Political events made 2016 a year that will remain engraved in the memory for decades to come.
In Britain, as in the United States, half the population will recall the year fondly, the other half bitterly, though the consequences of the events in question are likely to be unclear and debated long after the lifetimes of those doing the recollecting.
The arguments still rage unabated – in Britain over Brexit, in America over Trump – at once genteel dinner parties, on trains and buses, in normally polite email correspondence. Some friendships of long standing are said to have fallen victim to differences of opinion, perhaps long suppressed but now out in the open, and too deeply felt to be reconciled.
At a neighbourhood cocktail party I attended this weekend, all political talk was at first studiously avoided in favour of the usual inane formalities. But after glasses had been topped up a few times, the gloves were removed, as it were, and Brexiteers and Remainers went at it with vigour. Including, I might add, this writer, who now finds himself dismissed as a bad loser – a ‘remoaner’ in the current coinage – accused of trying to reverse the Will of the People. To this I will probably plead guilty as charged, although I would first wish to examine the specifics of the charge-sheet.
Everything about 2016 was, in political terms, binary. For binary, read divisive.
I can scarcely remember a year like it.
I would put 1968 in the same category. That was the year in which the long simmering, youth-inspired social rebellions of a wild and woolly decade finally came to the boil, for all time undermining a traditional deference to authority. The catalyst in America may have been the Vietnam War, but there were other factors, too, and Vietnam alone would not explain why students rioted in Paris, Warsaw, Prague and other cities, and would only partly explain why black activists took to the streets of American ghettoes. (That terrible year was also, in America, one of assassinations; of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, but these were aberrational rather than integral to the revolutionary movement.)
This year, for Britons, the binary choice came in the form of a referendum, which asked the question: should Britain stay in Europe or get out? It was a yes or no choice, with no qualifying language, and consequently no safe middle ground to which the fence-sitters could retreat. Details, we were assured, would follow. We are still waiting for them. We may have to go on waiting for several more months while Her Majesty’s government decides what kind of Brexit we will be seeking – soft, hard, or somewhere in between, like boiled eggs.
The devil, we are often told, resides in the details. The Brexit details are sufficiently complex to offer a hiding place for a whole host of devils. All of which opens up yet more opportunities for Brexiteers and Remainers to nurture and perfect their mutual suspicions for the next round in the contest. The British may be divided on the result of the referendum, but at least now, six months later, we are united in our confusion.
Most Brexiteers seem persuaded, many utterly convinced, that Britain has gained its freedom from a tyranny imposed by infernal and interfering foreigners, one under which the nation had for too long been enslaved. Britain could now face the future, they asserted, with new-found confidence. Where this certainty came from is unclear. My suspicion is that it springs from a bravado that disguises an underlying sense of insecurity.
The fact is, the Brexiteers have no more idea of what the forthcoming negotiations will produce than the rest of us have, and so their exuberance is, in the word of a former Governor of the Federal Reserve Board, irrational. The essential flaw in the referendum was that it reduced complexity to a simple yes or no. Some voters I know flipped a coin before entering the polling booth.
Things were no better, a few months later, across the pond, where electors were invited to choose between, to borrow from Oscar Wilde, between the unspeakable and the unelectable. Except that in this instance, it was hard to say which candidate was which.
Donald Trump raged against the alleged ethical perfidies of Hillary Clinton – not to mention the moral turpitude of her husband – in what even his most ardent supporters probably thought would be a valiant but losing cause. Hillary Clinton’s camp professed to be shocked that a man like Trump could secure the Republican nomination, let alone the White House. He was brash, ill-mannered, vulgar, inarticulate, misogynistic and more besides. How could such a man hold the highest office in the land? By securing the allegiance of blue collared white male voters in rust-belt hinterlands, the so-called swing states, is how. Unnoticed until it was too late, they brought about a remarkable apotheosis of Richard Nixon’s ‘silent majority’ – thereby creating another parallel with 1968.
In the event, Hillary Clinton won the popular national vote but failed o construct the necessary majority in the Electoral College. Trump appealed directly to the rusting heartlands, while Clinton took their support for granted. Someone in the Clinton camp failed to do their job. In the end, though, the margin of victory lay in the fact that those in sympathy with Clinton’s policies were less resolute in her defence than her opponents proved to be in attack.
These two phenomena, Brexit and Trump, made it a political year in which the unthinkable became the inevitable. Pundits came to be scorned as ignorant and pollsters as incompetent. Both had given Brexit scant prospects for success, even up to the day of voting, having learned nothing from the upset Tory victory in the general election a year earlier. In consequence, it will be many a long year before they are believed again, if ever. The British, they had said, were too stolidly traditional to leave the European Union for a daring leap into the unknown. So much, the voters scoffed, for experts, on which point both halves of the electorate found themselves in rare agreement, one side laughing their heads off, the other left fuming.
Clinton, likewise, had long been considered a shoo-in, if only because Trump was not just politically unqualified for the office he sought but morally unfit for it, too, especially after being recorded making locker-room references to grabbing a certain lady’s ‘pussy’. It says something about America that swathes of American voters didn’t care. Trump might not be One of Us, they said, but at least he’s not One of Them – a reference not to members of the homosexual community, sometimes referred to in that outmoded term, but to the despised ‘elite’ of the political establishment.
The word ‘elite’ was never bandied about so much as it was in 2016, at least not as a pejorative. It was often affixed to ‘metropolitan’, the term ‘metropolitan elite’ being by defined as those privileged souls living in and around big cities, who had become affluent, greedy, selfish, champagne-swigging liberals who cared little for the plight of their neglected and suffering compatriots in the rusting heartlands. The resentful had a point, I suppose, but since when have big capital cities not attracted such people?
Another phrase that resonated, again on both sides of the Atlantic, was ‘Taking Back Control’. In Britain that meant the restoration to London of sovereignty that far too long had been ceded to anonymous unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. In America, it meant transferring power from the Washington Beltway to Main Street USA. In both countries, Taking Back Control gave rise to, or perhaps sprang from, another suddenly popular transatlantic construct: ‘The Will of the People’.
Six months after the referendum, Brexiteers are hunkering down for a renewed battle against attempts by resentful Remainers to water down, or even reverse, the ballot result by plotters determined to defy the Will of the People. It has been suggested, for instance, that the Brexit terms may have to be endorsed by a Parliamentary vote. “Foul play” cry the Brexiteers, who remain unconvinced that the Will of the People will survive even the cold judgement of the Supreme Court, which has been invited to adjudicate the squabble. The elderly gentlemen sitting on the Supreme Court might be learned and even sage, but they are also individually fully paid-up members of the reviled Establishment, so even they are apparently not to be trusted.
So much, some lament, for the once impeccably unbiased Majesty of the Law.
It was not only in the world of politics where tradition fled. Sport made its own bizarre contributions to chaos.
In England, the football Championship was won not by one of the sport’s great metropolitan beasts, like Manchester United or Chelsea, but by lowly Leicester City, as unfancied team at the start of the season as any that ever took the field, and from a dreary Midlands city unloved even by many of its inhabitants. In the final weeks of the season, commentators on the sports pages turned out to be every bit as incompetent as their colleagues in the political columns. Leicester, they said, would fall by the wayside as the season progressed to its final stages, when the class and wealth of the big clubs would finally take their toll. But class and wealth proved to be irrelevant, as Leicester’s players, growing in confidence and with no reputations on the line, cheekily ‘stole’ the title from their betters.
America came up with a sporting equivalent: the Chicago Cubs, for whom the word ‘hapless’ seemed to have been invented. Perennial losers, and chokers even on those rare occasions when they seemed to be on the verge of winning, the Cubs had observed a losing tradition that went back more than a century. They had been in a post-season World Series in 1945, but had not won one since 1905. In 2016, the year of the unexpected, they triumphed in a result that now, like Trump’s political upset, seems to resound with the ring of inevitability.
Brexit, Trump, Leicester City, Chicago Cubs: next year may prove to be dull by comparison. We can only hope so.
I end my musings on this 2016 year on an upbeat personal note. For even as my metropolitan elitist’s ultimate nightmare scenario was unfolding on the political stage, I remained physically and mentally hale and hearty. These conditions are relative, of course, but all I can say is that as year ends, I feel as chipper as I did when it began.
My wife Martha was, as usual, less fortunate. She had to undergo abdominal surgery that sounds far more serious now that she has fully recovered from it than it did at the time. She has, of course, rebounded in her typically intrepid style.
Even more reassuringly, nothing untoward happened to the younger members of our extended family. Grandson Maxwell James thrives and develops, as do his parents.
“We made it,” sums up the silent prayer that we older members utter as the bells ring out the latest annual instalment in a series that has taken us beyond our respective biblical spans of six-score-years-and ten.
I expect to be making the same supplication this time next year. Whether I do, whether anyone does, may depend on the next instalment in the sagas of Brexit and Trump.