This year marks a century since the official beginning of World War 1 so it seems reasonable to look back and try to make sense of the swirling maelstrom of the 20th century. At least that’s what I’m telling myself after trying to write about the event and carrying on much further than I set out to. History is a complex field, strewn with inconsistencies, shifts and confusion but the last hundred or so years arguably saw more upheaval, more fundamental and absolute change for the average British citizen than any other. For most of the preceding aeons of human existence it makes sense to talk about what rulers were doing and only occasionally demands an investigation into the lives of the small folk; they would farm as they always had, then later they would toil in factories. In the 20th century the bubble of privilege finally burst and education, technology and their sheer numbers made the masses rise to prominence in the UK. It was quiet, it was bloodless and it was, without question, a revolution.
1900-1950, Death Enthroned.
Queen Victoria died in 1901. She was very, very old, she had reigned through massive cultural upheaval, she was beloved by her subjects and the biggest Empire the world has ever seen was hers. Somehow, through all this, peace had been the order of the day. Barring the occasional scrappy little war and colonial rebellion Europe had seen an unprecedented period of bloodlessness. The dam was about to burst.
The first half of Britain’s 20th century history is a war story. For that matter the first half of Europe’s 20th century is a war story. The recently unified Germany began to stir, a childish, petulant Kaiser wanted his name writ large across the Earth and pushed the complex and insane house of cards the crowned heads of Europe had built into chaos. Germany needed to show its strength, still the only true measure of worth in the corridors of power. The people of Russia had enough of the depredations of absolute monarchy and toppled the Czar in favour of a more benign dictatorship and the British Empire lumbered into action.
For half a decade vast armies pounded at each other. Millions died. The war reached a peak of frenzy and men and women perished in droves doing their duty to their monarchs. A peace was signed, Germany was crippled and to the victors went the spoils.
The League of Nations was formed to stop it ever happening again but no real authority was ever invested in it and the whole thing was essentially a waste of time. There was a resentment growing about the old monarchies, a distrust of the politics of personality and a great many people felt that the Soviets were the way of the future. For thirty years there was a tense ceasefire while Germany festered and power ebbed away from royalty across the continent. Ideology became paramount, no more would people stand to beg for change from hereditary inbreds but they would seize it and force it upon the world. People had looked at the horrors of the Great War and seen the futility of dying for the squabbles of the kings, they now understood that their power came from the obedience of the masses.
Not in Germany, though. In Germany democracy had failed them and roving gangs of communists would fight with roving gangs of fascists. Through a combination of cynical political manoeuvring and charisma the Nazis rose. From the morass of a failed state Hitler rose to power and the world bled again. The atrocities committed during that second explosion of violence seem impossible now. As does the scale of it all. At the outbreak of war the German army had three million personnel, more than double the number America has now.
The war ended and Germany was occupied, seemingly indefinitely, as the celebrations of the allies collapsed into distrust and political manoeuvring. Britain celebrated amidst the rubble, but when the smoke from the bombs cleared and the sheen of victory ebbed away the cost turned out to be almost too much to bear; the Empire was gone, the economy was in tatters, the prime minister who had led them to victory was an ageing drunk unsuited to peacetime.
The 1950s, A Scrap Over A Canal.
Another war began, defining the 1950’s as the era of deep Cold War. Comrade Stalin, the highwayman who became the most powerful man on the planet for what seemed like forever, passed away did not precipitate the long hoped for collapse of the USSR. Suspicion and fear ruled all, the Empire crumbled to a few scattered outposts and the country was a bankrupt mound of rubble. The Soviets prove just as willing to take part in atomic brinkmanship as the Americans. Veterans of the bloodbath of the last half century do great things in Britain; they build a welfare state, a National Health service, they demand the rights they are due. A new political consensus takes hold; capitalism with government intervention.
All is far from settled. The public are rebuilding, still proud of their role in defeating fascism, but the youth culture of the time is one of violence. Mods and Rockers battle it out even as memories of falling bombs and blackouts haunt their sleep. Churchill was kicked out of office and the Empire is a desiccated shell… unfortunately his successor hasn’t quite noticed.
In 1956 General Nasser of Egypt nationalised the Suez canal, taking it out of western control. A group of representatives in dark suits with villainous moustaches gathered together and found a way to use this as an excuse to occupy the country. Britain, France and Israel moved their armies in and handily defeated the unprepared, poorly armed and poorly trained soldiers of the Egyptian army. Almost as soon as the sand had settled in the wake of the tanks the United Nations and the united States told Britain, France and Israel to get the hell out of there. Faced with sanctions and international isolation the three nations withdrew in ignominy.
It doesn’t sound like much, does it? It sounds like an embarrassing incident from a time when the world was far happier to shed blood for money. What it doesn’t sound like is the death of the shrivelled remnant of British Imperial policy. It was though, and the country knew it. For centuries the nation had been at the heart of the world, a superpower like no other, and now its time was done. For the first time in living memory it began to look inwards, to reflect on what identity it had beyond wars of conquest. What was it supposed to do now? What was Britain without the British Empire?
The 1960s, It’s Hip to be Hip.
A number of things happened in the early ’60s which changed the world utterly, though nobody could have known quite how. Telephones, televisions, vinyl, the birth control pill and the washing machine (no, really, imagine a world without them, where it takes an entire day to wash clothes by hand, and you’ll realise that including washing machines on that list is no joke) all became affordable, widespread and ubiquitous. The world shrank as the first transatlantic television broadcast played the Beatles live to America and the generation with no memory of Nazi bombs grew to adulthood. Men’s hair grew longer, women’s skirts shrank, the youth of the day held hands in joy over the death of the old world. So how did that happen? What social force had birthed the Hippies, such a totally, bizarrely new force in the world?
The youth had been brought up on war stories. They had been told by their parents, the fighting generation, about the evils of the Nazis. They had been told that they defeated bullies, that the bullies ruled with violence, that they only respected strength and that they used racism to justify their horrors. At the same time they had been taught about the communists, about the iron curtain across the sea behind which people were reduced to a statistic and managed like cattle, where those with different ideas were worked to death in Gulags, where military parades went on for hours and always the nuclear stockpile grew. They looked across the ocean at America and saw McCarthyism in full swing and racist segregationist laws forcing black people to sit at the back of buses.
The conviction grew, and hardened, and became a creed: love is the most important thing in the world.
Since the very earliest Christians this idea had not been so earnestly preached. The hippies wanted a world where violence did not exist, where kindness was paramount and where one nation could not make war on another just because it felt like it. They were political but they did not tie themselves to old ideas of politics for the most part, a sort of liberal socialism was enormously popular where before socialism and soviet communism had often been indistinguishable. And nobody could argue against it. It would have taken a rare kind of fool to stand on a soap box and denounce love.
A thousand and one new ideas sprung up. A new wave of feminism was born from the creed of love, communes were established, music flourished, living artists became household names, new ideas were embraced as old ideas fell apart. Not all the ideas were good ones, not all of them lasted, but it was an age of experimentation and failure wasn’t going to stop the new way of thinking. If you think you owe the hippies nothing you are wrong, they unquestionably changed the world, and it was unquestionably for the better. There was opposition to it all, of course, but for the most part it crumbled before the power of the flower.
Britain was hip, riding high on a tide of cultural power owned by its youth. For a while it was glorious, for a while it was building an empire of music and freedom, for a while the masses floated on a cloud of hope.
The Early 1970s, The Long and Winding Road.
Politicians couldn’t keep up. They just couldn’t. Britain was run by a clique of posh old boys from the same half dozen schools with the same half dozen recessive genes, they were far too far removed from the reality of daily life that social change for them happened far more slowly than for anyone else. Trust in politics collapsed and, with it, so did the economy. Even the hippie movement, so full of life and hope, became staid and unimaginative as progress stalled. Adding to the grey tedium of predictable progressive rock slouching its way on to the charts were waves of strikes (some necessary, others less so) and a feeble coalition government with no clear or new ideas (sound hauntingly familiar yet?).
The cultural landscape became as bleak and depressing as the lingering brick dust of the blitz. Everyone had simply run out of steam, going through the motions as the strikes cut the supply of electricity down to three days a week in parts of the country. People were getting restless.
The Late 1970s, Never Mind the Bollocks.
People get Punk wrong, I think. There is an idea that it was somehow a reaction to a tired hippie subculture that somehow should have given in but it was more nuanced than that. Punk came about far more as a reaction to the failures of those in charge and the ineffectual tactics of those trying to elicit change.
Strikes didn’t work any more, the endless, hours long philosophical debates were reaching ever more arcane ground and solving nothing at all. Everywhere there was someone telling you what to do; a public official here, a union leader there, your boss, your MP, a somehow still existing aristocracy, a lecturer, a teacher, an endless parade. It’s no wonder they decided to openly and angrily tell them all they could stuff it up their arse.
The voters rushed to the other extreme. They had seen the chaos that the hippie movement had birthed and decided, perhaps, that it wasn’t for them any more. They floundered in uncertainty and found technology beginning to replace their jobs so they looked for someone who could restore the nation to a time before all the mess. They knew, though, it their heart of hearts, that the past was gone. Nobody could restore the Empire, Britain could not and should not be expansionist again. It was an impossible position, looking for something old and something new, something strong and something stable. And in she walked, with booming voice and hair of flame, Margaret Thatcher.
The Early 1980s, No Such Thing As Society.
They were smug, eccentric, opinionated, awful in every way, but they knew what they wanted and the left was too busy tearing itself apart. The left was strong, in terms of numbers, but too many factions vying for power made it arguably unelectable. In their thousands, in their millions, the public turned away from the self indulgent civil wars of the labour party.
It’s a tough period to write about, really. I was born in this era and I can, just, remember the hatred Thatcher engendered. I don’t remember anyone loving her, not truly, her supporters seemed more frightened of returning to the chaos of what had gone before than in her terrifying ideology. I make no bones about being biased against her regime, almost all the worthwhile pop culture of my childhood was a left wing attack on her. I’ve heard feminists argue that she wasn’t “really” a woman (sorry, but she self identified as female, even she had the right to her gender) so great was the rage she drew out. I find it very, very difficult to pay her any kind of compliment so, from this point on, take this history with an even greater pinch of salt.
Thatcher swiftly lost popularity and almost only served one term as prime minister. She was flagging desperately low in the polls for a while, weak and useless and, for a time, was regarded as something of a lame duck. She had broken the back of the trade union movement but the life of the average British citizen was not measurably improving. Then Argentina invaded the Falklands.
Her refusal of international help to expel the fascist regime from sovereign British soil and the subsequent British victory saw an upsurge in patriotism and support for the government that catapulted her back in to office. Memories of standing alone against Hitler were not quite extinguished, a flicker of the old Imperial pride blazed for an instant as the SAS took their bayonets and charged an Argentinian bunker (no, really, this did happen). For a time Thatcher was something old and something new again, a woman who could restore glory to Britain while leading it into the new golden age.
The Late 1980s, The Lady’s Not For Turning.
Their power was absolute now, though Labour were beginning to sort themselves out. The GDP of Britain was growing more quickly than anyone could have dreamed after industry after industry was privatised. Laissez-faire was the order of the day, the government should not interfere with the brightest and best specimens of humanity, the ones best suited and positioned to grasp the immense wealth on offer. A few sex scandals began to rock the conservatives but nothing to really worry about.
Meanwhile Neil Kinnock grew to prominence in the Labour party and began to purge it of elements too radical for the electorate to swallow. Gone was Militant, and the communists, and the Spartacists. The left would face the threat of Thatcher unified or it would wither to nothing.
The streets told a different story. I can remember, in amongst the nuclear paranoia, fear of the IRA, homophobia and violence of my school life, the scale of the homeless population. Poor areas were terrifying in a way it’s hard to describe to those who don’t remember them. Riots were brutal, the nation got angrier and angrier as I grew up and those splinter groups of the left agitated from outside the political system. In response to the growing discontent in the country Thatcher’s regime moved, if it were possible, to the right. In came the poll tax. In came the end.
The 1990s. Things Can Only Get Better.
The decade opened with bigger and more violent riots than this country had seen for as long as anyone can remember. The idea that a fixed rate of tax rather than the sliding scale we have now would be somehow fairer beggars belief. It had no popular support, no sensible method of implementation, no logic beyond ideology. People had had enough, they had watched the rich grow from being merely wealthy to being disgustingly bloated on their own avarice while unemployment had steadily grown. The government, by this point, had become a myriad of tiny viscous cults of personality hell bent on protecting the established order and Labour had finally moulded itself into something approaching a functioning political party.
The tax was about to be introduced but Militant Tendency had been agitating against it. 200,000 people descended on London to show their discontent, they did not plan a peaceful protest.
For hours it went on. Luxury sports cars were torched, police were hospitalised, Parliament Square was full of angry, angry people ready to lynch any politician they could lay their hands on. The government, hoping for screams of outrage from the population at large, was clearly terrified by the lack of noticeable condemnation. The Poll Tax was quietly dropped and Mrs. Thatcher was brutally, unceremoniously removed from office.
John Major cut a pathetic figure, his weedy voice, weird turn of phrase and unbelievably thick spectacles notwithstanding. Kinnock was not much better, mind you, waiting patiently in the wings and holding on to the idea that his victory was somehow assured. People weren’t ready for Labour yet, they weren’t quite ready to step away from Tory dominion and take a chance at something new. Thatcher had been the longest serving British prime minister ever, ‘conservative’ and ‘government’ had become synonymous.
Meanwhile youth culture had mostly given up on politics and changing the world. They looked at the government, at the legions of trade unionists and anarchists who had fought against them, at John bloody Major and threw up their hand in despair. They found the drug which made them feel great, music that said nothing but drove away all thought bar the dance, and went to rave away their spare time rather than make the effort to change the world.
Oh, okay, I sound like an old man, but this was my generation. There were a few who still talked politics, still agitated for change, but the driving force behind youth philosophy was to have a good time rather than make the world better. They were tired, tired of being told the world would be better and that they had to fight for that. Fifty years had passed since the German bombs rained down, the people of Britain had earned the right to have a break from the constant struggle, pop a pill and rave ’til dawn.
Finally, finally, the Tories fell from power. Scandal after scandal, sleaze after sleaze and an entire Jeffrey Archer put paid to them. John Smith looked upon decrepit remains of the Tories, looked at his New Model Labour party, looked at the opinion polls on the eve of a general election, smiled to himself and died of a massive heart attack.
The End of the 20th Century, the Birth of a New Millennium.
If you’re old enough to read this you know the rest. You know that Blair took over from Smith, pleased everyone for a bit and them pissed them all off. You know about 9/11 and 7/7 and the coalition and Clegg’s treachery and the expenses scandal and Plebgate.
But where are all the subcultures? Where is the new mass movement that wants to change the world? Where are the debates and reaction? The morass of chaos from which new ideas are formed? How has the world changed so immeasurably, so totally, and stalled? Where is change going to come from?
Isn’t it obvious?
It’s here. It’s on the internet. The whole world is a public forum now. Youth culture doesn’t need to wear a specific type of clothing to stave off the isolation and find like minded people, they can if they like but often they’ll just look at Facebook profiles. There’s a lot of debate about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing without anybody pointing out that it’s neither, just a new thing. The new subcultures are the message boards of 4chan and the Bronies, as laughable to us now as the hippies were when they burst in to the world. Maybe they’ll change the world and stick around forever like the hippies, maybe they’ll go the way of the New Romantics, who knows? I’ll stay a Goth, and I’ll look forward to finding out.