History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. It’s a neat aphorism, ascribed to Mark Twain though he probably never actually said it. Whoever coined it, it’s probably more accurate than the other line that keeps going through my head at the moment, the line about history repeating itself, first as tragedy then as farce. Our current repetition is not farcical. But then, our current situation is not a repetition of the 1930s, though it does rhyme.
I grew up in the 1950s. Postwar rationing was still on in Britain when I was born, though it had ended before I was old enough to notice. It was a time when the war filled every aspect of our lives. All around where I was brought up I was aware of sudden gaps in rows of houses, odd areas of wasteland. They were bomb sites, though I would be much older before I realised this; for the child of the 50s this was just what our suburban landscape looked like. Some remained blights; some had ugly and inappropriate buildings put up hurriedly in their place, and some had been repurposed in other ways. I remember, not far from my home, a piece of ground known as the “Wreck”; it was wartime wreckage, of course, but it had been repurposed as a Recreation Ground, so the name contained both meanings.
One thing I do remember from this time: war was of the past. War was ever-present, you could not watch an evening’s television (I remember when our first set arrived in the late 50s, and how quickly it became the centre of our family’s entertainment) or read a comic without encountering the war, but it was always looking back on the bravery of the past rather than anything current. Oh there were wars all the time: Korea, Kenya, Malaya, Aden, Suez; but these were small and far away and there was a sense that they would not be allowed to grow and consume the world as “the War” had done. When conscription was ended in the early-60s there was a feeling that the army was being put away somewhere, only to be taken out on rare occasions. Meanwhile, Britain’s postwar poverty led to us steadily shaking off the ties of empire. We couldn’t afford it (whatever the Brexiteers might imagine, Empire always cost more than it gave us; it wasn’t even our main trading partner, at the height of Empire we traded more with Argentina than with any part of the Empire), and there was agitation for independence, so the easy option was to go along with it. I suspect people in Britain barely noticed, Empire didn’t really impinge on most people except for those relative few who were stationed there in the army or who emigrated. My aunt and uncle lived in Rhodesia, came home to Britain in the late-50s, complained for ages about no longer having black servants, then emigrated to Australia early in the new decade. They were, I think, the exception rather than the rule.
This extended period, ending with the existential shock of the Cuba Missile Crisis, seems to me to rhyme with that much briefer period from 1919 into the early 1920s when the world was consumed with the idea that there would be no more war, when the shape and nature of the world was being reimagined, when global forces (the League of Nations / the United Nations) were being imagined into existence, and when everyone was shaken by the immediate after-effects of war, the emotional cost of so many dead, the financial cost of war debts. It was elongated into the early 1960s, I suspect, because so many of those in power had lived through the earlier period, had seen the relative failure of so many of their efforts, and probably had no clear idea of how to get it right this time. So, of course, they didn’t get it right. Maybe their indecision allowed some natural healing, though some wounds inevitably remained open and festering.
Then came the wonder years of the 1960s, a period as colourful, as sexually liberated, as focussed on youth (specifically those who could have had no direct experience of war), as the 1920s had been. It was a time of hope, a time when affluence was replacing austerity, and a time of just enough social improvements for us to imagine that much more was actually getting better.
In Britain, for instance, it is a general rule of thumb that the Home Secretary is the most right-wing member of any cabinet, of whichever stripe. It still holds true that every new prime minister comes to office proclaiming that they are going to make things better for everyone. Then you look at who they appoint as Home Secretary, the office that will be putting most of these reforms into practice, and you know that none of these promises are going to be followed through. But for a time in the mid-60s Britain had the only socially liberal Home Secretary in my lifetime. Roy Jenkins, working with the new leader of the Liberal Party, David Steel, pushed through most of those liberal reforms – decriminalising homosexuality, reforming divorce laws, abolishing the death sentence, legalising abortion – that helped make the 60s feel so positive.
Of course, just like the 1920s, advances in some areas were accompanied by failures in others, particularly in terms of employment. Barbara Castle’s “In Place of Strife”, the most concerted effort by any postwar government to end the adversarial character of labour relations in Britain, was shelved because it was opposed by both unions and employers, two groups who both profited from the continuing war between bosses and workers. So the decade devolved into an ongoing series of strikes which ushered in a Conservative government and a decade and a half of class war. Just as the 1950s felt like an extended version of 1919, so the 1970s was a decade-long replay of 1926.
After the feel-good 60s, the 1970s was a miserable decade. There were near-constant strikes, and consequently huge numbers out of work, while government appeared helpless. Edward Heath’s Conservatives introduced the three-day working week, Jim Callaghan’s Labour government saw rubbish piling in the streets and bodies going unburied. The affluence of the 60s seemed to have been frittered away. Urban blight made our landscapes ugly and dispiriting, with constant scandals of substandard buildings. Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech in 1968 had ushered in a decade of racial tensions. Religious tensions in Northern Ireland flared into outright conflict, which began spilling across to the mainland. I was at university in Northern Ireland at the time of the Protestant Workers’ Strike in 1974, which had the eerie effect of forcing me to revise Kant by candlelight.
In the early part of the decade, Edward Heath, who had spent his entire career campaigning for closer ties with Europe, finally managed to achieve British membership of the Common Market. It is strange, looking back, to realise that at the time membership of Europe was a Conservative policy actively opposed by a significant proportion of the Labour Party. Opposition to the Common Market was led by an unholy alliance of the extreme left of the Labour Party and a handful of MPs on the extreme right of the Tory party. As an avowed pro-European, then as much as now, I saw opposition to the Common Market as the province of the lunatic fringe, but it was storing up trouble.
Ever since the 1950s, both parties in Britain had tended to be centrist. In most details, a change from a Conservative to a Labour government, or vice versa, didn’t entail a great deal of change. But when Heath lost to Harold Wilson in 1974, the right of the Conservative Party engineered the election to leadership of Margaret Thatcher. This began a polarisation of politics in this country, particularly on the right, that has continued to this day. The impoverishment of the 1970s cleared the way for the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, just as the impoverishment of the 1920s and 30s had cleared the way for the election of strong (for which read, authoritarian) leaders in so much of Europe. Nevertheless, her popularity was low and falling lower before she engineered the Falklands War (she withdrew the Royal Navy presence in the islands just at the moment when the Argentine junta was making the most bellicose noises about reclaiming the Malvinas, and lo and behold almost immediately afterwards there was an invasion, and her popularity skyrocketed because there’s nothing the British like more than a minor war against a weaker enemy). Her brutal war against the miners during the strike of 1984-85 didn’t just destroy the strength of the unions (a popular move in much of the country, since the unions were seen as responsible for much of the chaos of the 1970s), but also destroyed the working class as a political force while militarising the police. For many people in this country, the police have never been trusted since. (It is interesting that during the 50s and 60s, police shows from “Dixon of Dock Green” to “No Hiding Place” invariably showed the police as noble and congenial. I remember the early-60s episode of “Z-Cars” in which the villains got away with their crime, which was viscerally shocking. But I can’t remember a single police show from the last 30 or 40 years that has not, in at least the occasional episode, shown the police to be brutal, stupid, corrupt or otherwise untrustworthy. They have not been unalloyed heroes since the Miners’ Strike.)
When, at the end of the decade, even the Conservative Party decided that Thatcher was too much, the leadership eventually devolved to John Major (think of “Yes, Prime Minister”: the least likely person getting the nod because the other alternatives were too polarising). Major was probably the most liberal Conservative PM of my lifetime, but he had no control over his Cabinet, and the story of his government was a story of political corruption, “Cash for Questions”. The distrust of the police following the Miners’ Strike had widened to a more general distrust of authority, but it has to be said that most politicians have shown remarkably little interest in retaining or regaining trust. Which is what eventually paved the way for the election of Boris Johnson who has benefitted from a general feeling that, yes, he’s a liar, but at least he’s our kind of dishonest.
For a moment, a very brief moment, there was a sense of 60s hope recurring with the election of Tony Blair in 1997. For me, this was encapsulated in the sight of Mo Mowlem arriving in Belfast almost before Blair had confirmed her in the position of Northern Ireland Secretary, and engaging with Northern Ireland politicians in a way that none of her predecessors had bothered to do. It couldn’t last, this moment of hope lasted months rather than years: Mowlam was attracting too much attention and very quickly Blair reined her in and started taking the lead on Northern Ireland policy. It was a harbinger of what was to come: government by focus group, by unelected advisors (Alistair Campbell in this case, but Dominic Cummings obviously comes to mind), by spin. Then came Blair’s shameful lap-dog approach to George W. Bush, the blatant lies that led to our involvement in the Iraq War. By the time he saw the writing on the wall and gave way to Gordon Brown, Blair was about as popular as Thatcher at her nadir.
Say what you like about Thatcher and Blair, though, (and they were awful in so many ways), I suspect they knew what they were doing when it came to governing. Which is more than can be said for the trio of incompetents that have followed Gordon Brown. During the long years of Tory rule in the 1950s there was a complacency in the Conservative Party, a sense that they were the natural party of government, and hence anyone they chose as their leader would automatically be a brilliant Prime Minister. Which gave us such glittering mediocrities as Anthony Eden and Alec Douglas-Home. No wonder that the line that defined the 1964 General Election, and which probably won it for Harold Wilson, was “Thirteen years of Tory misrule”. But Cameron, May and Johnson have each outshone those predecessors in their bland indifference to anything they were doing. I read a piece on Boris Johnson recently that rang very true: the writer said Johnson had dreamed all his life of becoming prime minister, and of having been prime minister, but wasn’t actually interested in the bit in the middle, the bit where he has to actually be prime minister. But that is pretty much true of Cameron and May also, they had no real idea what to do with high office, particularly when it involved dealing with a fractious party keen on pushing its weight around.
That was how Cameron was trapped into calling the Brexit referendum without any idea that he might lose, and without any plan in case he did lose. Brexit destroyed him; it destroyed May; and in all probability it will destroy Johnson. Hardly surprising, Brexit is a no-win situation. Johnson has only one negotiating position: don’t budge until the very last minute and the other side will give in. It’s a high risk strategy in several ways. For a start, one slight miscalculation and the whole thing could blow up in your face, and Johnson is not exactly good on fine detail. But, if he does get a deal, it will antagonise the most hardline of the Brexiteers, on who he depends to stay in power. No deal, however, will have catastrophic economic consequences in both the short and the medium term, consequences that will adversely affect the most ardent pro-Brexit parts of the country, particularly in those former Labour seats he won at the last election. While a deal will necessarily create a split between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain, annoying the Unionists who have often propped up Conservative governments, possibly giving rise to renewed sectarian violence, and perhaps even paving the way for Ulster to reunite with the Republic of Ireland. No Conservative and Unionist prime minister is going to want to preside over the disintegration of the United Kingdom. But Brexit makes that a distinct possibility, particularly given the way that Johnson has consistently ignored the devolved governments of Wales and Scotland, and has lied to the devolved government of Northern Ireland. Any Brexit, deal or no deal, threatens renewed pressure for an independence referendum in Scotland, with the very real possibility that this time the vote would be for separation.
All of this, of course, comes amid the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic. This, too, threatens dire economic consequences that will only exacerbate the costs of Brexit. This, too, has seen the UK government ignoring the devolved governments, which have increasingly pursued policies at odds with those in England (and which have proved much more effective and more widely trusted than those in England). This, too, has illuminated the mendacity of the government, the failure to act promptly and effectively, the unpreparedness, the search for scapegoats, the sense that they are above the common herd. Since the pandemic started, trust in the government and approval of Boris Johnson have both evaporated.
And now, now, comes the eruption of protest over race. This isn’t new, it’s not sudden, it has been there for years, decades. Enoch Powell never went away; Windrush never went away; the “No Blacks, No Irish” signs never went away. It has simmered in Notting Hill, in Brixton, in Toxteth, in a hundred other places across the country. A sizeable portion of the British population is racist and always has been, and that breeds discontent, anger, despair. It has been coming to the surface in the dismay at the way the Windrush generation was treated by the unfeeling racism of Theresa May’s immigration policy when she was at the Home Office (remember what I said about the Home Secretary invariably being the most right wing member of any Cabinet). In Britain, immigration policy is a dogwhistle term that means “keeping out the blacks”, that’s all it has ever been, and the Tory faithful up and down the country in constituencies that have rarely ever seen a black person lap it up.
But it bursts out now. George Floyd was the trigger, but not the reason. It’s like the way the British Empire tumbled like a pack of cards in the late-50s and early-60s: the authority was stretched, distracted, weakened, impoverished. COVID-19 provided the opportunity: the criminal incompetence of the governments in dealing with the pandemic, the slowness, the obvious lies, the ineffectuality, all undermined trust. If all a government can do is tell people to “do as I say, not as I do”, that government is not governing. What is left but to take things into our own hands? If authority is replaced by trying to instil fear, that government is not governing. What is left but to face those fears in the name of a good cause? If the world is visibly falling apart and it is obvious that nobody in authority has the first idea what to do about it, that government is not governing. What is left but to try to bring about a better world by our own efforts?
We look at all of these things and we see terror, dismay, cataclysm. We try to make sense of it all: such deep-seated racial division; a disease that seems as overwhelming as the Black Death or the Great Plague or the Spanish Flu; a government that seems intent on undermining the country for their own ideological reasons. We find patterns, because that’s what humans do. All these things form repetitions of places we’ve been before: the race riots of the 60s and 80s; the outbreak of influenza at the end of the First World War; the rise of the fascist states in Europe between the wars.
But they are not repetitions. They are not even perfect rhymes. Instead there is a mass of partial rhymes, half rhymes, assonance, internal rhymes. Each creates a sense of familiarity, that hesitation: have I heard this before? Bits of what is happening now recall bits of what has happened in the past. But there’s dissonance also. We’ll only know how regularly events hit the AB, AB, rhyme scheme when we know where all this is going. How many times in the past have people thought: this will change the world. But we change, the world doesn’t. And this, this perfect storm of events that might rearrange the pattern, change the order, how much difference will it really make?
When we emerge from lockdown, will the world be different or will we? We have spent weeks depending on the under-paid and under-appreciated of our society: the nurses and care home staff, the delivery drivers, the warehouse workers. We have discovered that we can do without MPs in parliament, without bosses in their offices, but we can’t do without shelf-stackers and cleaners and postmen. So when this is over, when we start returning to normal, will it be a new normal? Will we start to ensure that nurses and drivers and cleaners have a higher status in society and higher pay to go with it? Or will the bosses simply go back into their offices and assume that people standing on their doorsteps cheering was all the appreciation that was really needed?
When the protests die down, when police forces put away their tear gas and riot gear, when new funding models are put in place, what will have changed? Will we suddenly be less racist, less eager to cling to our status? Will we have put in place mechanisms that ensure everybody has equal treatment, equal opportunity, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, political persuasion, country of origin? Or, when all is said and done, will it have been enough to tear down a few statues?
When politicians continue damaging the country for the sake of ideology, will we mutter and grumble and let it pass? When they decide that losing our industrial base is as nothing compared to taking back control; when allowing the import of American chlorinated chicken or hormone-fed beef is more important than maintaining the animal health standards we had previously set; when we lose the European health care workers because we don’t want to pay them enough to earn the right of residence, how will we react? Or is it enough to shrug and say we voted for it?
The things we want to emerge from all of these catastrophes are utopian, they would seriously make the world better for all of us. But I know those rhymes, the dull, monotonous beat of history – dum-dum dum-dum dum-dum – and usually it means that the world doesn’t change. There are always slow, gradual improvements, but also there are the same underlying issues, the ones that don’t change, the ones that don’t go away. The same racism we have known for decades, the same exploitation of the poor that we rely upon but don’t reward, the same exercise of authoritarianism that politicians express whenever they think they can get away with it.
Right now, this exact moment, we don’t know which way the world will move. Will it follow exactly the same course it always has done, or will there be a seismic shift? There could be the sort of transformation we dream about. But if that is to be the case, then we have got to hope, desperately hope, that history doesn’t rhyme or echo or repeat itself.