Kenneth Steven's "2020" is a sobering book. It is also an important book that should be read by everyone. Set in the summer of 2020 it depicts the results of Britain reaching its breaking point. A catastrophic terrorist attack is the trigger that helps shatter a society along profound pre-existing fault lines and the consequences in one particular English city are appalling. The book can be thought of as a patchwork quilt, or a mosaic. It comprises a large number of snippets, of glimpses, that reflect the views and accounts of many individuals who are in one way or another caught up in events or are witness to them. It is clear that an inquiry has been established to find out what happened, and why, and most of the contents of the book can be read as evidence given to the inquiry by witnesses whose anonimity has been guaranteed. Add in some out-takes of media reports and edit the result to produce a gripping and compelling narrative, and you have "2020" in a nutshell.
The book concludes with a publisher's note that reminds the reader that it is entirely a work of fiction, and says that it was largely written in 2015, well before the Brexit vote brought to the fore some of the same fault lines that emerge in the book. The publisher's note concludes that the book "is not a response to Brexit. Rather, it is an eerily prescient expression of the mood of a nation divided." It is prescient, but for us it is also a remarkably - depressingly - convincing analysis of the likely outcome of a series of issues that have been present in society over (at least) the past four decades.
For us the true genesis of the events described in this novel can be found in the inner city riots that took place in 1981 in Brixton in London, in Handsworth in Birmingham, in Chapeltown in Leeds and in Toxteth in Liverpool. The government of the day responded in a surprisingly positive way, setting up a series of initiatives designed to tackle the problems of deprivation and alienation in inner city areas right across England. One can view these initiatives as, in their own terms, fairly successful: though a decade after the riots, it was still possible to see deep and potentially dangerous fault lines very close to the surface if you spent any time talking to members of local communities in a city like Bradford. By the turn of the millennium, cities in England had made genuine progress, partly through specific initiatives, partly through wider economic circumstances, and party as a result of the move towards increasingly devolving powers to a regional level in England. Sadly, that was perhaps the high point for the most deprived areas of England's cities. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had many consequences, one of which was to increase the likelihood of radicalisation of some members of society, arguably leading to the terrorist attacks of 7 July 2005. Then came the financial crisis of 2007-8 which affected everyone, but had a disproportionate effect on the poorest members of all communities.
Perhaps the spark that really lit the fuse for many in society came with the measures taken by the Cameron government to reverse the steps that had been taken towards devolution across the English regions. Decades of careful progress was swept away as power was centralised in London, by a government that was increasingly seen as out of touch with anyone living outside the M25 or who hadn't been to a public school. Meanwhile, the collapse of any effective opposition in Westminster meant that the political process could offer no hope of a viable alternative, which only served to increase the frustration felt by many across England and especially in its most deprived areas. Add in the very obvious contrast between the political fortunes of the English regions and the situation in other parts of the UK, and in Scotland in particular, and with hindsight it is perhaps not surprising that when a referendum was called on an issue where the individual could actually make a difference, most people in England, and especially in England's poorer areas, voted for change, to leave the European Union. And with many people having voted for change based at least partly on campaign arguments about immigration, it is hardly surprising that the old fault lines in society have gained a sharp new focus since the referendum.
Kenneth Steven's "2020" may have been written before the vote for Brexit, but the dreadful events he describes are firmly rooted in problems that have long existed. We suspect that had he been writing after the vote for Brexit, he'd have written the same book, but perhaps given it the title "2018".