One highlight of 2018 was the story of the Dutchman who wanted an age change. Born on March 11, 1949, Emile Ratelband was perfectly content with that day and month. It was just the year he proposed to alter — from 1949 to 1969. “We live in a time when you can change your name and change your gender,” Ratelband argued. “Why can’t I decide my own age?” He was even willing to give up his pension if the Dutch courts would recognise his desire to identify as a middle-aged man, rather than an old one. Of course, being Dutch, the judge said no.
If only Ratelband had been born in the United States, he would surely have had more luck. For most of her academic career, Senator Elizabeth Warren claimed to be of Native American origin. Had she not made the mistake of taking a DNA test, she might one day have been hailed as the first Cherokee president.
From December 1987 until August 2013, Bradley Manning was a male American. The day after Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for espionage, however, his lawyer announced that his client was in fact female. My mentioning that for 25 years Manning was a bloke called Brad will doubtless lead transgender activists to accuse me of “deadnaming”.
Last week it was reported that Brighton and Hove city council had issued new guidance to teachers advising that “menstruation must be inclusive of all genders” because “trans boys and men and non-binary people may have periods”. If we are to believe that menstruation is now a matter of personal choice, then why not age, too?
It is only as I reflect on this and other absurdities that I realise what is really going on. It is not just Emile Ratelband who wishes to turn the clock back. The whole world appears to want to go back in time.
The year 2018 will be remembered for our collective attempt to make believe that it is, in fact, 1973. In the United States the administration of Donald J Trump took several significant steps towards re-enacting the Watergate scandal. Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 American presidential election, has so far indicted or secured guilty pleas from more than 30 people, including four of the president’s advisers and his former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen.
By losing control of the House of Representatives, the Republican Party opened the path to the president’s impeachment, although the Democrats will start the ball rolling with congressional investigations. The resignation of the defence secretary, Jim Mattis, last week was just the latest flashback. In the course of 1973 Nixon got through four defence secretaries.
Meanwhile, the government of Theresa May approached the conclusion of its near three-year mission to return the United Kingdom to 1973 — the year Britain lapsed from its historic greatness by joining the European Economic Community. By rejecting the withdrawal agreement negotiated by May, proponents of a “no-deal” Brexit hope to restore per capita income to its level in that year.
In China, President Xi Jinping continued his effort to return the government of the people’s republic to its pristine state of 45 years ago, when Chairman Mao Zedong ruled as a red emperor unconstrained by term limits, the rule of law or economic rationality.
His Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, faces a bigger challenge, as the Communist Party to which he once belonged was dissolved in 1991. Nevertheless, by recklessly violating the sovereignty of neighbouring Ukraine and by brazenly interfering in the presidential election in the United States, President Putin has managed to get such severe sanctions imposed on his country that he may yet return Russian living standards to their 1973 level. The recent slump in the price of oil will help.
All over the world, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Saudi Arabia, political leaders are engaged in time travel. It is like a global race to see who can be as odiously corrupt as the Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko, generally recognised as the worst kleptocrat of the 1970s, or as barbarically cruel as Idi Amin of Uganda.
Of course, not everything in the Great Rewind is as easy as this. The 1970s were a time of rapidly rising inflation. The past 10 years have seen the developed world teeter on the brink of deflation. Even with the unemployment rate at its lowest level for 45 years, US consumer price inflation is still a meagre 2.2%. But Venezuela’s repulsive Chavista regime — for so long the toast of champagne socialists from Mayfair to Malibu— has pulled it off: according to the International Monetary Fund, inflation there will exceed 1,000,000% this year.
The biggest challenge, however, has been cultural. Just a year or two ago it would have seemed impossible to return mankind to the customs of the early 1970s. Over 45 years, real social progress had been made in so many ways. Women had been liberated. Men had realised how absurd they looked with long hair and beards. Disco music had largely been obliterated. Smoking had ceased to be tolerated. And the internet — no more than a twinkle in the eyes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs in 1973 — had transformed the world by giving a majority of humanity access to all knowledge ever.
Yet our genius as a species was equal to the challenge. By 2018 the internet had become a toxic wasteland dominated by a handful of monopoly companies indiscriminately selling advertising and a horde of purveyors of clickbait. Smoking had been successfully reinvented as vaping. Music even worse than disco had been devised. (It’s true. I have listened to God’s Plan by Drake, the year’s bestselling track and a wholly mind-numbing dirge.)
My friends, it’s 1973. Manchester United have sacked their manager. Liverpool are going to win the Premier League. Their star striker, Mohamed Salah, has hair that Kevin Keegan must wish he still had.
Yet the greatest accolade goes to the #MeToo movement, which has successfully made working with women so dangerous for male executives that — according to Bloomberg — the new Wall Street rule is: “Avoid women at all cost . . . No more dinners with female colleagues. Don’t sit next to them on flights. Book hotel rooms on different floors. Avoid one-on-one meetings.” According to one wealth adviser, hiring a woman is “an unknown risk”. Now that’s what I call turning back the clock.
It’s true that I don’t feel as if I’m nine years old, any more than Emile Ratelband would have felt 20 years younger if the Dutch courts had upheld his age change. But I don’t care. It’s 1973 again, in my mind if not my body. And so I’m leaving it to Noddy Holder of Slade to say — as he did for the first time in that happy old year — Merry Xmas Everybody.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford