That Was the Year that Was – December 2016

That Was the Week That Was was a song that featured on the 1962-3 television programme of the same name, a satirical show that launched the career of the late David Frost. The second line was “it’s over, let it go”. My feelings about public events this year is that they are beyond satire, and while the year may indeed soon be gone, the repercussions will be felt for a very long time – possibly in the entire future of humanity. The latter may seem an extreme exaggeration, but I will argue that the election of a climate change denier as US President may well contribute to global catastrophe
The “referendum” campaign, with its unexpected result, dominated the first half of 2016, and its repercussions will probably dominate the rest of this decade and years beyond. It appears that, far from some inexorable pressure of popular opinion, the faming of the referendum was pushed through by a small group of Eurosceptic Tory M.P.s, against the background of David Cameron’s desire to settle the Eurosceptic wing of his party once and for all. The stark choice of Remain-or-Leave the EU was agreed by Cameron because it was assumed that Remain would win, so much so that civil servants were instructed not to consider the possible impact of “Brexit”. The option of two referenda, one to test opinions on the principles of remaining in, or leaving, the EU, and then a second one following further negotiations, was set aside. What the UK government is now left with is that it has to negotiate, not with the threat of a mandate to withdraw, but on the basis of no alternative, which leaves the UK in a much weaker position. Yet, the results of the referendum, a mandate for Brexit, lacks any clear notion as to what that might mean. This has already led the pro-Leave M.P. for Sleaford to resign.

I was, like many others, torn as to how to vote. I required two features which would have enabled me to support positively a particular standpoint. The first was a third (or even fourth) item to which to vote, rather than the stark choice. How about “Remain, try to get a better deal, and leave if this cannot be obtained” or (similar in effect, probably) “Leave, unless the rest of the EU can offer a better deal, in which case Remain for the time being”. I would probably have voted for the first of these – and I suspect these would have attracted a lot of voters. “We” will never know, but I am no longer sure who “we” are. There is and was a strong case for leaving the EU, but all depends on the circumstances. Nobody asked for my own opinion about the latter. Indeed, there seem to be gross caricatures of the “Remain” voter and the “Leave” voter that may well be far distant from the reasons why people made their decisions.

I was torn for a second reason. Simply enough, no full reasoned case was put by either side for or against their position. The Remain side mainly focused on the dire consequences of Leaving, without real specifics, and the Leave side headed for an emotional line, that outside the EU the UK government would be back in control of its own affairs, especially over immigration. And – a promise disavowed on the very day of victory – that £350 million per week would be saved and spent (by implication) on the NHS. Both sides engaged in straightforward deception, fearmongering, lies and false promises. It is hardly surprising that there is now no clear way forward, that “Brexit means Brexit” is only a slogan, and it is not clear exactly how the UK will exit the EU. Maybe this would be beneficial; or maybe, at least, there are some moves that will cause damage and some that will bring benefits, but, six months later, no one seems to have any real idea what is going to happen. Let alone the long-term consequences, for the UK, for Europe or the world. Seemingly, no one seems interested in such trivial ephemera. If the voting paper had been “Remain”, “Leave” or “Refer the whole question back and prepare properly argued cases for Remain or Leave, including consequences”, the latter would have attracted my support.

The consequences of the second major electoral shock of 2016 are much more predictable. The election to the US Presidency of a billionaire property developer who had never held public office, and one who gained almost three million votes less than his opponent, will engender a very different kind of politics in the U.S.A.. That someone with Trump’s background can seriously harness an anti-establishment populism is highly disturbing for what it suggests about a minority of US voters, and the whole political system. Yet there could well be leaders who are even more odious, whether or not elected – indeed, quite a rollcall, when various Middle East and African governments are considered – but who would not pose a significant threat to the world. Trump, and his majority support in Congress, does just that. In the “golden age” back to which his generation seems to hark, the threat of nuclear war was a serious one. To have a President who is again threatening the use of the US’s ageing nuclear arsenal, and prepared to slash public provision to finance a modernised arsenal, is horrific.

But even this threat falls into insignificance compared with Trump’s anticipated policies towards the environment. Specifically, Clive Lewis M.P. may not be wrong to assert that Trump’s election could mean “game over for the planet”. Trump’s recorded view is that climate change is a “hoax” put about by Chinese interests to reduce the profitability of US companies. While he now seems to be wavering, he stated that the US government will withdraw from the newly signed Paris Agreement, and more will probably develop.

It may well be unclear how far climate change will develop, its consequences, the extent of human causes or exacerbation of change, the possibilities that change can be arrested or slowed, or the precise nature of adaptations that may involve major environmental damage. What seems undeniable is that damaging environmental change can only be mitigated with international agreement and action. If one large state and economy drops out of international co-operation, as Trump may well seek for the U.S., the consequences may well be much greater damage. Even if Trump’s term lasts only four years, this does not mean a simple delay until a more sensible regime produces more appropriate policies. Four years without progress may bring forward the point of catastrophic change by many more than four years. It would be like delaying urgent fire precautions to one’s home, or the grounds that there may not be a fire or that it would not be damaging; then, after a fire has killed some occupants, to discover that the home cannot be rebuilt, so that all that is left is smoking ruins on which a very limited life will have to based. The planet is like that home, and Trump and his followers are those who say that there is no real risk. They may – just possibly – be right, but the levels of urgency are such that the most dangerous leader in world history has just been elected.

The repercussions of these events in 2016 will be experienced for decades. It will not be possible to “let it go”.