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2016: the Great Pivot Year

Our correspondent imagines what future generations will make of the year western society turned on its axis
BY David Goodhart

The great pivot year was, of course 2016. Brexit and Trump. It is now clear, from a 2049 perspective, that the Anglo-Saxons led the world into liberal modernity and hyper-globalisation and, in 2016, began to lead them out of it too. And into what most people, especially in the New Christian China, would regard as a better world — albeit with some hair-raising wrong turns along the way.

Historians generally regard America as having won the trade war with China but in almost all other respects one-term President Trump represented the last hurrah of US global power. President Elizabeth Warren pulled the US out of Nato and the WTO. But life went on surprisingly normally, apart from one ugly dispute in Estonia in which two dozen British troops died in a border clash with the Russians.

It turned out that bilateral agreements between the great powers sufficed to keep trade ticking over and for keeping the peace. The Taiwanese, with no one to protect them, were not happy, initially, about being absorbed into the rest of China; but it turned out that the influence of Taiwanese assumptions about freedom, combined with the enormous power of the Christian underground, slowly ate into the power of the Communist party.

The events of 2016 did not come out of the blue; the rumblings had been audible for some time before. And yet on what slender threads did the new era hang! A few thousand votes in a few different places, plus some more plausible defenders of the status quo, and neither Brexit nor Trump would have happened, at least not at that time.

When they did, the world turned on its axis in many surprising ways, slowly at first but more markedly in the 2020s and 2030s. Historians came to call it the great pivot year, from the centrifugal era to the centripetal one.

Western society had been dominated since the 1980s by dispersing centrifugal forces that extended individual freedom but weakened collective bonds and the power of tradition, and in the process allowed smart people to claim undue economic and political rewards. The affluent and cognitively blessed, and the two were invariably combined, became ever more powerful, while many others felt they had lost status and meaning. One journalist, writing in 2016, called them ‘Anywheres’ and ‘Somewheres’.

The end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, and the emergence of post-industrial societies had opened up western societies to an unprecedented degree, and thereby weakened collective national and class identities; meanwhile, diversity of many kinds reduced trust and traditional social norms, while social media created conditions of ‘connected isolation’, promoting narrow tribal identities and individualistic identity politics. And all the while, depression, loneliness and cultish political movements marched on.

The centrifugal era turned out not to be compatible with democracy, and in 2016, the two great English-speaking lands decided that democracy came first and ushered in today’s more centripetal era. The nation state stopped retreating, and economic and cultural openness were both a little more constrained. Immigration fell in most rich countries, partly because of stricter rules, but also, with the exception of Africa, because of sharply rising standards of living in poorer countries.

Today’s centripetal era, which may itself be drawing to a close as 2050 approaches, helped to revive democracy and civic life in part through greater awareness of the psychological roots of what was then called populism — the humiliations and mass resentment built into modern, achievement societies.

As Boris Johnson, the long-serving Prime Minister (and later President) of the UK, put it: “Our beautiful democratic society must level up and find a useful place for everyone, not create a competition in which some succeed and the others fail.” Johnson, who successfully led the UK out of the EU by co-opting and channelling the country’s populist forces, became a model for other centrist and centre-right politicians.

The European Union, a product of the post-national, centrifugal era, was initially shaken by the centripetal one and almost came apart — especially after the election of Marine Le Pen as President of France in 2022 propelled on a nationalist wave after the Royal Navy had sunk several French fishing vessels and English home-owners in the Dordogne were expelled in retaliation.

Johnson and Le Pen more than patched things up in the 2024 Treaty of Calais and Johnson went on to marry Le Pen’s daughter Mathilde. The new Anglo-French Entente paved the way for the UK (minus Northern Ireland which had recently merged with the Republic) to re-enter a much looser EU that looked something like the one it had joined in 1973. The Eurozone had shrunk to Germany and the Benelux countries, and German influence had diminished after the wave of green terror paralysed the country’s energy system in the mid-2020s.\

Looking back, one of the remarkable things about 2016, is how unexpected both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump were. How ignorant we then were about our own societies! Such ignorance would be impossible today following the digital citizen project which has truly connected us both to each other and to the local and national state.

After various data scandals, and the failed dirty tricks campaign against Elizabeth Warren in 2020 on the part of the digital giants, the socialisation of the core digital space swept through most western societies, rather as the welfare state had been nationalised after the Second World War. Not only did our digital citizen identities make the provision of state services, especially to the elderly, much more efficient but the constant monitoring of public preferences meant that no more surprises like those of 2016, or the watershed general election of 2019, were possible. (Those of uswho can just about remember surprising elections sometimes regret this.)

Perhaps the most unexpected post-2016 development was the spiritual revival in the UK and elsewhere. The left-behind places and people had been put on the map by Brexit, Trump and European populism. Governments tilted to the new centre, a bit to the Left economically and to the Right socially (in the now quaintly anachronistic political language of the 20th century). In the 10 years or so after 2016, this helped to bring new life and prosperity to some of the poorest regions but it was really the spiritual revival that took off in the mid-2020s that improved the quality of life in the most depressed places.

The post-2016 anxiety about dealing with the polarisation was partly based on the reasonable belief that the negotiation of value differences was going to be harder than dealing with the interest clashes of the old socio-economic politics that dominated the post-Second World War world. It is surely harder, people thought, to split the difference on immigration or family policy than on, say, the desired level of public spending or taxation

This fear turned out to be partly misplaced. The sharply declining hegemony of western countries after 2016— symbolised by the collapse in student numbers from China and India after 2020 — created unifying threats and risks, which pulled people together far more than any nationalist rhetoric ever could.

The new “mass elite” of the expanded higher education sectors of the early 21st century found that the high-status cognitive employment that they thought they had been promised was in sharp decline, thanks mainly to AI. After some flirtation with the hard Left (in the now long-forgotten Corbyn movement in the UK) this group found itself drawn into alliance with the so-called left-behinds under a broadly small-c conservative banner.

The culture wars flared briefly for a few years after 2020, but a new consensus of a kind, finding common ground between liberals and conservatives, emerged under the great reforming Archbishop of Canterbury, Giles Fraser. It was best represented by the adoption, in the UK and across much of Europe, of Hungary’s successful natalist policies. Larger families were encouraged by public policy and became common again, ending what came to be seen as the narcissistic era of one or two-child families.

But this did not, as radicals had feared, mean a reversal of gender equality. Quite the opposite, it brought with it a much greater respect for domesticity and the work of child-rearing and care for the elderly, inside the home as much as in the public economy. So-called Fifth wave feminism was associated with the feminisation of society. Many women still enjoyed success in the public realm and, by 2035, half of all MPs were women. After the monarchy was abolished, following the disastrous reign of Charles III, and Boris Johnson was elected first UK president, he was replaced as PM by Munira Mirza, the third Conservative party female PM (and first PM of Muslim heritage).

The spiritual revival was pioneered by a new form of secular Christianity stripped of much of the traditional theology, though not the ritual. The churches filled again as much as centres of community and neighbourhood as places of deity worship. This went hand in hand with a kind of remoralisation of human relations. More families stayed together for longer and child-care mainly took place within the family, and was increasingly undertaken by fathers (30% of main carers were men by 2035).

The co-option of populism represented by Boris-ism did not succeed everywhere and authoritarian governments did emerge in Austria and Sweden — in the latter after a horrific terrorist incident that killed thousands of people. The Sweden Democrat government imposed a curfew on all Muslims after the attack and many innocent Muslims died in random attacks.

Vegan terrorism was also a problem in parts of Europe, including the UK, even as meat-eating dwindled to being an exotic minority taste.

The dog that didn’t bark, looking at the big concerns of 2016, is climate change. Technological advances, including a final breakthrough in nuclear fusion and in the technology of de-salination, meant a largely carbon-free global economy by 2040 and security of drinking water in poorer parts of the world. Moreover, I am writing on the eve of 2050 in the middle of a mini-ice age, and sea levels have fallen so low that the Boris bridge connecting the UK and France now runs over dry land for several miles at both ends.

It is a wonderful symbol of how the fears of those people once called “Remainers”, who believed that leaving the EU in 2020 would cut off an independent UK from the continent, have proved so wrong.

https://unherd.com/2019/12/2016-the-great-pivot-year/

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