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7 December 2022

Leader: The year of living dangerously

In a new era of permanent crisis, the past 12 months demonstrated the power of leadership – for good and ill.

By New Statesman

After nearly two years of pandemic restrictions, 2022 was heralded as a return to “normality”. It took little time for this illusion to be dispelled. In a new era of permanent crisis, this was a year that demonstrated the power of leadership – for good and ill. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was an event that some had thought impossible in the post-Cold War era. As recently as November 2021, Boris Johnson had opined that “old concepts of fighting big tank battles on European land mass are over”. Others believed that Vladimir Putin could be reasoned with and contained.

But no one should have been surprised that the Russian president chose the path of aggression. Over the preceding 15 years, Putin’s Russia had invaded Georgia, annexed Crimea, poisoned his political opponents and committed war crimes in Syria. Yet he had encountered only token opposition from the Western powers.

This year, however, was different. The heroic resistance of the Ukrainian people, led by Volodymyr Zelensky, denied Putin the easy victory he believed would be his. Far from advancing across the continent, Russia was forced into humiliating retreats from Kyiv and Kherson. To echo Talleyrand, the invasion proved to be something worse than a crime – it was a blunder.

The West, which for too long had appeased Putin rather than confronting him, overcame its pusillanimity and imposed brutal economic sanctions. Rather than dividing Europe as was hoped, Russia united it: Sweden and Finland applied to join a reinvigorated Nato.

Liberals have no cause for complacency but 2022 was the year in which authoritarianism was humbled. The Iranian and Chinese regimes were assailed by unprecedented protests. In Brazil, the far-right Jair Bolsonaro was defeated after one term in office. The liberal Emmanuel Macron became the first president to win re-election in France since 2002 and in the US the Republicans recorded the worst midterm performance by an opposition party for two decades.

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The United Kingdom, however, continued to pay a price for populism. Boris Johnson’s removal from office was a necessary act of parliamentary resistance against wanton lawbreaking and recklessness. But, as we warned in advance, it was always a mistake to believe that his departure would herald progressive change. The rot ran too deep. Liz Truss’s hapless 50-day premiership, the shortest in British history, will be remembered as a personal humiliation. But it was more than this: it represented the defeat of an entire ideological faction.

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The economic reality was that a programme of unfunded tax cuts is not a credible means of delivering growth. The political reality was that there is no popular support for a radical free-market experiment. The day before Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-Budget, the British Social Attitudes survey revealed that a mere 6 per cent of voters favour a combination of tax cuts and spending cuts. Far from craving a smaller state, the public wants an active one that protects them against economic shocks.

This has perhaps never been more true. Living standards, the Office for Budget Responsibility has forecast, will fall by 7.1 per cent over the next two years, with a drop in disposable income of 4.3 per cent in 2022-23 – the biggest since records began in 1956-57. Average real wages are not expected to return to their 2008 level until 2027. The UK is facing two lost decades of progress in living standards.

As 2022 went on, Britain’s parlous state was revealed: the UK has the worst access to healthcare in Europe, the third-highest childcare costs in the developed world, a severe shortage of affordable housing, a dysfunctional transport system and a deepening social care crisis.

Rishi Sunak’s government has restored market stability, but he has shown no sign of grappling with such ills and offers no vision of the common good. For the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, whose party is closer to power than at any time since returning to opposition in 2010, this void is both a challenge and an opportunity.

In recent years, events in the UK and across the world have demonstrated the terrifying speed with which apparent progress can be reversed. Yet the corollary holds: new leaders have the capacity to improve their societies. Unfounded optimism may be destructive but hope is essential. We wish all of our readers a happy Christmas and best wishes for the New Year.

[See also: Even in a season of goodwill, I look back in anger at the Tory mess that was 2022]

This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special