I’m of the generation for whom things were supposed to only get better. Tony Blair (via D:Ream) told us so in 1997, while before him Francis Fukuyama argued we were at the end of history, that western liberal democracy had won out.
Born at the tail end of the Cold War, alive — although I don’t remember it — when the Berlin Wall fell, during my 1990s childhood the world never felt especially unsafe. The conflicts of that era — Bosnia, say — were largely distant but contained, not things that impacted on your average north London child. Air travel may well have been stressful for adults, but not because of the necessity of endless security checks. In primary school I did a project on the EC, leaving me with an abiding picture of European nations joining together, not breaking apart.
At cheder we learnt about antisemitism and the Holocaust as historical fact, never as a contemporary issue. With grandparents there, Israel was always in the background (I vividly recall Rabin’s assassination), but other than being shocked by the counter-protest at the Wembley Israel’s 50th celebration, I absorbed little of the vitriol directed towards the Jewish state.
I spent my A Levels studying politics and being told that Britain had a stable two-party system, that the Northern Irish question was settled, that devolution meant Scotland and England could co-exist, and, most of all, that our political system guarded against extremism. There was the BNP, of course, but it was a joke, a monster under the bed, hardly a force to be reckoned with.
To an extent, 9/11, Iraq, the second intifada and then 7/7 shattered some of my complacency; to an extent growing up did. Politics certainly got murkier as I entered my teens, not least when we looked across the Atlantic.
Yet even while waters were stormy on the foreign front, overall it still felt things were indeed getting better for Britain and beyond. In 2005 the world was going to make poverty history, not make history repeat itself. There was Obama’s election and everything it represented, and, while New Labour collapsed, socially liberal politics didn’t; the Lib Dems made it into government and progressive, centrist ideology seemed to be on the ascendant.
On campus, we were elated about the future. We demonstrated in favour of free speech rather than shutting down contentious ideas for fear of offence. Social media was billed as our generation’s magic formula to unlock opportunity; technology was supposed to break boundaries and solve intractable problems.
It’s easy to be rose-tinted; the 1990s and early noughties were far from perfect even from the privileged perch of a western liberal democracy. Iraq was immensely divisive; as I graduated we careened into the worst recession in decades and opened the doors to an austerity agenda that continues to cause misery. It’s been more than a decade since the Middle East has felt anywhere close to peace.
Yet, and call me too cocooned to notice, for my first quarter century or so, it really felt like things were going in the right direction. When the 2012 Olympics opened, it felt as if the battle of ideas was being won.
It doesn’t today. Things just feel angrier and the time for moderation seems to be over.
The internet no longer feels like a platform for possibility, but a home for prejudice and misogyny. Politicians thrive on discord, not consensus. Leave aside the global terror threat, or Russian interference, Brexit has torn Britain asunder; Trump’s election has done the same in the US and extremism appears to be thriving left and right, not just in already unstable countries but in places Fukuyama suggested were done deals. Israel’s government seems to be moving ever further from democracy; in Syria, the carnage continues.
So here’s the question. Was it a blip? Was it a blip that fanaticism couldn’t thrive in Europe, that technology could be a force for good, that Russia and the West weren’t archenemies? Was it a blip that governments could solve problems rather than just sling mud? Was the globalised, interconnected, tolerant world of my adolescence not, indeed, the start of the end of history, but an anomaly?
And, as a Jew, was it a blip that we felt secure and accepted? I’ve always scoffed at claims history could repeat itself in Europe, and I still feel that way, but then again, growing up in the 1990s, I could never have imagined attending a demonstration against antisemitism at the heart of UK politics.
So was it merely an aberration? Or does every generation go through this feeling?