John Harris

Journalist & Author

If we must look to the past, let’s make it 1989: a year of transformation | John Harris

From eastern Europe to the dancefloors of Britain, a new optimism emerged. We should remember and take heart

Whatever happened to the future? Brexiteers cling on to a fantastical mixture of empire, war and an England whose genius was supposedly embodied by Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. In the United States, Donald Trump harks back to an America of economic might: musclebound men toiling in car factories and coalmines, and splendid isolation. A recent issue of the Economist surveyed politics in Europe and the US and observed “an orgy of reminiscence”, partly traceable to the fact that millions of westerners cannot shake off a deep and understandable sense of decline.

There’s an obvious irony in having to look back to find something better, but 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of a run of events that embodied pretty much the polar opposite: optimism, faith in the future and a sense of shared humanity that could not be more different from the polarised, rancorous mood of today. As this year unfolds, the events of 1989 – a year as replete with significance as 1848, 1945 or 1968 – will be celebrated and picked apart; in Berlin there will be an impressive run of commemorative events . Leafing through histories of the time, and thinking back to what happened, what most sticks out is a set of emotions and impulses that we would do well to revive: defiance, joy, an urge to run headlong into whatever happened next.

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