Society and Culture

The 2010s: A decade in review (Part 1 of 3)

In recent weeks, I have seen a number of authors trying to come up with a political verdict on the 2010s (see e.g. here).

I suppose it makes more sense to do this now than it would have made in the first few months of this decade. Like a Netflix series, the 2010s had ended with a bit of a cliffhanger. Brexit, one of the themes that had defined – and toxified – the decade, had not happened yet, and while the 2019 General Election had produced a clear result, it was not at all clear yet what the implications of that result were going to be. There were still too many loose ends that needed tying up. Plus, while BLM-mania technically started in June 2020, it was very much a product of the 2010s, so it would be odd for a verdict on the 2010s not to mention it.

The verdicts that I have seen so far were written from a left-wing perspective. They described the 2010s as a decade characterised by large-scale left-wing protest movements, starting with Occupy and the anti-austerity protests, and ending with Extinction Rebellion and the Greta movement, with the Corbyn movement acting as the fulcrum. These verdicts thus revolved around the question: given that almost all of the political momentum of the 2010s was with the Left – why did the Left ultimately fail to translate that energy into electoral victories?

I think left-wing authors should not be so hard on themselves. Sure, if you reduce the 2010s to a ten-year-long election campaign which had the sole purpose of getting Mr Corbyn into 10 Downing Street, then yes, I suppose you would have to conclude that the decade ended in failure, from their perspective. But the Left have won power in other ways. The aforementioned BLM-mania that immediately followed the 2010s impressively demonstrates who sets the agenda in Britain.

But more on this in a minute. In this article, I’m going to jump on the bandwagon, and offer my own summary of the 2010s. For me, the key points are that the 2010s were…

  • …a lost decade in economic terms. Britain ended the decade barely any richer than it had started it.

  • …a decade when Britain became a much more politicised country, and as a result, a more polarised, tribal, and angry country.

  • …the decade during which age emerged as the single best predictor of political opinions, eclipsing social class, income, occupational status, education levels, or geography.

  • …the decade of the “Great Awokening”, when Britain adopted American-style Culture Wars.

  • …the decade when the radical Left, despite failing at the ballot box, established itself as Britain’s culturally dominant force, and as the agenda-setter of the national conversation.

  • …the decade when the political Right gave up on free-market economics, and economic progress in general.

The above is admittedly a bit messy, because these points overlap substantially. Is the “Great Awokening” not just another manifestation of the radical Left’s cultural hegemony? Is the “Culture War” not just another manifestation of Britain’s politicisation and polarisation? Is Britain’s economic stagnation not simply a result of the political Right giving up on economic progress?

But then, the 2010s were a messy decade (some refer to its later years as the “Banter Era”), so I feel under no particular obligation to write about it in a non-messy way. Let’s just take each point in turn.


A lost decade

The first of these points is the easiest to deal with. In 2019/20, average disposable incomes were a mere 4% higher, in real terms, than they had been in 2009/10, and not much more than 1% (!) above their pre-Financial Crisis peak. This was before Covid shut down much of the economy. Economic stagnation set the scene, and explains much of the political developments. Had the 2010s been a decade of dynamic economic growth and rising living standards, it would have been a very different decade indeed.


A politicised country

In the 2000s and the early 2010s, Britain was a relatively apolitical country, where most people did not care very much about politics. Back then, you could regularly read articles lamenting political apathy, especially among the young. (Often illustrated with statements such as “More people voted in the last Big Brother election than in political election XYZ”, or “Celebrity X has a higher name recognition than the Secretary of State for Y”.)

And indeed – the numbers backed this up. For example, the proportion of the population who were members of political parties had been dropping steadily for decades, and electoral turnout was markedly lower than it used to be throughout the 20th century. While 77.7% voted in the 1992 General Election, only 61.4% did in 2005.

In the late 2010s, though, nobody would have described Britain as “politically apathetic”. Corbynmania had politicised the Millennial generation, while Brexit had radicalised the Boomers and Generation X.

Britain was now a hyper-political country – although it is important to note that “political”, this context, does not mean “party-political”. Insofar as party-politics comes into it at all, it only does so by accident. Sure, on the face of it, membership of political parties exploded in the second half of the 2010s, when hundreds of thousands of people flocked to political parties, with the Labour Party accounting for almost all of that increase. Except: those people did not really join “Labour” at all. They joined the Corbyn movement. Labour just happened to be Mr Corbyn’s vehicle. Had he, for some reason, decided to pursue socialism via the Campaign for Real Ale, then hundreds of thousands of people would have joined the Campaign for Real Ale.

Otherwise, Britain’s politicisation process happened orthogonally to the party system – indeed, a big part of the political realignment story was that the way the population sorted itself into ideological camps no longer matched the way Britain’s political parties were set up.

In 2019, 88% of the population (!) identified as either a Leaver or a Remainer, and 72% strongly so. Brexit may since have run its course as an immediate policy issue, but these camps still exist, and map quite closely on the “woke vs anti-woke” divide of the Culture War (more on which later).

When I talk about politicisation, the response I usually get is: “It just seems that way to you, because you waste too much time on Twitter, and you think the whole country is like that. You need to log off, and talk to normal people. The average Joe is not political at all.”

But the growth of Twitter (some wrongly insist on calling it “X”, but it’s really called “Twitter”) is itself part of the story. In 2012, Britain had fewer than 9 million Twitter users. In 2018, it had more than 17 million. It now has more than 23 million. This makes Britain one of the most Twitterised countries in the world.

I personally love Twitter. I think it provides great entertainment. But I also think it’s been terrible for Britain as a whole.


Continue to Part 2

Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Editorial Director, and Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

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