Switch on the news on your TV these days and you will find, when they get past the poor weather and royal family announcements, that the world doesn't exactly feel like a happy place. There is disorder, division and disaster seemingly everywhere, but also very little attempt to make sense of why much of this is happening.
Last week, the BBC news and current affairs programme 'This Week,' hosted by Andrew Neil, began with a film and discussion led by historian David Starkey. His thesis was that Britain has experienced a revolution in recent times, arguing: 'For the last 20 years we've had a revolution by stealth, not in our streets, but our values.' He went on to claim that 'a generation brought up with no rules and no religion, has lurched with quasi-religious fervour into a puritanical groupthink where debate is stifled and difference of opinion cannot be tolerated.'
Starkey stated that this was a 'revolution' in which 'things had been turned upside down,' and whilst recognising it contained some good aspects (from his own experience as a gay man), he believed this was an age where politics had 'a new pseudo religious intensity' and a 'puritan revolution.' This contributed to 'a complete revolution of values – between the sexes…the transgendering issue, the unmentionable has become enforceable… [and] …moral values have inverted.' Not surprisingly, Starkey contrasts this state of affairs with 'the world portrayed brilliantly by "Darkest Hour"' – asserting with absolute certainty that 'everything in that film: patriotism, the shared values, the importance of rhetoric, is now as dead and buried as Winston Churchill.'
Many might respond to this by asking what can you expect from the sensationalist worldview of controversial, maverick right-winger David Starkey? But as the resulting studio discussion involving Tory Michael Portillo, Labour's Liz Kendall and Lib Dem Miranda Green showed, there was more to it than that. Kendall described 'a moral and religious fervour' over Brexit, Green spoke of the search for 'moral certainty,' while Portillo at least tried to compare the present age to previous ones of bitter division such as appeasement and the Irish debate pre-first world war.
Starkey escalated his rhetoric, comparing 'no platforming' to 'heresy trials,' and claims of 'sexual harassment' to a 'witchcraze', leading to the deranged description of modern Britain as a new 'Salem'. Green and Kendall responded, talking about the welcome change in sexual mores. Andrew Neil asserted that 'for years, men just got away with it and now they don't,' and that the calling-out of this was a healthy development. Kendall reflected from her own personal experience that 'I would really like to have grown up not being groped as a waitress.'
Yet, despite its wide-ranging nature, the entire discussion stayed focused on the changing attitudes of what Starkey called 'cultural wars,' inviting comparison with Trump's America. What the film and discussion never touched upon was that the impact of social liberalism, and the resulting shift on gender, sexuality and other forms of identity, has a relationship with the economic liberalism which has reshaped many of our lives, assumptions and security in recent decades. Both have seen a decline in traditional authority – whether old fashioned morality and religion in the former, or the state and collectivist values in the latter.
There is a complex relationship between these two forms of liberalism in that they celebrate individualism and individual autonomy, and both share a form of illiberalism, being blind to the downsides in each. They present themselves as modern, overthrowing the ancient, the irrelevant and the outdated, and in doing so have a zealous determinism that they are the forces of now and the future, and that all resistance is a mix of anachronism and futility. This is the space held and advocated by the likes of the BBC, the Economist magazine, and countless others: the forward march of civilisation as the forward march of markets and enlightenment.
The deliberate refusal to connect up the huge changes we have lived for, and their economic and social dimensions, isn't that surprising. For many on the left, the sole culprit of recent decades has been the forces of neo-liberalism and its advocates Thatcher, Blair and Cameron. And for the right, it has been the tendencies of cosmopolitan liberalism which, in the mindset of the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, have taken all that was once great about Britain and trashed it.
Large parts of the mainstream media and politics deal with the effects of this world turned upside down every day, but tend to dwell on the individual consequences. Hence, when we turn on our TV we will hear of the collapse of Carillion and the questionable behaviour of its directors, or the tragedy of Grenfell Tower and the insensitivity of Tory Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council to poor people living in social housing. What is missing nearly in its entirety is an analysis of what drives these changes – and what forces and ideas are advancing this view of the world.
'This Week' also ignored how the social contract between government and the governed (which has been stretched to breaking point in the UK), and the nature of government and politics relate to one another. The manner in which the latter is undertaken – with few checks and balances on what politicians can do, no written constitution or fundamental law, and administrations elected on a minority of votes – yet able to command majority rule – has been pivotal in how such change has happened. Central to this has been the political establishment's view of the kind of Britain they want and how the British state has thus been captured.
Instead, Starkey waxed lyrically about the mythological version of Britain as once proud Albion: 'The British political system of monarch, lords and Commons is now almost 800 years old.' This is wrong on every possible interpretation: Scotland and England formed a union in 1707, the United Kingdom was created in name in 1801, and took its current name, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 1922, but only did so legally in the Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act of 1927 – a mere 91 years ago.
Whatever one thinks of Starkey's dewy-eyed romanticism of a Britain of the past which never existed, his ruminations tap something instinctual and a sense that things are going wrong. He reflected on a contemporary 'shyness about any form of genuine national identity,' and continued: 'One of the things I worry about most is that without a clear notion of national identity and a national story, there is no possibility of genuine political action.'
This is an accurate reading of the state of modern Britain, whereby any collective sense of national purpose and story has been profoundly hollowed out and challenged. Such a predicament has contributed directly to the rise and fall of UKIP, Brexit, and Jeremy Corbyn's Labour party, and will no doubt produce further uprisings and surprises.
This showcases the power and reach of conservatism and nostalgia in whatever guise it takes. Some of it is easy to identify, whether it comes from the little Englandism of Nigel Farage, UKIP or the Daily Mail. It wants a Britain that is white or whiter, where the few black people know their place, and British power and influence are still respected across the world.
But some of its variants are harder to identify at first. Part of the appeal of Jeremy Corbyn's left politics is a kind of wanderlust for a bygone Britain of more order and certainty of a progressive kind: an age where the NHS was universal and completely public, where railways were nationalised, and the state had an overarching responsibility for large acres of public life. There was much that was good in that past, but much that wasn't – including unresponsive state services and public monopolies. And part of the appeal of a section of Scottish independence opinion isn't just a rejection of Britain today, but a desire to create a Scottish version of the 1945 vision of Britain and its welfare capitalism.
It says something about a society, the power of the past, and how it sees the future. Most British political and public debates assume that Britain's best days are behind it; indeed the whole Brexit experiment is an ill-conceived attempt to reinvent the future through a version of the past: as Britain supposedly refinds the Commonwealth and Anglosphere.
What is almost completely missing – as we sink beneath a welter of films about 1940, Churchill and the second world war – is a collective belief in ourselves and in our future. Maybe that is how a country which has been experiencing relative economic decline for nearly a century behaves. A country which knows that there is a link between the rising power of the past and the ageing of society and demographics, meaning that older voters vote more often. But if we live permanently in the past, what happens when we run out of history to recycle? What happens when the past catches up with us?
It doesn't help that Starkey-like stories of Britain achieve such prominence and uncritical receptions. If Britain is to make the right choices in an informed way about its future, it is essential that the fundamental and far-reaching changes of recent decades, which amount to a revolution, are fully understood. That means naming the economic, social and cultural forces which have blown through our lives like a hurricane, understanding the elites and social forces which have advocated and gained from them, and mounting a counter-offensive – even counter-revolution.
The biggest problem in the view of the world presented above is that it says there is nothing we can do to change it and that we are powerless to do anything other than be a bit discontented. The history of the UK in the last couple of decades, and even more recently, shows that it is possible to turn the world upside down. Surely a campaign to turn the world the right way up might just have a chance?