As the world marks the end of last decade and the start of the ‘Twenties’, the 2010s in the UK at least will be remembered as the most politically turbulent and historic since the Second World War.
The decade began in the midst of a global financial crisis with a Labour majority in Number 10 and has ended with the largest Conservative majority since the days of Thatcher and the country a month away from leaving the EU.
Of course, a lot of this is down to one major event that has dominated political discourse for the last four years – Brexit. The referendum and its aftermath has been unparalleled in nature, with the country bitterly divided over its place in the world and its future direction.
The European question has dominated the last ten years, with the continued rise of Nigel Farage. Coming from second place in the European elections with UKIP in 2009, he took his then-party to electoral success in the 2014 European elections – the first minor party to win a national election in almost 100 years. His recruitment of two Tory MPs to his party also boosted his cause for an EU referendum, and the fear of losing seats to the insurgent eurosceptic party helped prompt Cameron into promising such a poll.
Like the issue has done before, divisions over Europe pushed another two Conservative PMs from their posts; with both David Cameron resigning after losing to Leave, along with his successor Theresa May after failing to pass her Brexit deal.
Brexit and the referendum provoked the largest defeat for the government bill in history, saw the rise and fall of several parties (the Liberal Democrats, Brexit Party and Change UK among them), and has acted as a catalyst to polarise the country to a huge extent.
However, the decade started off with historic circumstances as well, with the 2010 general election returning a hung parliament for the first time since 1974 and the first full coalition government since the Second World War. The Liberal Democrats benefited in the run-up to the election (albeit fleetingly) from the country’s first televised election debates, where their leader Nick Clegg initially performed well against David Cameron and then Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
However, the Liberal Democrats’ broken promise on tuition fees had immediate results, with protests in London, losses in numerous local elections and poor by-election performances. The party ends this decade with 51 fewer seats than when they started and a vote share half of what Clegg achieved in 2010.
But this has also been a decade of decline for Labour, too. A hammer blow in 2010 with less than 30 percent of the national vote and 98 lost seats was followed by more seat losses under Ed Miliband. What followed in the period of soul-searching was backbencher Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the party.
Corbyn’s time in power, which will come to an end this year, saw a significant shift to the left and significant internal strife over policy and approach to tackling issues within the party, such as antisemitism. Although managed to restore the party’s losses from 2015 in the snap election two years later, he took the party to its worst defeat since the 1930s.
Among the losses were the party’s heartlands in the north of England, posing a significant challenge for whoever becomes the new party leader later this year and perhaps changing the political geography of a Britain for generation.
But part of Labour’s decline in this decade has come at the hands of Scottish voters, as the region has seen a huge surge in support for independence and the SNP. In 2009, support for independence stood at just 28 percent, but now stands at 46 percent.
The SNP’s unprecedented overall majority in the Scottish Parliament in 2011 provoked the governments of Scotland and the UK to come to an agreement to hold a referendum on separation. Scotland voted to remain part of the UK, but the result was considerably closer than was first expected; one poll in the run-up to polling day put independence ahead, triggering panic mode in Westminster. The nature of the debate was a foretaste of things to come in the Brexit referendum; with talk of ‘Project Fear’ and disregarding the evidence from experts from a range of industries.
Despite the vote to stay part of the UK, the SNP has had a significant boost in Westminster, with the party having an extra 42 seats in the House of Commons compared to the start of 2010. Whilst Labour has suffered significantly at the hands of the SNP’s success, the Conservatives have made a comeback as an anti-independence party, coming second in terms of vote share and seats in December’s election.
All of this political upheaval has come whilst welfare reforms branded disgraceful by UN officials have been implemented, NHS waiting times have increased, the numbers relying on food banks have increased dramatically, knife crime has reached all time highs, and with questions looming over what rights will EU and UK nationals have post-Brexit.
The decade to come may prove to be just as historic, as Britain forges a path outside of the European Union and a Conservative government whose manifesto pledged to dramatically alter elements of the nation’s democracy, including reform of the Supreme Court and voter ID laws.