Since 2008, I have written about the distribution of wealth and my belief that the growth of inequality is the largest cancer undermining our society. We are the second most unequal society in the developed world, runners up only to the USA. We can already see – and some of us mock – the absurdity of the Trump Presidency, but we forget how similar we are. Massive unfairness always arouses the flames of nationalism, driven by a nostalgia about the ‘good old days’, and bringing back the rosy hues of yesteryear. This is nothing more than escapist fantasy that permits escape from contemplation of the unfairness of our present time. We look at the past through rose tinted glasses and this distracts us from the struggle to restore balance in the present.
We ignore the fact that memory is a creative act, not a factual science. Exactly in which decade were the ‘good old days’ at their peak?
Two thirds of the public think life in Britain was better in the past, and the increasing influence of nostalgia in politics is “imperiling liberal democracy,” a new study by Sky Data and the think tank Demos suggests.
Some 63% of Britons think life is worse now than when they were growing up, against 21% who think it is better now, and 8% who think the quality of life has not changed.
That includes a clear majority of Britons in every age group. Perhaps surprisingly, young people were most likely to think life in Britain was better when they were growing up (69% among those aged 18-34, against 59% of 35-54s and 61% of people aged 55 and over).
So which decade was best?
You’d prefer the 1950’s? Everyone who has seen Grease, Stand by Me and Back to the Future knows that this was a carefree decade of laughter, dancing and outrageous hairstyles. I lived my first ten years in the 50’s and I remember a time of poor lighting (only overhead bulbs or table lamps), tin baths filled from a ‘copper’ boiled on the stove and topped up with kettles, no heat on the buses, not much heat other than the bars of an electric fire at home. I delivered vegetables as a Saturday job: no peppers, no aubergines, no broccoli, no courgettes, no tomatoes out of season, no kale, and definitely no garlic. Just root vegetables, cabbage and brussel sprouts; a decade redolent of the sour taste of brassicas, cooked too long.
No pizza, no pasta, few Indian restaurants, with a few Chinese, no Mediterranean diet.
And the 1960’s? Sure, it was the time of the Beatles and Stones but it’s easy to forget that much of the brilliant music was an attack on the establishment, from Street Fighting Man to A Day in the Life. Much of the 60’s was an assault on gay people and other minority groups. If you were unlucky enough to be in America you were likely to be drafted into the maelstrom that was Vietnam. Most people still did not have central heating or a car.
In the 1970’s we enjoyed the three-day week, the daily power cuts, flared trousers and rubbish piled high in the streets. We experienced Thatcher ‘sorting it all out’ and demolishing half of British industry while blighting the soul & the pride of much of Britain outside London. Many of those communities have still not recovered.
I can’t remember much to distinguish the 1980’s but it matters little since in over 30,000 votes on the BBC website, 37% of Brits voted the 1960’s as the best decade.
Having lived in all these decades I can assure you that none has been as healthy, prosperous, convenient, technology-enabled and long-lived as the present one. But because of the huge inequalities it does not feel that way. That is because even though we may be doing better compared to earlier times, we are doing worse – the great majority of us – when we compare ourselves with others around us. We are at one level entranced by celebrity and at another, deeply envious and resentful of it. How else can you account for the huge headlines and barely suppressed glee at the misfortunes of the latest idol?
At the top of the post is a graphic showing the distribution of wealth in the UK. You can see that the bottom half, the bottom 50% of us, own less than 9% of wealth, while the top 10% own 45% of it.
Clearly our view of how well we are doing is relative, rather than absolute. The fact that many of us are nostalgic for poorer times demonstrates the power of nostalgia and rose-tinted glasses that is driving populism and the theme of ‘restoring Britain to where it used to be, before all those foreigners came over here and ***ked it up’. It is today’s most dangerous myth. Be careful of what you wish for, tin baths can make a comeback.