Decisions have consequences. This year was defined largely by choices made in 2016: the vote for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Supporters of both dismissed those who warned of the tumult that would follow. Leave campaigners heralded a moment of liberation for the United Kingdom and boasted of the abundance of free trade deals that awaited. Mr Trump, it was said, would mature in office and prove an indispensable ally for Brexit Britain.
Britain has avoided the recession that the Treasury forecast during the referendum campaign, yet it has suffered unambiguous economic harm. The UK is no longer the fastest-growing G7 economy but the slowest; real wages have fallen for more than six months and are not expected to regain their pre-recession 2008 peak until 2025. Having endured one lost decade, the UK is facing a second.
Theresa May entered office promising to address deep-rooted economic and social inequalities. However, her enfeebled and divided administration is incapable of acting on her good intentions. There is a disjunction between her words and actions – and, after a disastrous Conservative campaign, she was deservedly punished in June’s snap general election.
President Trump has similarly vindicated those who warned that his election presaged a new age of unreason. The president barred refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority states from entering the US, withdrew his country from the Paris Agreement on climate change and recklessly threatened North Korea with “fire and fury”. He encouraged police officers to beat up crime suspects, incited violence against journalists and refused to condemn the white supremacists of Charlottesville, Virginia. It was unsurprising that Mr Trump saw it fit to spread the propaganda of the fascist group Britain First.
Those who believed that the US president’s behaviour could be moderated, and that he would respect the UK’s interests, have been exposed as naive. Though the American constitution, explicitly crafted by the Founding Fathers to constrain autocrats, has limited Mr Trump, he has had a coarsening effect on public debate. Never it seems has the US, the architect of the post-1945 international order, posed a greater threat to global security.
The spectre of terrorism continues to haunt Europe and the UK. On five occasions in 2017, Britain endured attacks, most grievously of all on 22 May as 22 people were killed and many more injured by an Islamist suicide bomber as they left an Ariana Grande concert in the Manchester Arena.
A month later, a horrifying fire at Grenfell Tower in west London resulted in 71 deaths. In one of the richest boroughs in one of the world’s richest cities, people were burned alive in their homes: a terrible symbol of a country that for too long had neglected its poorest.
This was a year, then, of much sorrow. But there was also cause for hope. The fortitude and bravery shown by the emergency services and ordinary citizens – those who ran towards danger as others ran away – exemplified the best of human behaviour. One thinks too of Mohammed Mahmoud, the imam of Finsbury Park Mosque in north London, who, following the 19 June terrorist attack on worshippers, shielded the suspected assailant from harm until the police had arrived.
Voters’ embrace of Brexit and Mr Trump and the rise of demagogues and populists across Europe reflects profound political and economic discontent. Liberals must reckon with their defeats. Yet there is no need for fatalism or despair. It was after the horror of the Second World War that the European project was born in a spirit of renewal, and in which the United States played a central role. In the UK, the National Health Service and the welfare state were founded by the Attlee administration. Optimism, ambition and hope: all are necessary today, as they were for the postwar generation who had a transformative plan for Britain and implemented it.
We wish all our readers a happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year.
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special