DERRY, NORTHERN IRELAND - JUNE 9: Sir John Major and Tony Blair attend a Remain campaign at the University of Ulster on June 9, 2016 in Derry, Northern Ireland. Former British Prime Ministers Sir John Major and Tony Blair travelled to Derry City in Northern Ireland warning that voting to leave the EU could "jeopardise the unity" of the UK. They suggested that it may cause Scotland to re-visit an independence referendum and put Northern Ireland's "future at risk". Both politicians were instrumental in bringing peace to the region. The Vote Leave campaign has said the idea that a Brexit could threaten the Northern Ireland Peace Process was irresponsible. (Photo by Brian Lawless-WPA Pool/Getty Images)
John Major aimed for a 'nation at ease with itself', which happened, more or less © Getty

Whatever it was about liberals that equipped them to steer the last 40 years of world affairs, it was not resilience or a sense of proportion. 2016 exposed an unbecoming brittleness. Some of them are sure, on the basis of Britain’s exit from the EU, which has not happened, and president-elect Donald Trump, who has not made an executive decision, that globalisation is for the morgue. George Soros, the investor, fears for democracy itself.

The pessimism is not definitively wrong and years will pass before we know either way. It is just a bit previous and, at worst, self-fulfilling. An elite that expects a bleak teleology to play out over the next few years is, by definition, unprimed to influence events. It is hard to venture this criticism without falling for an equal and opposite hysteria. If Marine Le Pen loses the French presidential election for the far-right in May and Angela Merkel survives in Germany six months later, expect much Jacobite commentary on the vindication of the old order.

What western electorates seem to want is a correction of the liberal model, not its extinction. The marginal British voter, who braved EU exit, but only just, can worry that freedom — to migrate, to trade, to avoid taxes — has run away with itself since the millennium without pining for Ye Olde Worlde rigidities.

The question is how far back they want to reverse things. Consider some of the last century’s odd-numbered decades. Only someone who is trying very hard indeed can imagine a sequence of events that ends in a comeback for 1930s protectionism anytime soon. The 1950s is not much more plausible. No one can recreate the ethnic uniformity or the postwar deference to the state. 1970s corporatism might be nearer the mark. The decade liberals remember as an extended farce peppered with some notable pop culture was, for a household in Detroit or Coventry, the last age of rewarding manual work. All the same, who envisages the return of intrusive capital controls and ministries of state with a say in prices?

None of these past-time paradises are recoverable or much desired outside the most aged and seething segments of the electorate. What might be is the 1990s. George Will’s “holiday from history”, as named by the conservative American writer for its liberal hubris, does not seem ripe for populist romanticisation. But look at the record. Britain was diverse but yet to taste the surge in migration from Europe (and the less famous flow from outside Europe at the end of the decade). The economy was strong without the great leveraging of banks and households that was, in both senses, around the bend.

These were the last years of an uncontentious welfare state. Means-tested tax credits took off in the subsequent decade. A system founded on the contributory principle — that you pay in to take out — came to respect need above all. What made intuitive moral sense nevertheless broke the bond between effort and entitlement, and drained confidence in the whole expensive tapestry. In 1995, half of respondents told the British Social Attitudes Survey that more should be spent on welfare benefits. By 2009, less than 30 per cent did. The figure remains thereabouts. Aside from the inescapable moan at immigrants, the commonest doorstep grievance reported by MPs is that claimants, foreign or local, “put nothing in”.

The 1990s was the last time that felt dynamic enough for Britain’s urbanites and familiar enough for its hinterlands. Against the background rumble of the early Oasis albums, a national settlement materialised that left near-zero demand for politicians who defined themselves against the mainstream. When he became prime minister at the start of the decade, John Major aimed for a “nation at ease with itself”. It happened, more or less. What came after was — and I say this as someone who had a fine time of it — liberal over-reach.

The despair of globalists comes from dwelling on the very angriest citizens. Swing voters, the ones who decide things, do not aspire to a far-gone idyll of their imagination. But they might prefer a recent past that is, with the limited levers of state, just about recoverable. Even if there was a clamour for the mid-20th century, no prime minister can catch time’s arrow in mid-flight and send it hurtling back so far the other way. Impersonal advances in commerce, technology and art put a curb on how much regression there will be. Things cannot be uninvented.

Do not dread this year or the next few. If Britain is going back to a previous time, it is, in the spectrum of history, the day before yesterday.

janan.ganesh@ft.com

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