I won’t have been alone in enjoying some of the end of the decade pieces emerging in the dying gasps of the last ten years. To take one example, the declinists at the Guardian have published this immense piece by Andy Beckett, citing signs of disaster as diverse as phrases like ‘trigger warnings’ and the growing presence of puffer jackets.
History is written in and about the present, and the left is looking to a second decade out of power as much as it is the lapsing first in its gloomy reviews. For a rightwing contrast you can find Matt Ridley of the Spectator, who argues “we’ve just had the best decade in human history”. His optimism must be informed by the fact Boris Johnson, a former editor of that magazine, has 365 seats in the House of Commons, the highest Conservative count for 30 years.
I claim no greater wisdom than those writers, but the 2010s (or possibly teens) seem to me to elude a common theme as much as a common name. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition that takes up half the decade contrasts keenly with the latter years dominated by the Brexit “ordeal”, to use the word of the analytical Cambridge professor Helen Thompson.
It’s tautological that David Cameron’s Tory government set the scene for the referendum on our EU membership, both in the sense of organising it and by cutting public spending in the wake of the financial crisis. However, he bears little responsibility for the financial crash itself, or even the wider British scepticism towards the EU.
Cameron will be remembered for Brexit, but his premiership may increasingly look like an addendum to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s New Labour project. The ‘heir to Blair’, as Cameron has been called, is hard to imagine without his predecessor, and his lack of any big ideas eventually led to events imposing themselves on him.
Subversively the austerity programme that nearest qualifies as the Cameroons’ reason for being is a far stronger thread through the decade than any other political agenda. Johnson has called some end to it with his election manifesto and promises of big spending on public services, even if you suspect few Tories got into office to enact such programmes.
Labour and the Lib Dems were likewise bisected this decade, with Ed Miliband turning his party over the hot young Corbynites and Nick Clegg returning his party to office for the first time in decades before the oranges shredded seat numbers in the last three general elections. The overall political picture is one of Tory survival and opposition ineptitude, though both sides can be accused of plenty of the latter quality.
Glib historians will put a neat gloss on all this in years to come, so it is worth noting how little of this seemed obvious at the time. Pundits largely underestimated the likelihood of the past five years’ shocks, including Cameron’s surprise victory in 2015. I suspect many have overestimated the effects of Brexit once it is fully implemented, both good and bad.
I can only finish this decade by saying from this time it doesn’t look like much but a tangle of noise, confusion and uncertainty. As always.