If 2016 was the year the democratic world went on a wild bender, 2017 was the year of the hangover. It was when we woke, slumped on the floor, still in yesterday’s clothes, heads pounding, to see how badly we’d trashed the room the night before. It was the year in which we contemplated the damage done, feared what more was yet to come – and searched out glimmers of hope that, somehow, we might avoid the worst.
But it was also the year in which troubles that had been stored up years or decades earlier – some ignored, others denied – burst through the surface, demanding our attention and crying out for something else too: a reckoning long overdue.
Start with the two epochal events of 2016 – Brexit and Trump – which dominated 2017. For Britons, departure from the European Union was the all-pervasive backdrop to our politics, overshadowing even a general election which, in normal times, would be the paramount event of the political year, but in the end was shaped by, and helped shape, the course of Brexit.
On 29 March, Theresa May ordered a six-page letter to be hand-delivered to Donald Tusk, the president of the European council, in which she formally invoked article 50 of the Lisbon treaty of the European Union. “There can be no turning back,” she told the House of Commons. Any voters who had assumed, or even hoped, that their vote in the referendum nine months earlier would be a mere protest, an eloquent but ultimately cost-free two fingers to the establishment, now saw things a little more sharply. Their 2016 move had been no mid-term byelection gesture. May had started the clock on a legally binding process that would end the relationship Britain had had with its neighbours for more than four decades, replacing it with something as yet unknown.
But the cold light of day that spread through 2017 did not only reveal Brexit was serious; it also confirmed it would be perilously difficult. We heard fewer of the breezy promises of 2016 – though in July Liam Fox did forecast that the Brexit talks would be “the easiest in human history”. Most Britons saw with their own eyes how hard it would be.
The narrative arc of Brexit in 2017 was depressingly simple. Brussels would make a set of demands, at which the British government and its press cheerleaders would howl their derision: “Go whistle,” said Boris Johnson at the notion that the UK would have to settle its obligations to the tune of tens of billions. And then, after a period of weeks or months, reality would sink in and the British government would back down.
Thus the year began with a row about the sequencing of the Brexit talks – until May accepted the EU’s insistence that negotiations about the trading future would have to wait till agreement on the first phase had been reached. And that’s how the year ended too – with May finally giving way on the money.
At a moment of particular frustration, one Brexiter was heard cursing the UK’s interlocutors. “You never beat Brussels in a negotiation!” You always lose. Which is, of course, why many had long argued that it was better to be inside the world’s biggest trading bloc, benefiting from the EU’s negotiating muscle, than outside, vainly arm-wrestling against it.
Meanwhile, we watched as the British economy limped along, its anaemia plain to see by the time of the newly rescheduled autumn budget, in which Philip Hammond had to announce a set of economic forecasts that suggested Britain plc was struggling. Our European neighbours boasted much healthier numbers, which made all the Brexiter talk of a bright future in which British buccaneers would head off into the open seas of international trade sound a tad … hopeful. A motif of the year was the coded message, from this or that titan of international business, hinting at a relocation to, say, Frankfurt. In 2017 it seemed it was Britain itself that stood, in the buzz phrase of the previous year, to be left behind.
This wasn’t just a matter of economics. In 2017 it was decided that, for the first time in a history that stretched back to 1922, the international court of justice would do without a British judge, as the UK candidate had to make way for a jurist from India. In 2017, we glimpsed a future Britain punching below its weight.
Of course, this is how I see it: I’m a remain voter writing for a pro-remain newspaper. Read the opinion of a leaver in a different paper, and they would tell a different story. For what has not emerged in 2017 is any kind of consensus. Some hoped the referendum would settle the great European question once and for all, and that most remainers would become releavers, reconciled to Brexit. But that hasn’t quite happened. Most polls show the country still divided down the middle, the numbers not much shifted. The result is that in 2017 it often felt as if the 2016 referendum campaign had never ended. Indeed, this year we seemed to be having the debate we should have had last year – drilling down into the detail of single markets, Irish borders and the like – but never did.
When May returned from the Easter break to announce, to the surprise of her own party officials, that a general election was to be held on 8 June, that seemed, at last, to be the cue for a great national conversation about Brexit. After all, she had called it in order to win the overwhelming mandate that would allow her to “crush the saboteurs”, in the memorable words of the Daily Mail.
The real reason – that the polls gave her such a commanding lead over Labour, the opportunity was too golden to waste – was also related to Brexit. It seemed the 2016 referendum had reshaped the political landscape, with seven in 10 Labour seats having voted leave. Surely there were vast swathes of working-class voters ripe for the plucking, ready to desert Labour for a Tory PM determined to implement the Brexit they had voted for a year earlier.
It didn’t turn out that way. One political miscalculation followed another. May’s manifesto was toxic, its stand-out pledge a tax on elderly people with dementia. Her campaign was pitched as presidential, organised entirely around her personality – “Theresa May’s Conservatives” was the slogan – but it turned out she didn’t really have one. The Maybot was born. “Strong and stable” turned out not to be an invincible message but, when repeated ad nauseam, a punchline. Put simply, May was the worst political campaigner in living memory, leading one of the worst ever campaigns.
Meanwhile, Labour and Jeremy Corbyn were confounding those who had long been gloomy about his electoral prospects (and, yes, I was one of them). The party’s manifesto was chock full of goodies, from nationalised energy and railways to scrapped tuition fees, which, thanks to a canny bit of leaking, were put in front of the electorate twice.
Corbyn proved his campaigning zeal worked not only on the hardcore faithful, but on a much wider audience, especially the young. Thanks to May’s manifesto the election was not about Brexit, which allowed Corbyn to turn it into a referendum on austerity. In TV appearances, he seemed a genial idealist rather than the crazed Bolshevik of tabloid rhetoric. Helped by pro-remain former Tories in places such as Kensington and Canterbury, and by a surge in turnout by the young – not for nothing did Oxford Dictionaries declare “youthquake” the word of the year – Corbyn delivered 2017’s most surprising moment.
It came as the clock struck 10pm on 8 June. The TV exit poll showed a hung parliament and from that instant, all that had been solid in UK politics melted into air. May was now weak and unstable; Corbyn was immediately entrenched as the Labour leader for as long as he wanted the job. Since then, and for the rest of 2017, both were seen through that new prism: he as a likely future prime minister, she as a dead woman walking, one who went on to lose three cabinet ministers in just the last two months of the year. That 10pm moment proved that 2016 did not enjoy a monopoly on political volatility. On the contrary, uncertainty is the new certainty.
That was no less true in the United States, as 2017 saw congeal into hard fact a two-word phrase that had been part joke, part threat in 2016: President Trump. There seemed to be a change in the global circadian rhythm, whereby the people of the world would start their day by checking to see what new outrage the man in the White House had committed, usually via Twitter.
They came in such volume, it was impossible to keep up. Threatening a nuclear conflict with North Korea one day, brawling with a newly bereaved war widow the next (her late husband knew what he had signed up for, Trump told her). Any one of Trump’s actions would, if committed by his predecessor, have been the scandal of the year, dominating media coverage of the presidency for months. (Sacking the head of the FBI over “the Russia thing” was, for example, as clear an example of obstruction of justice as any of the similar deeds that triggered the fall of Richard Nixon.)
But with Trump, atrocities came too thick and too fast to be processed properly. One thing we learned in 2017 was that politics has a metabolism, and it simply could not digest the level of outrage Trump was generating. Sharing videos disseminated by a far-right group shunned in Britain should have been a lasting blow to the supposedly “special relationship” between London and Washington, but within a day or two, Trump had done something else appalling and so the political class was compelled to move on.
And it’s been that way in America too, whether it’s Trump refusing to shake hands with Angela Merkel as she sat next to him during an Oval Office photo-op, declaring that white supremacist marchers in Charlottesville included “some very fine people” or hinting that a female New York senator had once been willing to trade sexual favours for campaign funds. And those are just three acts of disgrace picked almost at random. In 2017, Trump horror became a kind of insistent backbeat to American and global life.
But if Trump and Brexit were aftershocks of the earthquakes of 2016, the other defining events of 2017 were the fruit – much of it bitter – of seeds planted many years earlier.
For Britons, perhaps the most haunting image of the year was the dark skyscraper that claimed the lives of 71 people in the summer. The charred remains of Grenfell Tower still loom over west London, and the pain of the survivors of that disaster, many of them still without a permanent place to live, remains raw. For them, the tower is no symbol: it’s the home they’ve lost. But for others, Grenfell Tower is a monument to decades of policy choices that had made the country less fair. Whether it was deregulation, privatisation, austerity or plain inequality, that blaze illuminated some of the decisive shifts of the past three decades. It gave us a glimpse of the society we had become.
The flood of testimony that came from women, first in the US and then in Britain, describing the sexual harassment, assault and discrimination they had faced was similar only in this sense: what exploded in 2017 had been brewing for many, many years.
It started with the women hounded, and sometimes terrorised, by Harvey Weinstein. At first it was tempting to see Weinstein as a singular monster, but the revelations soon spread further into Hollywood, the media and politics. The star names – Kevin Spacey, Louis CK, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer – kept dropping, and with them the realisation dawned on many men (women knew this already) that such behaviour occurred, in one form or other, in almost every workplace, every industry, every woman’s working life.
By the end of 2017, it was not clear if #MeToo would be remembered as a short-lived social media phenomenon or a genuine turning point in the relationship between women and men. But in the US, it played a part in denying Republicans what had been a safe Senate seat, when Roy Moore – accused of molesting women and girls as young as 14 – lost in Alabama. Time magazine anointed the women who had spoken out as their collective Person of the Year and, no less telling, Webster’s dictionary decided its word of the year was … feminism.
This focus on both the after-effects of 2016 and the legacies of more distant years left little time or space to digest, or even pay attention to, events beyond our own horizon. (The upheavals in Catalonia, and the potential break-up of Spain, got less global coverage than they were surely due.)
And yet for some of the world’s most benighted peoples, 2017 was a year of almost biblical horror. It was that way for the (conservatively) estimated 10,000 Rohingya Muslims murdered, and the 645,000 turned into refugees by the government of Myanmar. And for the 1,340 children killed or seriously injured in Yemen, according to a UN report in October, as well as those simply starving to death in a country gripped by what the UN classifies as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, where three-quarters of the population of 28 million is in dire need of help, thanks in large part to a war where much of the firepower belongs to a coalition led by one of Britain’s closest allies, Saudi Arabia. In Syria, the killing continued for a seventh year.
Perhaps even more surprising was the relatively phlegmatic response we gave to the acts of domestic terror that scarred the year. The attacks on Westminster Bridge, at Manchester Arena and in Borough Market in London caused deep grief, of course, and consumed our attention in the immediate aftermath. But they didn’t change the course of our national or international conversation. Was that a sign they were becoming absorbed into our understanding of what was now a new normal? Or another consequence of the fact that we had so much on our plate?
In this atmosphere, hope became a scarce and precious commodity. Those who feared yet another victory for nativist populism exhaled with deep relief when Marine Le Pen’s Front National was defeated in France. You didn’t have to be in love with Emmanuel Macron to be glad it was him not her taking over at the Élysée Palace. There were other crumbs of comfort too. That Republican defeat in Alabama and a parliamentary rebellion by a few Tory “mutineers” (that phrase coined by the Telegraph) demanding a “meaningful vote” on Brexit came on the same December day.
Both those events suggested all was not lost, that it might just be possible to fight back after all. If we’re looking for a story to tell in 2018, let it be that one.
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