First published in Huffington Post
How quickly things can change. That sense of possibility we had just a few days ago is already in danger of dissipating. The political class is closing ranks. The Tories’ anointing of Theresa May as their (and our) unelected leader, and an attempted slow motion coup in the Labour Party, have the same object in mind. Saving themselves and putting a lid on the popular sentiment that was, to their mutual horror, released by the Brexit vote.
Having said that, when the man who once sang about ‘ch-ch-ch-ch-changes’ unexpectedly died at the beginning of the year, that sense of possibility resided very much in the past. We were nostalgic for celebrity representatives of a generation that young Remainers have more recently been hurling abuse at as selfish EU-wreckers. As Mick Hume, journalist and editor-at-large of spiked-online, describedthis icon in his early 70s heyday: ‘Bowie emerged as the spirit of that rebellious age in a dayglow jumpsuit’. Jennie Bristow, author of the excellent Baby Boomers and Generational Conflict, thinks our response to the ‘Boomer deaths’ that seemed to dominate the first half of 2016 was not just a response to the tragic passing of individuals held in popular affection but also to an overwhelming sense that ‘the spirit of the Sixties seems to be retiring as well.’
So is today’s generation, more likely to blame the Boomers for their problems than be inspired by them, really up to the task of taking on the political class? The fact that the Pretty Things rather than ‘driving their mammas and papas insane’ joined the March for Europe demanding that the EU Referendum result be overturned doesn’t bode well. The setting up of a ‘Brexit Department’, albeit headed up by the estimable David Davies, may be designed to put like-minds at rest, but is turning a popular decision into a drawn-out technocratic process requiring its own department and minister really what we want? As campaigner Tom Slater put it there is a real danger that without sustained pressure from without the unwanted result will be happily ‘kicked into the long grass’. An outcome that would be in keeping with our newly crowned prime minister’s promise to insulate the political class from the electorate until 2020. Will all be Hunky Dory in the end as May puts into action her words that ‘Brexit is Brexit’? Or are the signs ominous and the triggering of Article 50 that will put the nation’s decision in irreversible motion a distant or even endangered prospect? Either way they won’t pursue the matter in the same democratic spirit that forced it so reluctantly upon them.
One thing is for sure though, British politics has changed for good and will never be quite the same again. The political elite have been exposed as just that – with no real connection to the people on whose behalf they have disingenuously claimed to speak. The result of the Referendum vs their desire to remain in the EU Club has made that clearer than ever. We’re not so apathetic. When finally presented with a genuine political choice of real consequence, we made our view known. But faced with the biggest popular mandate in the UK’s political history, we were dismissed as too old, bigoted, or emotional to know what we were doing. We just don’t understand the repercussions said Labour peer Oona King in a debate she had triggered on holding a second referendum. Speaking in the House of Lords it would be ‘only fair and democratic’ she said. The irony.
What looked like being a year in which we rather morbidly obsessed over what and who has passed could be the start of a new era – a taster of what’s to come. Instead of looking back at a roll call of dead celebrities, as grim onlookers; we have found ourselves playing a part in the throwing out of the old and moribund party politics, and with the prospect of ushering in something new to take its place. Who’d have thought that even a few weeks ago? And the barbaric attack in Nice on people celebrating Bastille Day is a reminder that there is nothing intrinsically inward-looking about fighting for freedom and democracy. It is a universal aspiration that needs to be shouted ever more loudly across the continent.
The collapse of the political class in the face of their popular rejection is a historic moment. It’s not quite 1789. Not yet at least. But what started as a year filled with a sort of grief for what has gone now promises excitement over what is to come. There is reason to be optimistic about what the future might hold. The fear and pessimism that has characterised recent times, and that continues to grip and paralyse our political culture, can and should be relegated to the past.