Written by Tom Daly
I recently wrote a piece for A Little Insight in which I wondered whether I am a millennial or a Gen Z-er by listing the differences between them. Perhaps another way to differentiate between the generations would be to ask how many of the events in this book one can remember.
Alwyn Turner’s All in it Together seamlessly takes us through a cultural and political history of England in the first two decades of the 21st century. I do mean ‘England’ rather than ‘Britain’. Although, inevitably, the rest of the UK, Europe and indeed the whole world make a healthy number of appearances – ever heard of a place called Iraq, anyone?
For any history, culture or politics lover, this book is an absolute joy. We happily bounce through England’s broad social changes since the turn of the millennium, consider how these changes have been reflected in our culture, and meet some of our favourite characters along the way. For example, the sharp decline in religiosity opening the door for gay marriage, a sharp increase in immigration, an economic catastrophe and a blurring of class divisions allowing the privately educated to once again dominate media and politics.
But most importantly, beneath all of this is Turner’s subtle but consistent suggestion throughout the book that England in 2021 is not simply the product of the political turbulence we have witnessed since 2016 but actually, this turbulence and the changes it has brought has been a long time coming.
The first of these changes is fairly obvious – a complete breakdown in trust in our institutions. Turner takes us through the economic collapse of 2007-08 which destroyed our trust in banks and in the wider economic system. Then, there was the phone hacking scandal of 2011 which destroyed public trust in traditional media and acted as a catalyst, Turner argues, for people turning to newer forms of media on the internet.
Intimately linked to both of these scandals were politicians. Turner argues that the first Prime Ministers of this century, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, were once popular for the main qualities they were perceived to have: Blair for his honesty – ‘I’m a pretty straight kind of guy’, he said soon after his victory in the 1997 election – and Brown for his competence.
When Blair ignored huge public opposition and relied on seemingly false pretences to invade Iraq, his reputation never recovered and neither did Brown’s when he failed to spot the looming economic disaster. Add to this the MPs expenses scandal of 2009 and the crippling austerity of David Cameron’s government after 2010, and Turner has us understanding that the seething public anger at the political establishment in the mid-2010s did not just arise out of nowhere.
Blair and Brown both belonged to the Labour party which has recently suffered a collapse in its support, particularly in its former northern English heartlands. But is this actually such a modern phenomenon? Turner makes a convincing case that it is not – that if you looked closely enough over the last 20 years, it has been steadily headed that way for a while.
In particular, he notes that the New Labour government was at odds with its electoral base on the issue of immigration with Blair enthusiastically welcoming immigrants from the ten (predominantly eastern European) nations who joined the EU in 2004. When Labour’s traditional English working-class supporters expressed angst about the number of arrivals, their concerns were invariably dismissed as xenophobic – or ‘bigoted’, as Gordon Brown memorably commented after meeting such a voter in 2010 – and ignored.
Turner also uses comedy to highlight the cultural disconnect between Labour’s traditional supporters and its increasingly metropolitan leadership, namely the controversial comedian Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown. Brown was adored by northern working-class audiences, but abhorred in polite society. New Labour had formed a coalition of working-class and metropolitan voters, but Turner convincingly uses comedy to show how that coalition became increasingly fractured as it became clear which side of it the leadership belonged to.
All that was needed for that coalition to break decisively was a populist right-wing movement. David Cameron’s ‘austerity with a bit of social liberalism’ wouldn’t cut it, but then along came the defining English event of the last twenty years.
Brexit. It came as a shock to many in 2016, but to read this book is to wonder how ‘Remain’ even got 48% of the vote. Turner makes clear that Brexit did not come out of a vacuum, charting the rise in support for far-right parties and giving an entertaining account of the rise of UKIP. Robert Kilroy-Silk, the maverick former Labour MP turned television host, was the first leader to guide the party towards national significance but lost out in a mid-noughties power struggle with its founder, Nigel Farage.
Farage would become the most consequential politician of the past twenty years, and it is in his story that we see the themes of Turner’s book coming together. Disillusionment with the status quo? Check. Ready support for an outsider? Check. Posh men dominating politics? Check. Farage was exactly the man to step into the vacuum left by the political elite.
It didn’t matter that he was a privately educated stockbroker, because his opponents as he rose to prominence after 2010 were also privately educated and seen to be equally out of touch (Cameron, Clegg, Miliband). At least Farage didn’t seem elitist. Here was the man to smash the precarious political loyalties that had been carried over from the old century to the new one. He passed that mantle to Boris Johnson, and in many ways it’s their England that we’re living in now.
It’s strange to look back on events which seem so recent as ‘history’ but for someone my age, there is also something reassuring about revisiting the events and public figures you remember growing up. Proper histories of these two decades will emerge as we become further removed from them, but Alwyn Turner’s All in it Together is a pretty good start.
Featured image courtesy of Unsplash. Image licence found here. No changes have been made to this image.