Children of the Recession

How the 2008 recession shaped the politics of the 2010s.

Written by: Kim Mannion

The Iraq War, MP’s expenses scandal and a global financial crash…you would have been forgiven in 2010 for believing that, surely, the new decade in politics would be less eventful. As it turned out, you couldn’t have been more wrong. This financial crash was the final nail in the coffin of New Labour, who had dominated for the last decade, and passed on to the next one a huge decline in public trust in politicians with some of the biggest political stories of our generation. 

The Prime Minister at the time, Gordon Brown, told Laura Kuenssberg in an interview that he feels his government became the ‘subject of blame’ for the mess when it nationalised the banks. As a result, he feels, trust in government was affected as they ‘were now responsible for the problem’. His Chancellor, Alistair Darling, called it ‘an economic crisis which later transformed into a political one’, which seems like a fair description of the 2010s.

Incumbent governments around the world largely lost power in the years following the 2008 recession, and Britain was no exception. What voters remember most is who was in power during which failure – and Labour were the face of this one. What followed – five years of austerity under the Coalition Government, and five years more under the Conservatives alone  – would tire much of the public with the political class even more. Ordinary people around the country suffered as public spending was slashed. The perception was that the political establishment had been there to save the banks but it was not there for the people, and the people were becoming increasingly disillusioned with the whole system. 

Five years of complaints about austerity would surely have given Labour the keys back into Number 10, had they not spent their time in opposition being blamed and reminded of the mess the recession had caused. The Tories constantly claimed harsh spending cuts were necessary to clear up the economic turmoil Labour had left them. The recession’s hangover was still being felt, as unemployment levels did not get back to that of before the crash until the end of 2015, having been at the highest level since 1995 at one point during the period. Labour would spend the rest of the decade on the Opposition benches, the target of constant jibes of economic incompetency – hammered home with the “there’s no money left” note appearing from David Cameron’s pocket constantly. Jeremy Corbyn’s radical 2019 election manifesto of huge public spending was met with skepticism from opposition and crucially, the electorate, in turn resulting in Labour’s worst general election performance since 1935. Many argue that voters just did not believe the party could deliver on such promises whilst responsibly handling the economy, with painful memories of the recession still in the back of their minds. 

Another thorn in the side of Jeremy Corbyn during the final election of the decade was Brexit, perhaps the biggest political story we will witness in our lifetimes, and one that many explained as undercurrents of distrust and resentment for the establishment reaching tipping point. Our whole political system and the very union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland were challenged through the decade. Ultimately, Scotland rejected independence in 2014, but the movement and its voices grew louder and louder as the years went on, with the SNP consolidating the independence-supporting vote and becoming more successful than ever post-IndyRef. Bitter differences in opinion between the four nations over the EU and Brexit’s implications for Northern Ireland has amplified calls for a second independence referendum and a vote on Irish unification, leaving the future of the United Kingdom looking as uncertain as ever.

Brexit involved ordinary people forcing Westminster to make a huge constitutional change which the majority of those elected to it, including the Prime Minister at the time, did not want. Listening to what ‘the people’ wanted would become the political challenge dominating the last few years of the decade. Populist politicians such as Johnson and Farage, backed by unelected strategists like Dominic Cummings, built up a resentment of an image of bureaucrats in Brussels withholding massive power from our own nation. The influence Nigel Farage had over the politics of the 2010s, for someone who stood but failed to be elected as an MP seven times, is extraordinary. The high share of votes his party, UKIP, were winning at the turn of the decade partly pushed David Cameron to hold the EU referendum in the first place. Farage built his campaigns on the idea that he was ‘one of the people’, posing for photographs with pints in pubs to give himself a relevance to the average bloke, and crucially, to appear as far away from ‘metropolitan elites’ as possible, be they the politicians who bailed out the banks, or the bankers who the politicians were out for when they were not out for the people. 

Politicians have always been amongst the professionals least trusted by the public, but levels went from bad to worse after the recession. According to an Ipsos MORI poll, in 2006 just 8% of the public trusted politicians. By 2016, the year we voted for Brexit, this had fallen to a shocking 4%. There were a myriad of reasons why people chose to leave the European Union, but one reason widely agreed upon is to express contempt for the establishment and distrust in political institutions. The shambolic and dragged out attempts by parliament to ‘Get Brexit Done’ only created more public anger, polarisation between leavers and remainers and a further three years of political disharmony and spat. 

‘Quiet’ political periods require some trust in those elected, or at least respect. It is silly to suggest that all the events of the 2010s were triggered by the recession – there were many other factors. But the distrust built up in the period after is undeniable, and the public forced politicians into places they did not want to go and shook the establishment to its core. The outrage at being let down brought more people to the polls for the EU referendum than any vote since 1992. It’s a cliché but that decade really will go down in the history books as one in which the public really showed the establishment what they thought. 

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