Listening to a podcast today on, of all things, the evolution of superhero films (don’t blame me, blame the French, who are capable of taking just about anything as a serious art form, and going into great detail about the psychoanalytical background to such texts), I was struck by a throwaway comment about how attitudes and approaches had *obviously* changed in the post 9-11 age. Struck, because I was suddenly aware that we are constantly doing this, accepting almost without comment that the course of world history was as significantly and irreparably altered by the events of that day in 2001 as it was by a shooting in Sarajevo almost ninety years earlier. And yet I, and my generation, those around and younger and even a little older than me, can scarcely remember the pre-War on Terror (if I weren’t stylistically opposed to inverted commas, that particular phrase would be surrounded in them) era. More than once, on my travels through France and the south coast, the conversation turned to politics and I was asked if I remembered the Twin Towers falling, if I remembered the protests against the Iraq war. And to be honest, although there are fragments in my mind, names that resonate because of later studies of politics or facts that have come to light or the visceral hatred of those around me, there is no coherent narrative in my mind. I am simply too young.
Too young to have known Thatcher, the miners’ strikes or the Berlin Wall. Mandela was free, Yugoslavia was fragmenting, Franco was dead… I was born under Major, Clinton, Mitterand, Yeltsin, Kohl, John Paul II, Fidel Castro and Alberto Fujimori (all, you will notice, men, although there was also Mary Robinson. But we’ll come to that.) And although I lived through them, I cannot remember the Labour party victory of 1997, the death of Princess Diana or the Dunblane shooting. The world I live in is largely shaped by forces and influences that have existed far longer than I have.
And Iraq? I sometimes think of it as my awakening, because I do have a memory of coming home from school and asking how the vote had gone, and being quite simply incapable of understanding how the country could be involved in this war I had so clearly been told was wrong. (I never said I lived in a neutral household.) Certain names chime with me: David Kelly (although that may be as much from this song, and for the haunting similarity with these conspiracy-type TV detective programmes, but without a whodunnit reveal at the end. Or maybe we just haven’t got to the last episode yet?) ; Robin Cook (classic A-level example of collective Cabinet responsibility: studying politics as a 17-year old you are not supposed to express a moral judgement on such a principled protest. Especially when your teacher is a Tory, and you nurse a hopeful fondness for Gordon Brown throughout an election in which you cannot vote. And write essays on how FPTP creates strong governments and the UK is really a two-party state, only for them to form a bloody coalition. The Coalition, as it appears to have become. But I digress.). Remember, I had known neither the Falklands/Malvinas conflict nor the first Gulf War, and never mind all of the guff now about so-called British values in the curriculum: the GCSE history syllabus I followed was the history of wars, and woe betide you if you conclude that the First World War was not inevitable because war is never the only option.
So what? Well, what this means in practice is that my attitudes towards certain topics and issues, and those of my age-group peers, differ markedly from those of the political commentators who try to comprehend them, often in paradoxical ways. I find it hard to hate Margaret Thatcher, still less Ronald Reagan, because she is not real and present for me in the way that, say, Cameron is. (Although I do think the shadow she casts over women in politics is far too long, and what is *with* the whole ‘Mrs Thatcher’ thing? Does anyone talk about Mr Cameron/ Brown/ Blair/ Major…?) Tony Blair is the man that lied about the weapons to get his war, but if the Labour Party is still wrestling with the legacy of New Labour, then I must confess that I do not know and cannot envision the Old. I do not know any union activists (Oxford not exactly being the hotbed of student unionism and solidarity), and more than one sociologist has suggested that the terms working- and middle-class no longer really make sense, largely because they ignore the precarity faced by huge swathes of the population, and working-class is an inappropriate term if you are long-term unemployed. In short, the political situation in the aftermath of my first general election is not the same as that experienced by my parents.
I suppose that in a long-winded way, I am trying to say that much of the coverage of Corbyn’s election has succeeded in completely missing the point. I am not afraid of nationalisation because I have never known it: nationalised railways sounds vaguely less confusing, and the French SNCF seems to work just fine. Apologising for Iraq is not particularly polemical, because I was never party to the patriotic fervour surrounding the invasion, never really believed what later turned out to be systematic lies. I am post-Cold War, and a nuclear deterrent seems to belong to a bygone age, something we should never have started and definitely ought to stop. But when I look back at the leaders of the early 1990s, I realise something else. I was born under a wave of leaders of the left, many of them groundbreaking in countries with a long heritage of right-wing dictatorship or political hegemony (Fujimori is, of course, a reminder that not all was rosy in this brave new world.). Twenty years later, the left has drifted to the centre, become complacent, lost its bite and its fighting edge. I mentioned paradoxes, and this is one of the greatest: you won’t be locked up for professing Socialism now, you’ll just be told you’re ‘old-fashioned‘ (ta for that one Mr TB: who came up with the transplant comment?), which is, of course, infinitely more damning. Bobby Sands was elected in prison. Out-of-date politicians just drift gently into vague obscurity.
I could not have imagined a more lukewarm response to what can only be described as an emphatic victory. (It’s not just me: the Observer points out that it couldn’t have been more partial if it had tried, and recognises a fault in that.) And it may well turn out that these wise people foresaw a disaster, five years of shambolic Corbyn and a convincing Tory victory in 2020 and Scottish independence and the Apocalypse with all four horsemen and the sinking of the whole British island and who knows what else. It might also be that they, at the core of the status quo, middle-aged and middle class, London-centric, bitten too many times and thus irreparably cynical, simply cannot see that for those of us that never knew the left of the 1980s, Blair’s warnings that we face a return to it might actually be quite appealing. (Plus, Tony love, your enemy’s enemy is your friend, so telling leftie pacifists that Corbyn is a public menace is probably not a good strategic move. Just saying.)
And as I said at the very beginning of this long, rambling post, the 21st century world is fundamentally different to the 20th century one, and there is no going back, either at a national or international level. Perhaps, strange as it may seem, for my innocent yet jaded generation, this bearded bloke who wears non-matching jacket and trousers is our ponytailed Spaniard, our jumper-wearing, coca-chewing Bolivian.