Will 2016 join the likes of 1789, 1914, 1945 and 1989 as a turning point in history?
Some dates in history turn out to be turning points: the world is just not the same afterwards as it was before. The years 1789, 1914 and 1989 come to mind in the history of the West.
In the more parochial terms of British politics in the last century, 1931, 1979 and 1997 changed the face of things. Some dates – 1945 is the obvious one – figure big in both. Will 2016 end up being another?
In some respects the past year has been much like any other. If, a year ago, you had asked most of us to make predictions of what would happen in 2016, it’s likely we’d have got quite a lot right.
Surely we’d have said, for example, that China would continue to challenge America in the Pacific, that President Putin would go on playing Russia’s weak hand cleverly and that the wretched people of Syria were in for a great deal more suffering.
We’d probably also have said that Islamic terrorists would continue to perpetrate atrocities against western citizens going about their ordinary business – though it’s unlikely that we’d have forecast the targets would be a Christmas market in Berlin or wherever the next one occurs, as surely it will.
In time all these predictable developments will have profound effects in reshaping our world and making it utterly unfamiliar to the one we live in today. But what is remarkable about 2016 is the way it has already changed the scene for reasons that few of us predicted. If ever there was a year that proved the old adage about forecasting being much easier with hindsight it has been 2016.
This time last year a man called David Cameron seemed to be at the height of his powers as the British prime minister, about to pull off the feat of renegotiating the terms of his country’s membership of the European Union and then seeing his diplomatic triumph resoundingly backed in a referendum.
As recently as this autumn, Barack Obama, in his last annual presidential address to the Washington press pack, raised some knowing smiles when he said the identity of the person who would address them next year remained a mystery because no one could possibly know who ‘she’ would be.
A year later, Mr Cameron, no longer even a member of the House of Commons, is traipsing round college campuses in America delivering speeches and ‘she’ (Hillary Clinton) is still trying to work out what hit her. Brexit and Donald Trump were not supposed to be part of the script.
Whatever people may think of these largely unpredicted events, few would deny that they have turned the world into a different place. For those we might call the ‘establishment’ in its widest sense – not just those who happen to wield power but those who think they understand how things – the change seems little short of cataclysmic. The western liberal order, we were warned, was now in jeopardy. There was no limit to the barbarism that could now be imagined.
Yet these earthquakes in American and European politics happened not as the outcome of uncontrollable, subterranean explosions but as the result of ordinary voters using their democratic rights to influence events. For at least some of these voters, their actions brought about a change they had long desired. Others probably woke up in the new world they had helped create wondering what they had done.
There has been no shortage of commentary about possible links between what happened in British polling booths on 23rd June and American ones on 8th November. The most common explanation of both is that there was a rebellion against the elites and that populism has triumphed. Those engaging in the rebellion have been variously described: as ‘forgotten people’, as ‘those left behind’, those who wanted to ‘take back control’.
In pocketbook terms, these were the people for whom the old ways of doing things had previously ensured that their living standards grew year by year but who, since the financial crisis and even before it, had seen their incomes at best stagnate and at worst, decline. The old ways were no longer delivering so they demanded a different one.
Of course they didn’t, and couldn’t, bring about the revolution on their own. In America they found implausible allies among those of the rich who go on voting Republican even if they deplore the candidate they regard as a vulgar populist they wouldn’t admit to their country clubs and who might be far too ready to give the people what they want.
And in Britain the well-heeled, especially in the shires, were always keen to get out of Europe even as they accepted its farm subsidies and welcomed young Poles and Romanians to look after their aged parents in care homes or laboured in their fields at harvest time. But it was the sans-culottes who swung it.
Those mourning the end of the ancien regime warn that those who were crucial to bringing about the revolution may well soon get their come-uppance. If President Trump incites a global trade war by trying to provide the protection his ‘forgotten’ supporters in the rust belt voted him in to supply, then it is they who will pay the price, they say.
Similarly, if Mrs May fails to negotiate a deal to keep British exporters exporting, then Britain will fall off a Brexit cliff edge and those in the old industrial heartlands who turned out in unprecedented numbers to vote to ‘take back control’ will be the first to hit the rocks.
These are the Cassandra warnings of those for whom 2016 was the year that saw them turfed out of power and influence. They may prove to be right. But it is too soon to know.
President Trump may indeed upset the apple cart with little thought to the consequences, or he may turn out to be a conventional Republican president who soon learns that the risks of radical change are greater than the possible benefits. Equally Theresa May keeps her cards close to her chest on the Brexit negotiations because she calculates that revealing them is the way to defeat
In short, and to mix metaphors, 2016 has turned the world upside down and left us in the dark. How we feel about it depends largely on whether we are optimists or pessimists. The optimists say we couldn’t have gone on as we were and that even the current uncertainty is better than that. The pessimists say the old regime was certainly not perfect, but just you wait for what now lies round the corner.
Where do you stand?
Have the unforeseen upheavals of 2016 left you feeling more optimistic or more pessimistic?
Do you think President Trump offers a welcome change or a frightening prospect?
Will Mrs May pull off a Brexit deal that ends up being good for Britain or is she leading us to the cliff edge?
And do you think 2016 will end up being one of those turning-point dates in history or that, in a year from now, we shall be saying: “What was all that fuss about?”
Let us know what you think.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!