Paris Gourtsoyannis: Nostalgia was at the heart of the story of 2016
A strong desire to reinstate the values of a vanished past led to the rejection of the status quo this year says Paris Gourtsoyannis
A memory is a powerful thing. Political debate was mercifully light around the Christmas dinner table, but the troubled spirit of 2016 pushed its way in, in the shape of a tweet from Donald Trump.
His festive insistence on a new nuclear arms race took my mother back 55 years to the 12 year-old crying in front of a black and white TV newsflash at the height of the Cuban missile crisis.
Many look back at 2016 in horror, as she does, but her generation played a large part in making it what it was.
This was the year the baby boomers struck back. A generation that witnessed one of the most dramatic expansions in prosperity ever seen came to believe they were promised it would go on forever.
Even as their cultural idols quit this life with increasing frequency, the children born in the west in the two decades following the Second World War are finding their political voice, and safe in the knowledge that the consequences would largely be felt by others, they made their displeasure clear.
The impact was dramatic. Donald Trump edged out Hillary Clinton among voters aged between 40 and 64; he was ten points ahead among those over 65. In the EU referendum, Leave carried those aged 50 to 64 by 12 points, and 61 per cent of the over 65s voted for Brexit.
The factors that contributed to their rejection of the status quo were overlapping and varied, but a common thread of nostalgia for a vanished past ran through many of them.
It was impossible not to hear it in the claims made on the morning after the EU referendum result from voters in the strongest Brexit-supporting areas that they felt “proud to be English” - expressing a national identity that long since ceased to be synonymous with the political reality of Britain.
Nor could it be avoided in Nigel Farage’s cry of “I want my country back”, a rejection of European cooperation and the migration that is an inevitable byproduct of globalisation in an unequal world.
As attention turns towards what Brexit might mean, nostalgia remains at the fore. The broadcaster Andrew Marr made a recent attempt at some upbeat suggestions of Brexit positives that might flow from leaving the EU.
They included laws to protect the Great British hedgerow and support for the UK’s dwindling manufacturing industry.
One was a victim of modern farming as much as EU subsidies, while the other might have fared better if technical education wasn’t thought of as second class and had the same level of regard as in Germany, happily churning out Europe’s white goods from within the EU.
In such times, it is little wonder that a lavish piece of TV 1950s nostalgia, Netflix’s The Crown, is doing so well, depicting a youthful, newly enthroned Queen Elizabeth jetting between grateful dominions.
Subsequent seasons are being made for each decade of her rule, but I suspect messier episodes like the Australian constitutional crisis might be overlooked.
In the wake of Brexit, it bears asking: was Britain ever really in Europe? The UK was repeatedly rebuffed by Charles de Gaulle, who feared the addition of an Anglo-Saxon power would destabilise the European project. His concerns seem prescient now.
The UK was a grudging member of the social chapter from 1994, wavered and then declined euro membership, and never shared the enthusiasm for integration.
The British public didn’t get a say when the UK was taken into the EC, and when they were finally given a vote, the endorsement of Harold Wilson carried more weight in a age of deference and respect for political leaders. The 67 per cent vote in favour of membership scarcely seems credible as an expression of the nation’s views on Europe.
The Queen’s views on Brexit are back in the spotlight after the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, lent credence to a story that provoked fierce denials and debate when it was splashed across the front page of The Sun in March, which suggested that Her Majesty was among those who yearned for a time when Britain’s sovereignty was undiluted, and hankered for a quick exit from the EU.
If that is her wish, she may start to see it delivered next year.
Like the delayed roll of thunder after a flash of lighting, next year will see the consequences of those decisions as the force of 2016’s political storm hits.
As Mr Farage, the architect of much of this year’s chaos, was quoted as saying on the Christmas party circuit: “2017 will be a hell of a sight worse.”
At some time in the next three months the extent to which parliament has been boxed in by Brexit should become clear.
In a vote a few weeks ago that showed how brittle parliamentary opposition has been, MPs attempting to force the government to share its Brexit plan effectively gave Theresa May carte blanche to trigger Article 50.
While plenty of MPs want to see the UK remain in the single market and maintain close links with the EU, parliament could end up with very little leverage over the final exit deal.
If the Prime Minister comes back from Brussels with a handful of concessions on passporting rights for financial institutions, or preferrential single market access for certain manufacturing sectors, it will help ease some of the political pressure. If she doesn’t, it may not matter - no agreement means a hard Brexit, which holds no fear for many on the Tory benches and in Cabinet.
Former Bank of England governor Mervyn King - now Lord King - has joined the ranks advocating a clear break from the EU, out of the single market and the customs union.
Negotiations will undoubtedly get ugly in 2017, and pro-European figures are relying on Mrs May to lose her nerve.
One MP painted a scenario for me recently where, in the event of negotiations in Brussels being snarled, the Prime minister sacks the so-called ‘Three Brexiteers’, throws up her hands and declares the whole thing just too difficult. She’ll reveal her true colours, call an election and turn the whole circus around.
The story wasn’t told with much conviction. It will be far easier for ministers to blame European intransigence, and the average person is likely to have the same reaction as the Queen is alleged to have given: “Why can’t we just leave?”