John Humphrys - 2019: a Bright or Gloomy Prospect?

January 04, 2019, 3:45 PM GMT+0

As the increasingly lengthy Christmas break finally comes to an end, normal life resumes and we are confronted with the prospect of a new year. If most of the media forecasts for 2019 are to be believed, it’s a prospect about which we should feel deep apprehension, if not trepidation. Stick your head under the duvet and don’t emerge till this time next year, seems to be the measure of it. And it’s not hard to make the case why this should be so. But is it the whole story? Or should we be looking ahead to the coming year with as much optimism as pessimism?

There was a time when, at least in the political world, a new year somehow looked wholly different from the old one. Whatever had been consuming our interests, exciting our passions or causing rows before Christmas – a key parliamentary vote, an acrimonious summit, a scandal, a ministerial resignation – all this suddenly seemed like the stuff of history. It was, by January, all out of the way and we could now focus on something new, maybe even something that might cheer us up.

If politicians (or, indeed, the public) were hoping that the same trick of light could be played this year, they’re likely to be disappointed. In fact it feels as though the exact opposite is the case: the two-week break from our prior preoccupations has left nothing changed and everything remaining exactly as it was. That, it’s fair to suppose, must be how it seems to Theresa May, returning from the fresh Buckinghamshire air of Chequers to the politically inhospitable, if no longer smoke-filled rooms of Westminster.

Brexit, of course, is the cause of this feeling that the world is now just as it was: stale, flat and possibly unprofitable. As far as it can yet be assessed, everyone remains in exactly the same entrenched positions they were when we all started singing carols, and it is this more than anything that creates the prevailing mood that 2019 is a year not to have too much hope for.

This has little to do with whether one is a Leaver or a Remainer. Both have grounds for feeling alarmed: Remainers, obviously, because this is the year when Brexit is due to happen and after which, in their eyes, it’ll be too late to avoid disaster; but Leavers too, either because they fear the Brexit they’ll get isn’t the one they hoped for or even that somehow it won’t happen at all. Rather, the reason the Brexit process is causing such pervasive alarm is quite simply that it is all so uncertain and therefore unsettling.

No one, not even the Prime Minister, can be confident they know what is going to happen. But if her deal is rejected – and the Christmas break has produced no solid grounds for believing that is any less likely now than it was when she pulled the vote in December – then leaving without a deal is what will happen unless someone acts to stop it. The problem is it’s not clear who could do so or how.

For some, leaving without a deal is positively not something we should be worrying about. But sheer uncertainty makes most people far less sanguine. And when the government starts making preparations for such an emergency by hiring shipping companies with no experience of shipping, or when the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, tells farmers that there are ‘grim and inescapable’ facts about how leaving without a deal would affect them, it’s not surprising most people are fearful.

But of course it’s not just continuing uncertainty over Brexit that is generating the view that 2019 may well be a year best forgotten. There’s also the economy. The thinned-out newspapers of the holiday season have been full of gloomy stories about declining footfall in the high street. And, to remind us that our economic worries aren’t parochial, the New Year was entered with news that one of the world’s biggest companies, Apple, was slashing its growth and profit forecasts and seeing its overall stock market valuation savaged as a result.

Behind this is the mounting evidence that the Chinese economy, which largely kept the world afloat after the financial crash ten years ago, is in serious trouble of its own (and already spreading that trouble around the world including to the British car industry). All this reminds us that ‘boom and bust’ was never destroyed as the basic pattern for how the global, industrialised economy works. So aren’t we due a recession? And if so, won’t we enter one with overall debt levels at least as bad as last time if not worse?

If all this wasn’t enough to make you feel trepidatious about 2019, just look at a few other headlines about what’s going on in the world. The United States and China are at loggerheads. Russia continues meddling where it can. North Korea has started sabre-rattling again. Faith in international bodies to settle disputes is fading. Populist nationalists may sweep the board in May’s elections to the European Parliament, making the EU even harder to run. Meanwhile at home, the epidemic of vicious and deadly knife crime shows no sign of abating.

I could, of course, go on and plenty of people do. But is there a quite different prospective take on the coming year? Are there grounds, despite all this gloom, for optimism?

The inveterate optimist might be tempted to examine each of these clouds convinced that there is always a silver lining to be found. For example, they might point out that even if the British economy may hit some problems this year it remains an economy with record levels of employment and continuing low inflation. And real wages have started to rise. Or they could argue that at least the United States and North Korea are still talking. And so on. But a stronger case for optimism might be quite different.

It would say: ‘stop looking at the world through the particular – and particularly depressing – lens of what gets into the news headlines, and try looking at the bigger picture’.

That’s what the Harvard psychologist, Stephen Pinker, did in a book published last year. He argued in Enlightenment Now that for the last two or three hundred years (well, since the Enlightenment) we have been enjoying pretty steady progress and that progress is set to continue. We are immeasurably richer. Global inequalities of income have been slashed. More people are literate and educated than ever before. We are living longer. Medical advances have been beyond anything that anyone could have imagined and there is no reason to suppose this will not continue. Why should we not believe that cures for ‘new’ diseases such as Alzheimer’s won’t emerge in the coming years, even if not, precisely, in 2019? There may be blips - progress is seldom at a constant rate - but there can be no doubt that the graph is upwards.

Or to put his point in the famous formula used at his inauguration as President of the United States by Franklin Roosevelt in 1933: ‘we have nothing to fear but fear itself’.

Is that the better way to look forward to the emerging year? Or is it all too broad and general to distract us from the very real fears that the prospect of 2019 seems to generate? A cynic might say that at least there’s one thing to look forward to at the end of the year: by then we’ll all have stopped obsessing about Brexit.

But will we? What’s your take on 2019: are you an optimist or a pessimist? And why? Let us know. Happy New Year!

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