Yes, it was an awful year, wasn’t it? Not for me personally – I’ve not got much to complain about apart from the natural effects of old age. (And there are compensations there.) But for most of the world, including certainly Britain, it has been the worst I can remember in my 80-odd years: plague, natural disasters, wars, climate change, strikes, rail and health services breaking down, the corruption of politics at the hands of rogues, liars and charlatans, and – as a result of all this – my birth country’s becoming the laughing stock of the world.
For an oldie like me the decline is all the more painful in view of the hopes we had at the start of those eight decades, and still managed to cling on to for another four of them, only for them to be totally shattered now. The fifties and sixties are often looked back on with disdain, characterised by Britain’s loss of an empire, a declining industry, strikes, poor food, censorship, oppressed women and gays, and black-and-white TV. The Tory Right in particular encourages this image, in order to demonise the social democracy that underpinned it – under both main parties – before the genie of capitalism was released to shower his brightly-coloured benefits on us all.
OK; I remember it all, though I was sheltered from much of it by my relatively privileged situation in society – not being a woman, for a start. But I also recall the one saving grace of those years: which was the conviction, certainly on the Left, that we – me, my class, my country, my continent, the world – were getting better, and could rely on that during the struggles that we acknowledged were to come. Attlee’s government had brought in the welfare state, ending the decades-long struggle between capitalism and socialism; the Empire was being transformed, mainly peacefully, into a ‘Commonwealth’ – lovely word, that, certain to appeal to Leftists; and Wilson’s governments were liberating gays, women, people trapped in toxic marriages, and anyone who before would have been hanged. Of course there was some way to go yet, and much ‘demonstrating’ – against South African apartheid, the Vietnam war and ‘The Bomb’ – in order to push the ‘progressive’ agenda on. The point is, however, that we believed it could be pushed on. Who believes that now?
That’s the big difference between the post-war period and today. Even when the shit was being bombed out of us by the Luftwaffe – I was born in the middle of the London blitz – we were sustained by the knowledge that this could mark the beginning of a new era: which was why Britain elected a Labour government after 1945. People then remembered the suffering that capitalist austerity had inflicted on ordinary folk even before the German bombing started, which could only be cured by a measure – not a huge one, but enough – of socialism. Even the Tories went along with this, the ‘progressive consensus’ of the time, before the sleeping dragon of neoliberalism re-awoke. Now only neoliberals have the hopes that had sustained most of the rest of us in the fifties and sixties; and then only for their own selfish selves.
Yesterday we went to a wonderful nyårsafton performance of Beethoven’s 9th symphony in the early 20th-century, ‘national-romantic’, Enkelbrektskyrkan in Stockholm. It reminded me of those more confident times. And of the Beethovian, ‘enlightened’ hopes that have been lost since.