When I was young there were some ideas which sank in unquestioned, at least for a while: that I was growing up in the best place in the world (the UK not the US, in case you’re wondering); that ‘progress’ was like evolution, a natural process, inevitable (and a good thing) – the past was full of bad things that had been fixed by progress – emancipation of slaves, enfranchisement of the poor, of women, eradication of diseases … History was a one-way train to a better, fairer world.
And then in the 1980s someone declared the end of history, by which they meant the Cold War was over and the world had got to its destination, which was a wonderful capitalist dream (and someone else declared there was no such thing as society).
I wonder whether what really happened was that the train had started going back down the track. I watched a video of Tony Benn asserting confidently that not even Thatcher could contemplate dismantling the NHS without causing a revolution. It was now as essential and accepted a thing as women’s votes. He must be spinning in his grave.
And then there’s the gendering of toys to a degree way beyond what there was in the seventies. And the increase in economic inequality. And the persistent need to fight back against some new incarnation of racism – they spring up like weeds.
‘You can’t fight progress’ someone said to me the other day, with respect to more new houses planned on the edge of our village. When I queried the word ‘progress’, he said ‘well, you can’t fight human nature’, meaning landowners will always build on green fields if they can make money out of it. Hopefully, however, ‘human nature’ means that some people will always strive for things other than money, so the pendulum keeps swinging.
But there is no history train to the promised land, no track laid, just the desire lines made by our feet walking the same way.