It seems a long time ago, but when Britain woke up on 1 January 2017, Barack Obama was still living in the White House, and Theresa May still seemed to have an unassailable grip on British politics. Jeremy Corbyn was secure in his leadership of Labour, but the party’s fortunes seemed in decline. And if someone mentioned a powerful first minister, Nicola Sturgeon would be more likely to come to mind than Arlene Foster.
The New Statesman’s writers were there for the whole of the ride. Here’s what we wrote, at the time it happened.
The inauguration of Donald Trump
While the shock election of Donald Trump took place in 2016, the inauguration of the Pussy Grabber-in-Chief in January 2017 made it real. Colette Sensier reported on the mood in the carnival city New Orleans, while in London Labour MP Stella Creasy captured the angst this side of the Atlantic. “If we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all,” she wrote in a piece warning against liberal complacency.
Goodbye to the paramilitary peacemaker
Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister Martin McGuinness resigned in January 2017, over the “cash for ash” scandal that was engulfing the Democratic Unionist Party’s first minister, Arlene Foster. Since the Stormont government rested on a power-sharing deal, the move threw Norther Irish politics into a crisis from which it is yet to recover.
Yet the focus soon shifted onto McGuinness himself, as it became clear he might not have long to live. In the New Statesman, Martin Fletcher charted McGuinness’s evolution from IRA commander to a man who could get on so well with his unionist opponent Ian Paisley that they were dubbed “the Chuckle brothers”. In the event, McGuinness died in March. Read Fletcher’s reflections about how McGuinness made a united Ireland more likely here.
Trouble in Cumbria
In the aftermath of the snap election, it is often forgotten that in the early months of 2017, Labour’s polling position looked so dire that even allies of the left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn were muttering. It was in this climate that the by-election in Copeland, a seat in Cumbria vacated by the resignation of Corbyn critic Jamie Reed, took place. Anoosh Chakelian’s February report of the mood in the constituency is still an important rebuke to glib political predictions (in the event, Cumbria turned Tory).
Labour’s Brexit dilemma
The Labour party’s time in the doldrums was also a time of soul-searching over its approach to Brexit. Clive Lewis, a prominent Corbyn ally, resigned from the shadow Cabinet rather than follow party orders and vote in favour of the government’s Brexit bill. Surveying the landscape, political analyst John Curtice suggested the party should “keep its powder dry” – which the party duly did by trying to talk about anything but Brexit during the snap election that would soon follow.
Freeeedom to remain in the EU
In the early months of 2017, with Labour in crisis and the Tories doubling down on anti-EU sentiment, the Scottish National Party was quietly talking up the possibility of a second independence referendum. In March, Julia Rampen examined the case for unionism and who in Scotland would be able to make it. The question was never fully answered. Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon did indeed demand a second referendum, Theresa May shot it down and then a snap election left both in weaker positions than before. On the other hand, both Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader who has built her success on unionism, and the Scottish Labour party finished stronger.
Westminster’s day of terror
On 22 March, Khalid Masood ploughed his car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge and then stabbed an unarmed police officer before being shot dead at the scene. The event was witnessed by the New Statesman’s George Eaton, who was in the parliamentary Press Gallery. At the time, it was unclear to the many politicians and journalists trapped inside whether Masood was a lone wolf, or part of a larger operation. Five people died, excluding Masood.
Theresa May’s great gamble (part 1)
On 18 April, after months of playing the idea down, the Prime Minister announced she was calling a snap election in order to end “political game-playing” and deliver Brexit with a strong mandate. It didn’t turn out that way. Anoosh Chakelian’s report from Derby North, “Life as Labour’s most pro-Jeremy Corbyn candidate in England’s most marginal constituency,” captures the optimism of Labour’s left that was mostly ridiculed or ignored at the time (the candidate, Chris Williamson, is now a sitting Labour MP). Julia Rampen’s report from Croydon Central notes the role of Momentum in bringing out a youth vote in a marginal constituency (again, the Labour candidate won). Yet Stephen Bush’s account of the election in Gower, Wales, a constituency neglected by both parties is a reminder that elderly voters had a part of play as well.
France opted for the unknown centrist over the known far right populist, and elected Emmanuel Macron as President. Liberals swooned, butthe New Statesman’s Pauline Bock approached Macron with a sceptical eye as she charted the early days of his presidency.
Heartbreak in Manchester
A noisy election campaign screeched to a halt on the night of 22 May, when a bomb exploded as young fans left a concert by the pop singer Ariana Grande at the Manchester Arena. Salman Abedi killed 22 people as well as himself. Mancunians responded with gutsy calls for unity, but as Kirstie McCrum reported for the New Statesman, fear and division lingered. Here is her report from the early hours of 23 May, and a follow up 100 days later, by which point hate crimes had risen and Manchester’s mosques felt under siege.
London’s terror spree
Days before the election, three men ploughed into pedestrians in the busy London district of London Bridge. While the attack was claimed by Islamic State, Helen Lewis wrote about another factor that many terrorists have in common – domestic abuse. Later in the same month, a van ploughed into a group of Muslims leaving a north London mosque after Ramadan prayers. Julia Rampen reported on the confusion and fear among local Muslims in the aftermath.
The burning tower
In between these two terror attacks, Londoners experienced another tragedy – the Grenfell Tower fire. While the building smouldered, the British left and right argued over whether such a terrible event should be politicised or not. Jonn Elledge, editor of the New Statesman’s sister publication, Citymetric, wrote about the city’s housing crisis, but for many the tower took on a symbolic meaning beyond technical details. “This feels like a reckoning. It should be,” wrote another New Statesman contributor, Tanya Gold.
Theresa May’s great gamble (part 2)
On the eve of the general election, most commentators still believed the Tories would win a majority. They were left open-mouthed as instead, Corbyn’s Labour surged, and the election ended in a hung Parliament. As the dust settled, May negotiated a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party’s steely leader, Arlene Foster (last heard of in the “cash for ash” debacle). Shortly after the result, New Statesman writers wrote about what they expected to happen next.
Tim Farron resigns
The Liberal Democrat leader expected his party could capitalise on the Remain vote. He would be proved wrong. Yet when Tim Farron resigned in the wake of the general election, he enlarged on a wider theme. To lead a “progressive, liberal party in 2017” and “live as a committed Christian” had, he said “felt impossible for me”. The statement split liberals. In the New Statesman, Nick Spencer of the thinktank Theos pointed out liberalism’s Christian origins and argued that Farron’s resignation marked “the decay of liberalism”.
Labour’s momentous summer
In 2016, the Conservatives had a storming party conference while Labour appeared awkward and divided. By the end of summer 2017, the parties’ positions had reversed. In the New Statesman, George Eaton charted the rise of Labour’s left after years in the wilderness. But the change of fortune was rammed home by May’s disastrous speech, captured in painful detail by Anoosh Chakelian.
The Tories entered the final months of the year off message and divided, an impression that was not helped by the revelation that a rising Brexiteer, Priti Patel, had held official meetings while on a “holiday” to Israel, including with Benjamin Netanyahu, and misled pretty much everyone about it. Patel was summoned back from a trip abroad to resign from the Cabinet. According to Flightradar, 22,000 people were tracking her flight home. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, who spent most of 2017 making gaffes or plotting leadership campaigns, inaccurately described a British-Iranian mother imprisoned in Iran as “teaching journalism”. The Foreign Secretary spent much of the year being indulged, but this time no one laughed: the blunder risked condemning her to more years in jail. In an aptly timed New Statesman article, published days before the scandal, Martin Fletcher wrote a scathing profile of Johnson. “Strip away the bluster and bonhomie, and you are left with a chaotic, mendacious, philandering, egotistical, disloyal and thoroughly untrustworthy charlatan driven by ambition and self-interest,” he wrote in his long read.
In early October, the New York Times and The New Yorker published allegations of sexual harassment against the Hollywood mogul, prompting women around the world to share their own stories of harassment and abuse. By November, the movement had reached Westminster. As Helen Lewis and Stephen Bush observed, a system in which powerful people are served by young aides in insecure jobs, who are motivated by party loyalty, has long been open to abuse.
A dog’s Brexit
After a chaotic year, the spotlight was on May, her Brexit secretary David Davis and what on earth was happening with Brexit. The suspicion Davis was out of his depth was fuelled by his frequent references to in-depth Brexit impact research which, he was later forced to admit, did not exist. Meanwhile, the contradiction between keeping the Irish border open and leaving the single market and customs union finally became impossible to ignore. After a week in which Arlene Foster’s DUP almost scuppered a EU-UK deal and Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson weighed in demanding a softer Brexit for the whole of the UK, Chris Deerin reflected on the increasing Balkanisation of Britain.