Being born in 1960 meant being born in the closing years of the post-war baby boom with its years of economic growth, personal freedom, and buoyant optimism. When the British Conservative Prime Minister Harold declared in 1957 that “most of our people have never had it so good,” it was not a piece of political bluster, it was a statement of objective economic fact. Of course, by the 1970s, political instability and economic stagnation had changed perceptions, but, even then, the many people who recalled the realities of the 1930s would have pointed out the progress that had been made in forty years.
Learning history at school in the 1970s, I developed a belief in a law of progress. Of course, there were aberrations. The new republics that had emerged in Eastern Europe after the First World War had been overrun by the Red Army in the Second World War and had been reduced to puppet states of Moscow. Some had been incorporated into the Soviet Union, others had been subject to control that was less direct but just as oppressive – Soviet tanks had been sent into Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968. However, I thought the Soviet Union was an exception to my law of progress and that Western democratic countries all followed a similar trajectory of development and freedom.
Preparing a history lesson on reconstruction after the American Civil War, there came a realisation that history could move backwards as well as forwards. After the end of the war in 1865, the Union Army stayed in the southern states and reforms were enacted granting equal rights and freedoms to African Americans. Black senators and governors were elected. The period from 1865-1877 became known as that of “reconstruction.” In 1877, Rutherford Hayes, although an anti-slavery campaigner and social reformer himself, conceded the withdrawal of Union troops from the South in return for votes at the presidential electoral college. Once free of inhibitions, the Southern States began to introduce the “Jim Crow” laws, enforcing segregation and discrimination. Not until the Civil Rights movement ninety years later did the United States begin to progress to the point it had reached after the Civil War.
Even in Western democratic states, history can go backwards as well as forwards. If the present times are a demonstration of any historical maxim, it is that there is no immutable law of progress. The decades after the end of reconstruction showed that history can regress for a very long time.