For the tolerant, progressive, internationalist liberal this has been the year to remember and the year to forget.
My own native land has wilfully perpetrated an act of self-harm in so doing rejecting the advice of all well-informed opinion almost because that opinion was well-informed. Even more disturbing than the lies of the campaign with their authors mostly now in high office in the UK government was the atmosphere in which the campaign was conducted and in its hateful aftermath.
Not since the Suez crisis of 1956 has there been such deep division in Britain. But this time the bitter split has too often spilled over into acts of hate and violence. That many of these have been directed against ‘foreigners’ points to the passions unleashed by the Brexit referendum and the dog whistle anti-immigrant messages of some on the Leave side. To say this is not to blame directly the official Leave organisations for these incidents, or for the assassination of Jo Cox. But the political elements fuelling these acts of violence have to be recognised if they are to be addressed.
It is as if the referendum unplugged something different in a Britain where rational political debate and argument are no longer sufficient and sometimes not even possible. Watching the debates or campaign events from a distance was to see much more than the confrontation of strongly held views: in the faces of many participants one could see a pent-up rage finally finding some expression. Some commentators attribute this to the phenomenon of people ‘left behind’, communities suffering from neglect, blighted by the consequences of globalisation. But a neat socio-economic interpretation of the vote falls foul of the demographic facts. Why did, for example, so many comfortably off, middle class older people vote to leave the EU?
Others see this as the fruit of decades of xenophobic bile promoted by elements in the media which have a political agenda – nothing less than the undermining of liberal democracy and its ultimate destruction through the destabilising of the political leadership of the country. Trust in politicians was irremediably dented by the expenses scandal exploited to the full by a gleeful press. And by the miserable quality of so many MPs. When an opportunity came to throw a spanner in the works, to ‘make our voice heard’, ‘to take back control’, it was too good to let pass.
Yet others point to some negative aspects of social media which have now become a central feature in any political campaign: the tendency for supporters of one camp communicating only to others on the same side, reinforcing opinions or prejudices, creating a chasm with proponents of other points of view whose positions are the subject of derision. The rise of crude abuse, often made from the comfort of anonymity, forestalls any sensible airing of differences, let alone their amicable resolution.
And politicians and newspapers feel free to compete in the disparagement of those in any position of influence.
So the UK Permanent representative, a respected public official, is insulted and denigrated by leading Conservatives and their puppet-masters in the press for his temerity in pointing out to ministers that the view from EU sources is that a new trading arrangement with the EU might take years to negotiate. For this little inconvenient truth his reputation is trashed, and he is described as ‘close to Cameron’, a term of abuse in Conservative circles only slightly less damning than the word ‘Blairite’ among some Labour supporters.
So the judges of the Supreme Court are subject to ridicule and insult as a means of pressure. So the plaintiff, Mrs Millar, is hounded with racist insults and threatened with violence. So the Governor of the Bank of England, a supposedly independent authority, is accused of being little more than a government apologist, and a foreign one at that.
And this abuse comes not from some trolls churning out anonymous hate late at night in their sad little bedrooms, empty beer cans on the side. This comes from senior political figures, former Conservative party leaders, and the editors of a right-wing press enjoying whatever freedom of expression their paymasters have conferred on them in pursuit of their commercial interests.
What is clear is that all these factors played a role in this ugly episode in British history, and that turning the tide will be complicated and take time. It is hard to see any of the current political parties capable of changing the terms of political trade.
The Daily Telegraph has just reprinted its reports from exactly one hundred years ago of the debate in the House of Commons when Lloyd George, just installed as Prime Minister, facing the great of challenges made a speech so encapsulating the fears and aspirations of the nation that its sketch writer, not a fan of the great liberal, said he had never heard a speech so thrilling, and that he felt he had listened to ‘the chosen spokesman of humanity’, speaking not just to the nation but to the world.
Imagine Mrs May, also recently selected as our leader, facing also the greatest challenges, capable of speaking for and to the people in this way, offering hope for the future, and a path to achieve it, and one can only laugh or cry at the absurdity of the comparison. The current government proves itself almost daily woefully equipped to deal with the challenges the UK faces but it would be a mistake to await some return of the pendulum.
The principal party of opposition – riven by divisions, so indistinct in its positioning, so ill-led – seems completely unfit to present a new vision which could bring back some positive energy to UK politics, in counterpoint to all this negative, populist force. For 2017, the most interesting question is whether Labour grasps the nettle of political cooperation, of working with other political parties and non-aligned forces to drive back the populist tide. Or whether it shreds what’s left of its reputation by bowing to it.
Brexit was merely one catastrophe in a year as bleak as any since the end of the Second World War. The nadir was reached with election of Donald Trump. Had Mr Trump been an entertainer on the BBC in the 1980s and 1990s, he would almost certainly have ended up taking up the time of our courts as allegations about his behaviour with younger women were investigated. But in the US, justice is a purchasable commodity, and he can meet any legal costs however high.
So the US has selected for the most important elective office in the world, someone considered globally to be a sociopathic sleaze-ball. Again learned articles try to explain this with descriptions of life in the rust belt and the forgotten communities. Again there’s the anger of ‘the little man’, the revenge against the elites, the wilful pleasure of giving the establishment a good kicking, the empoisoned political discourse, the shortcomings of the Democratic candidate (2016 was precisely not the year to field ‘the most experienced candidate ever to have contested the presidency’) .
The upshot may turn out to be a surprise for the American equivalent of the ‘Just about managing’. For Trump’s cabinet will not be made up of political officials with any sensitivity to the problems of the monthly pay check and the cost of living. His administration will be plutocracy. And history tells us that plutocracies usually end up as kleptocracies. How long it will take the ‘silent majority’ to realise that they have put in the White House someone who cares not a fig for the disadvantaged, the ‘left behind’ and the lower middle class, and who sees his transfer to Pennsylvania Avenue as a smart business move, is anybody’s guess. But when the reckoning comes it will refuel the anger and spur the hatred. If the democrats think they can restore a centrist sensible, technocratic, consensual government in the wake of disenchantment with Trump, they may well have an unpleasant surprise. I draw almost as little comfort from the idea that Senator Pence will only be a heartbeat away from the presidency as I do from the apparent excellent health of Mr Tump.
For the problem for the British, American and continental progressives is that confronted with the economic and social challenges of a globalised economy and a digitalised world, they either seek comfort in old battle hymns (like Corbyn in the UK: and which no longer appeal to all Labour Party members let alone anyone else) or they put forward technocratic arguments and solutions which fly over people’s heads. They have to find ways to make people listen to them again.
2017 has an agenda full of opportunities for mischief. The French presidential elections in May, and the Bundestag elections in the autumn just being two highlights. The Dutch political elite is being washed away as if its North Sea dykes were breached. The Italians can be guaranteed to provide us with shocks and spills.
But in this season of all dangers, most attention will be focussed on France and Germany. If Mrs LePen wins then the very survival of the European Union is at stake. To paraphrase Herman Van Rompuy, ‘Europe can survive the amputation of a Brexit, but France quitting the Union would be fatal.’ The smart money remains on Mr Fillon, Gaullist, catholic, conservative but at least not a populist xenophobe. Perhaps the biggest interest will lie in Mr Macron’s candidature. Will his undoubted energy and his youthful legions breathe new life into the progressive centre-left? Could he create the biggest upset by winning a place in the final round? Has he started to develop a new message of reform, work, lower and middle-class incomes which could be the core of a new electoral appeal for the centre-left?
In Germany the atrocity of this Christmas week gives an opportunity to xenophobes there and elsewhere to attack the liberal, centrist consensus and, of course, free movement of peoples. The federal elections may shake post-war Germany’s rocklike institutional stability.
While we focus on the dilemmas of the electoral politics of our countries or those of our neighbours, the world moves on. 2017 could be a very dangerous year; the ruthless jockeying for advantage between superpowers in numerous conflict zones in the Middle East, but also in the Far East: the continuing wars in Syria, Iraq and the Yemen: the inexorable spread of terrorism: the further erosion of civil liberties and democratic process by autocratic governments in Moscow, in Turkey, but also shamefully in some of our member states.
And in all this, where is Europe? Germany continues to fail to provide any real leadership but inflicts real harm on Europe’s standing by its inflexibility on economic issues. Does Mr Schauble have any inkling of the damage he does to Europe’s reputation when he tries to torpedo even modest hardship relief for Greek pensioners? The Juncker Commission which at first aspired to some political role has sunk back into a bureaucratic quagmire, directionless, unable to communicate, lethargic and with the morale of its staff at rock bottom.
I have yet to detect any sign whatsoever that the EU has the will, the capacity and the energy to play a significant role in the affairs of the world. We all know this, we know the reasons why, we know who is to blame but so far we just accept this as a fatality.
Many of us will be glad, or even relieved when 2016 comes to an end.
But there is no guarantee that 2017 will be better.
Happy New Year!