John Humphrys - 2017: A Year of Alarm or Reassurance?

December 21, 2017, 10:47 AM UTC

The future rarely turns out as people expect. Years that begin in gloom often end in hope. And vice versa. How does our own departing year now look? Has 2017 stoked your fears or are things rather better than you imagined they might be?

As a very crude approximation it could be said that the year began with two very different prospects of what we were in for. There was one group of people – let’s loosely call them ‘the elite’ – who viewed the New Year with horror. Our closest ally had just elected a man they regard as a dangerous buffoon as its president. He would coarsen politics, they believed, set people against each other, breed hate and lead the world into war. That such a figure could have his finger on the nuclear button seemed to imply only one future and it was too awful to contemplate – and that’s without even mentioning North Korea.

Then there was Europe. The gloom group could foresee the imminent end of half a century of prosperity and a liberal, civilised social order it had helped to create. The populists were swarming out of the closet all over the continent and right-wing nationalism, even fascism, was about to drag us back to the dark days of the 1930s.

And of course there was Brexit. For this group the shock referendum result of 2016 amounted to little less than the collapse of their world. Britain was set on cutting itself off from its closest soul-mates. Economic crisis was unavoidable and a vicious form of Little Englandism seemed about to sweep all before it.

However, in the eyes of another group – let’s, for simplicity, call them ‘the anti-elite’ – the prospect of 2017 was altogether brighter. Donald Trump was a breath of fresh air. Here was a man from outside the tried, unimaginative, self-serving mainstream of politics who had heard the cry of the ‘left-behind’ and was committed to improving the lot of the little man. As for fears of his leading the world to war, wasn’t he primarily a deal-maker? And wasn’t deal-making exactly what was needed for avoiding war?

To those with such a view the populist resurgence in Europe was just another manifestation of the same phenomenon: ordinary people being no longer willing to put up with what the euro-elite had delivered – economies running way below par, unemployment (especially youth unemployment) dangerously high and the whole continent overrun with immigrants. 2017 offered a chance to start reversing all of that.

And Brexit was just Britain’s version of the same thing. The referendum had given us all the chance to ‘take back control’ and now we could do so to pass our own laws, halt the tide of immigration and venture out into the world to strike our own trade deals. After all, wasn’t Britain first and foremost a great trading nation?

If this rather caricatured account of how two groups of people so differently saw 2017 unfolding twelve months ago, how does the past year now seem in retrospect? Once again, you can imagine two groups with very different takes, but what’s interesting is that they probably don’t consist of the same people. Some of those who were horror-struck this time last year may well now feel more relaxed; and some of those who were gung-ho for 2017 may not feel so cock-a-hoop.

What account would those who are more reassured now give?

So far as President Trump goes, they might want to claim that nothing much has happened. For all the continuing bluster, he hasn’t actually done anything, they would say. He failed to abolish Obamacare (for good or ill) and only now, almost a year into office, is he just managing to push through a major piece of legislation he promised: tax reform. He’s spent the year going round the world being nice to people he previously abused on the campaign trail. And he’s appointed so-called ‘grown ups’ actually to run the government, while he, from what we hear, spends most of his time watching the telly and firing off tweets whenever he sees something that upsets him. It’s the modern version of hurling a brick at the screen and is perfectly harmless in a president.

In Europe, the economy has been enjoying a relative boom and for all the fears of a fascist takeover, the most important election of the year on the continent was won by a young former merchant banker, a virtual novice to politics, who’d set up his own political party barely a year before being decisively elected as French president. If the reassured want a pin up to remind themselves that we’re not just heading from bad to worse, Emmanuel Macron is their man.

And Brexit hasn’t turned into the disaster the prophets of ‘Project Fear’ predicted, has it? It turns out we aren’t yet reduced to eating cabbage stalks. The negotiations have been slow but we’re getting there. The other side evidently wants to do a deal so maybe things will turn out all right after all.

None of this, though, will persuade those who look back on 2017 with despair, whether or not they saw it all coming. There’s nothing to celebrate in Mr Trump’s apparent inactivity, they’ll say. It simply means that other nations, less well-disposed towards us, have filled the vacuum: Putin’s Russia in the Middle East and China in the Pacific, in Africa and almost everywhere you look. Nor can we yet breathe easy over North Korea. Only this week, H R McMaster, the national security adviser, one of the so-called ‘grown-ups’ who are supposed to be restraining a reckless president, repeated his boss’s willingness to use military force to ‘denuclearise’ the country. And, those in despair lament, the President’s whole style of doing politics debases public discourse, scorns truth and sows division. If he comes here next year, there will be protests on a scale no American president has ever seen on the streets of its supposedly closest ally.

As for Macron, his victory shouldn’t fool us, they say. And the figure we all looked to as the mainstay of liberal Europe, Angela Merkel, finds herself fighting for her political life simply as a result of having seen her support leech to the far right, which for the first time has got itself elected to the Bundestag and with nearly a hundred members at that. This very week, Austria’s far right has got itself into government and is in charge of its foreign, defence and interior ministries. The fascist threat is still present and growing, they warn.

And finally on Brexit, the view of the alarmed is that 2017 hasn’t brought any deal but only a fudge. The economy is down by nearly 1% on what it would have been had we voted to stay in the EU, they claim, and the decision to quit has most certainly slashed people’s incomes simply as a result of the fall in the pound.

Confused? Perhaps we should all be. But what’s your take on 2017? Do you end it more reassured than you were this time last year or are you even more alarmed than ever?

Let us know your views and have a merry Christmas and a happ(ier?) New Year!    

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