped by the current political economy. Their average household income is lower than any other generation at this stage in their lives, British under 40’s has seen the steepest fall in real-term earnings of any nation in Europe except Greece, and significantly, homeownership rates; perhaps the greatest indicator of generational wealth progression, has completely failed to materialise for millenials.
So, we should probably not be surprised that Corbyn got a clean sweep of the younger age groups in last year’s snap election. Jeremy Corbyn is someone who ten years ago would have been nowhere near the Labour leadership, his old school communitarian politics had been considered consigned to history by the previous generation of Labour leaders. But the stressful economic circumstances for younger Brits has created almost perfect storm for both the socialist left and the nationalist right. Whilst Boomers saw state institutions and civic life as oppressive, Millenials have the opposite problem, they see national institutions as too weak, too wasteful, and too feeble to protect their interests in the face of their Generation X manager, their Boomer Landlord, or even the Silent Generation pensioner who many feel took them out of the European Union against their will.
Right now, as the oldest millenials are coming up on their 40th birthdays, the political norms that they were born into are teetering on the brink of collapse. Casual observers will point to the divisions associated with Brexit as the most obvious indication of this problem, but the reality is far more systemic.
The cost of living crisis has been driving the British public away from the centre ground for almost a decade, with the central tenets of post-Thatcher Britain; social liberalism and neoclassical economics being questioned more vociferously than ever before. The New Labour/ Lib-Dem brand of milquetoast metropolitan liberalism has already proved the first victim of the changing political tides, with Momentum’s deep-seated modern socialism proving to have a greater pull with urban millenials eager to rejuvenate British civic life. Before long, we could see David Cameron’s Conservative party go the same way.
It’s been 40 years, and millenials want to look to something new as the old political rules are beginning to prove a burden on those increasingly thinking about settling down, getting mortgages, and starting a family on firm financial ground. Corbyn’s success last year can be considered a warning shot for what might transpire in the 2020’s if serious steps are not made to address the decline in home ownership and real earnings, then eventually, we will have a radically reconstructive government in power, most likely a Labour government.
Thatcher’s Britain may not be dead yet, but it has been living off borrowed time since the Great Recession. As old generations leave the electoral stage to make way for new ones, a radical shift in British Politics appears to be on the horizon, Millenials want to bring back strong state institutions and a greater emphasis on collective civic life, and their political preferences are, to borrow the nomenclature of our time; trending.