Hello, again. This blog has been dormant for six months, because after the British referendum on membership of the European Union I really couldn’t be bothered to write for no money in a medium I had always despised. During the referendum campaign it was all hands on deck and, frustrated by living in Amsterdam, well away from the thick of it, I felt I had to do my bit. But when the dust settled into parliamentary and legal wrangling the thousands of us volunteer foot-soldiers, each of whom had made a tiny but cumulative difference to the result, were needed no more. I thought about springing to the keyboard now and again, but the great hanging Why? sapped my enthusiasm. I packed it in by default.
So why do I write again now, on New Year’s Eve? The answer is quotidian and trivial. It is not because I am an indentured hack obliged to write something original about 2016 for readers who either don’t give a monkey’s or are so sad and bitter that they will use up a fraction of their copious free time in vicious trolling. I write now because my children are whiling away the dead hours before our neighbours start the street-party by watching films and playing Pokemon Go, I’ve done all the washing-up and laundry, set up all the weird gifted foreign booze we want to get rid of for random guests and prepared the fire in the hearth, and my wife is watching a documentary on her phone because I’m coming down with the flu and I’m rotten company. Later I shall be rotten company for the neighbours, but meanwhile I shall be rotten company for you.
What with one national newspaper firing everyone who was public school and Oxbridge out of chippy spite, and becoming a semi-literate laughing-stock as a result, and another changing to magazine format and thereby reducing my weekly space to resignation-inducing uselessness, I am now effectively a retired journalist, but 2016 has made me grateful. Oh, how I would have hated, in the past week, to have had to bang out, under the contractual lash, some screed of pompous tosh about What It All Means!
And yet I feel a pang of regret. We are told that we have entered a ‘post-truth’ age, that the facts and figures and stats we read in the press can no longer be trusted. But I never had any truck with facts and figures and stats in the first place. True, it was an attitude that affected detrimentally the class of my degree, but it made me a journalist way ahead of his time. My work was always pure opinion, unsullied by contentious citation. I took an Aristotelian view, that in the absence of proof as to what might be (and ffs have certainly never been proof), we do not speculate but merely observe what is. Though I might have got that wrong. I can’t be bothered to look it up.
Anyway, here’s my take on 2016. It was the year in which people started using the lazy tag ‘virtue-signalling’, the verb ‘to channel’ in a sense whose precise meaning, if it has one, I still can’t infer, and also started beginning sentences, especially in answer to a question, with the word ‘so’, a device that simultaneously patronises the questioner and betrays insecurity in the respondent. This last is especially pernicious for being so catchy, like the moronic ‘up-talk’ to which so many fell prey through watching Australian soaps in the 1980s. That’s it.
Oh, Brexit and Trump? That great What It All Means thing? I’ll tell you what it means, my friends. It means bugger-all, that’s what it means. Sure, if you go for the line that the white working class seems to be in rebellion against its smug, anti-democratic masters you can spin some kind of comforting Marxist all-embracing analysis out of it, and you can stick with a broad sweep of history that lets you off having to look at the detail. But if you have some knowledge of political history, and some affection for the principle that elections are lost, not won, it all gets a bit messy.
The American election result was narrow, and decided in Trump’s favour by Clinton’s popular vote being too locally concentrated for her to win through the electoral college system. This was the failure of the Democratic Party in blindly nominating its darling bully in spite of her record as Secretary of State being disastrously compromised in the eyes of the public. If she hadn’t used a private server for official business she would have won by a landslide; but if she’d just remembered to tip a waitress in New York State some years ago she would still have won narrowly. Trump won his nomination because so many electors fell for the line ‘He tells it like it is’, a line that had the best chance of flying against the haunted Clinton. And it worked, just. What follows is all about power and diplomacy, both within his administration and in the wider world, as always.
Clearly David Cameron would not have called a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU unless he thought he was going to win it for the Remain side. The trouble was that what motivated his campaign was not a belief in the virtue of EU membership (which neither he nor any of his inner circle ever truly held), but in the principle that referendums (correct English plural, by the way) are only useful when the Establishment side wins. The one we had recently on our electoral system is barely remembered, and quite right, too. But for the underdog to win triggers a whole new popular interest in democracy that forces the hierarchy to start from scratch, and who knows what might happen then? Much too dangerous.
And yet Cameron’s defeat and resignation resulted in a soggy centre-right government, worlds away from the threats of extremism so many European countries now face, or as so many of the American people fear they face. Just as in 1789, 1848, 1919, 1945 and 1968, when revolution was in the wind Britain put the popular voice centre-stage instead of trying to suppress it, and moderation prevailed. It’s not down to some kind of natural superiority, it’s just the way the accidents of our history have made us. We’re very lucky that way.
Now, look at those three glib paragraphs and tell me what connects Trump’s election with Brexit, let alone with the imminent presidency of Marine Le Pen in France, or the rise of Five Stars in Italy. It boils down to an enduring democratic principle: lose the trust of the electorate, and you lose the election. It’s not new, and it’s not rocket science. But try to go deeper than that and you might as well be trying to work out why, say, Croatia and Germany both voted for Spain in a Eurovision Song Contest. There is no grand movement, only constant shifts of power and competence. It’s the same old game. Happy Same Year.