The turning points of history.

Author:Dorling, Danny
Position:Crises and turning points

Danny Dorling

... the practical thing for a nation which has stumbled upon one of the turning points of history is not to behave as though nothing very important were involved ... When the broken ends of its industry, its politics, its social organisation, have to be pieced together after a catastrophe, it must make a decision ... It must, in short, have recourse to principles. (Tawney, 1961 [1921], 10) We now know that Richard Tawney was writing at 'one of the turning points of history'. But Tawney himself had no way of being so sure. Just seven years before he published the words above, in The Acquisitive Society, younger members of the upper echelons of the English upper-classes were photographed cheering at a famous 1914 cricket match with unfettered confidence. In that photograph, shown below, men of the generation of their fathers appear quietly confident of their place, sporting varying head gear that signified their precise status. Women sat demurely, knowing their place too, sometimes sporting a bit of bird in their hats, or a lot of bird, but only as appropriate.

Within just a few days of the above photograph being taken, the world's first global war began. The social order that had appeared so certain for the young men who are cheering began to change direction, and then steered towards a course of ever greater social equality that continued through to the deaths of them all.

After 1914 photographs showing confident cheering upper class individuals became rarer and rarer, not because they could not be taken in the decades that followed, but because publication of such images was increasingly unrepresentative of the changing times, and of the new principles that were being adopted in the 1920s and 1930s.

Newspaper editors began to choose different images to use to sell their papers, images that their readers could more readily have sympathy with. The most iconic of these images showed signs of a changing world, of a working class growing in confidence, and an upper class looking more and more lost.

We have no way of knowing what images of our times will still be reproduced in publications a century from now, just as we have no way of knowing whether our current times are a historic turning point. However, it is likely that one particular picture of bankers swilling champagne, taken at some time between the 1986 deregulation of the City and before the 2008 crash, will become used enough to become emblematic of our recent age and, if we are at a new turning point, a suitably chastened image to accompany it will be added in some publication in the distant future.

Inequality, class and turning points

How many years have to go by before you can say, with a little confidence, that there has been a turning point in history? In the United States a key turning point was 1945, but that was not the case in Britain. As the graph below shows, in Britain the turning point in inequality occurred at some point in the 1920s and again in the 1970s. The same graph for the USA is quite different. This, and the Labour landslide of 1945, may have misled us into thinking that for Britain the Second World War was more important than it was.

Hugh Pemberton made the case for the 1970s being a period of historic change in this journal a few years ago (Pemberton, 2009). No doubt he wrote this in 2009 because he was thinking then that 2008 might be another moment of change, similar in importance to the 1970s watershed. However, in hindsight his assertions can be seen to tally with certain statistical series, such as that of the changing income share of the best-off 10 per cent, shown below. Pemberton was writing just before the latest downwards blip in that income-inequality graph could be added in.

On the events of the year 2008 Pemberton wrote: 'it may be that the authorities have thereby saved capitalism from itself and achieved a relatively short, if sharp, recession. Were this to be the case, the policy framework would certainly have evolved in quite a marked way, but the chances are that this would be the full extent of the change ... Much will depend on how the recession unfolds ... A return to recession and/or an anaemic and drawn-out economic recovery might well call the competence of economic policy-makers into doubt and bring forth radical new thinking ... ' (2009, 55). In the event the recession was not short. It came to be...

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