This week, a new study by Demos and Sky Data found that two thirds of the public think life in Britain was better in a ‘bygone age’. The findings were published under a Sky News headline suggesting that the ‘increasing influence of nostalgia in politics is imperilling liberal democracy’.
Their survey found that 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. This included a clear majority of Britons in every age group. In something of a change from similar surveys conducted before the 2008 financial crisis, 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). Before the crash, it was older age groups who took the dimmest view of the present in relation to the past.
Demos also conducted qualitative research which found many citizens have been alienated by profound social, economic and cultural changes – and attracted towards nostalgic political messages as a result. The report warns that “the cost of mainstream politicians failing to respond to these developments may well be our societies becoming more exclusionary and less communal, underpinned by a more desperate, dangerous form of social competition – in short, the imperilling of our liberal democracies.”
Before the financial crisis the widespread, but statistically unsubstantiated, belief in a prior golden age was a theme my colleagues and I covered regularly. In those days of sustained economic growth, we were perplexed as to why citizens of developed nations felt the world was a worse place when, among other things:
- Progress in medicine meant that life expectancy had risen consistently and continued to rise
- Crime levels peaked in the mid-1980s and had declined steadily.
- Parents were devoting more time to caring for their children than ever before, with the current generation of fathers spend significantly more time with their kids than previous generations.
- New communications technologies were increasing the life satisfaction of those people who have access to them, especially as they are used to facilitate real, face to face social contact and not just ‘virtual’ contact online.
Then came the crash and pessimism about the present and future was more understandable. A decade of lost income growth has seen home ownership trends go into reverse, many working families relying on food banks, rising tension around immigration and less social cohesion generally.
But the Demos piece is a timely reminder that we need to take a broad perspective on the past, present and future if we are to accurately identify progress or decline as the prevailing social trend. For example, despite all the difficulties that have resulted from our ‘lost decade’, we do now live in a world where a wide range of issues such as mental health, gender equality, gender identity and child protection have rightly (if belatedly) risen up the political agenda.
As the Demos spokesperson said when launching their report:
“If you are promising to take society back to the conditions and the structure and power dynamics of the past, there are a lot groups who will probably lose from that – whether it’s women or minorities, any groups that have seen socio-liberalism work in their favour.”
I think she has a point. Perhaps the most damaging legacy of the financial crisis will be our inability to spot and appreciate progress when we see it. Fake (or misplaced) nostalgia might present just as a big a threat to liberal democracy as fake news.