It might seem quiet right now, but we have every right to fear a continuation of last year’s mayhem, says Bill Jamieson
Mayhem we are now familiar with these days. It’s the peace and quiet we can’t stand. This festive season so far has passed without a major news eruption – no tsunami, no terror event, no mad Donald Trump tweet, no Brexit cliff-edge trauma, no North Korea nuclear blast.
Something must be up. After such a traumatic, febrile year, these past few days have been spookily quiet. So inured have we become to daily explosions of bad news, this is what makes this peaceful interlude all the more ominous. We’re just not used to it. And we can’t believe it will last.
This past year has inured us to settlement. Whether it is political fragility at home, the possibility of a Jeremy Corbyn premiership, apprehension abounds. From the irregular downward bump of an economy going nowhere to the ascension to the White House of Donald Trump - vividly caught in NBC correspondent Katy Tur’s compelling campaign memoir: ‘Unbelievable’ – we fully expect things to get worse.
All unbelievable, but all true as we look back on 2017. And it did not stop at the Donald Trump presidency. Real news brought us more unbelievable headlines than the fake variety. ‘Strong and stable’ was the certainty that proved a fake. Cabinet ministers have come and gone and the May premiership hangs by that frailest thread of certitude: the lack so far of credible alternative.
Fake news, too, it looks with Brexit in the closing days of 2017. We’re leaving the EU. But we’re not quite leaving the EU. Indeed, we could end up still in the EU in all but name.
Unbelievable is the age we are in. Little wonder we now anxiously await an end to this phoney peace. It can’t be long before abnormal service is resumed with some shattering news explosion – horrible events, disruptive discord, social anger and a malady of abuse, division and vituperation.
Can we take another 2017? That is the poser we face for 2018.
Looking ahead, what has added to our apprehension has been the failure of conventional predictive tools, from opinion polls to economic forecasts. Public trust has gone. Expert prediction has buckled under a hail of unrelenting error, from the immediate post Brexit vote warnings of recession to the polling pundits still confidently predicting a thumping majority for Prime Minister Theresa May right up to the moment the polling booths closed. We looked up to these stars for guidance. Now the sky seems impenetrably dark.
And beneath our feet we sense an epochal change is also at work. There is an ever more febrile media, constantly seeking to trip up politicians of any sort (as if their self-induced ‘miss-speaks’ were not enough). Public trust in our institutions and many at the top of them is corroding. From quango bosses to corporate business giants, university vice-chancellors to elected representatives, it’s not just deference that has gone. It is a large chunk of their credibility.
And hand-in-hand with this has been the insistent rise of a caustic, corrosive social media, where anger and bile have become the normal means of dialogue. We don’t wait for argument to heat up or rows to erupt. It’s anger from the off.
‘Normal politics’ – or at least ‘normal by once-recent standards - has become increasingly fraught. These are ‘deep down’ changes reaching well below the surface of whatever difference is being aired. The normal restraint and tolerance if not respect for the differing opinion of others is being worn down. And this cannot but beg questions as to how much more strain can be placed on our democratic system which has survived by a tolerance of difference.
The culture of this representative system – the means by which political differences can be debated and can co-exist within a community - critically depends on this underlying tolerance for it to endure. Other loyalties - of identity and belonging - critically provide social cohesion, and work to prevent breakdown.
It is not that this system of representative democracy – one in which sharply differing views and cultures can co-exist - has not in the past been sorely tested. The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries experienced periods of acute social and political division.
But in such previous periods the UK was a more homogenous entity. There was a greater sense of underlying belonging and shared national identity. Today that is not so true. We may applaud the benefits of heterogeneity and celebrate how more plural and diverse we have become. But we are indeed now divided, as the philosopher David Goodhart has argued, between being citizens of Somewhere (hinterland Brexiteers) and being citizens of Nowhere (cosmopolitan Remainers).
This divide speaks to a culture less of convergence than of cacophony. And the tools to which we looked to moderate if not resolve our differences do not function as we expected – referendums for example. The EU vote brought no such reconciliation or settlement.
Today we cannot even agree on the colour of the national passport. Supporters of our EU exit broadly welcomed the return of a blue passport to replace the EU burgundy red version – ironically adopted by the outspokenly Euro-sceptical Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
Prime Minister Theresa May has sought to end a fraught political year on a triumphant note by announcing the return of navy passports after Brexit, describing them as an expression of “independence and sovereignty”.
But within days the change was being denounced as a public relations stunt. Labour MP Chuka Umunna described it as “utter nonsense. This belittles our country and your office.” The party’s former leader, Ed Miliband, added: “It is an expression of how mendacious, absurd and parochial we look to the world.”
Charles Powell, a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher, described enthusiasm for the blue passport as “part of the nostalgia on which the predominantly elderly Brexit constituency thrives”.
And not to be undone, our own First Minister Nicola Sturgeon weighed in, denouncing it as “insular, inward looking, blue passport-obsessed nonsense”.
That was a surprising intervention given that, had there been a ‘Yes’ vote in the Scottish referendum, one of the first changes a post-independence SNP administration would surely have introduced would have been a Scottish passport – symbolic of our distinctive identity and unique place - and in a strikingly different hue from the one adopted by the rest of the UK.
More than any other concerns in that referendum, issues of identity and belonging were to the fore. So it proved also in the EU vote, more important than economic issues and UK trade. And there is little likelihood that these concerns will cease to influence politics – domestic and international – in 2018.
Until now we have been held together, as the philosopher Roger Scruton has argued, not by government dictat, but by an ‘invisible hand’ – those spontaneous by-products of social interaction: affection, not laws that more profoundly determine our identity and cohesiveness.
2017 was a fractious, febrile, ominous cacophony. Let’s hope 2018 does not prove a continuation.