Sunday, 1 January 2017

Happy 2017

1861 was a lousy year for the United States.

It started with southern States tumbling over each other to get out of the Union. Then in April civil war broke out. That was followed in July by the inexplicable conversion of the major Union victory at the First Battle of Bull Run into a catastrophic Union defeat (though it should be said that the notions of ‘major’ and ‘catastrophic’ would have to be significantly revised later in the war).

It’s no surprise, then, that on 31 December diarist George Templeton Strong wrote:

Poor old 1861, just going. It has been a gloomy year of trouble and disaster. I should be glad of its departure were it not that 1862 is likely to be no better.

155 years on, I feel we can safely echo Strong’s words. Particularly as 1862 turned out not only to be no better than 1861 but was, in fact, considerably worse. A feat 2017 is likely to repeat with respect to 2016.

The year just ended was one where many people, tired of the consensus that has predominated since the Second World War, decided that building bridges was no longer the way to go and we should have some new walls instead.

In June, the British people voted to turn the Channel once more into a moat rather than a mere waterway. Those who knew the sixties and seventies will remember the troubled times in which a former imperial power struggled to find a new vocation. By joining what became the European Union, Britain seemed to find one: no longer merely a diminishing force in the world, it would be a major contributor to the emergence of the Continent as a world power.

In deciding to leave, it has chosen to go back to the time of its decline. Those were the days when Britain was regarded as the sick man of Europe, plagued by poor productivity and constant strikes, where only the wealthy could enjoy a good restaurant meal or a holiday abroad. The nation steadily sank through the economic league table, with Italy at one point celebrating il sorpasso, the moment when its economy overtook the UK’s.

The EU turned that around, but it also opened the doors to immigration from Continental Europe. Those arrivals continue to play a vital role across the British economy, in the health service, transport, farming and catering. Such, however, is todays fear of the outsider that most voters preferred to give up on the benefits of EU membership in the hope of controlling immigration. Ironically, the hope is likely to prove vain. The loss of benefit, however, will be real.

The American vote, however, was far more significant than Britain’s. It’s sad, though constitutional, that the victor took nearly 3 million fewer votes than his adversary. Donald Trump’s lack of a popular mandate is, however, going to have no impact on the way he exercises power in a democracy.

He’s the wall-builder extraordinary. Not that the one he promised, along the Mexican border, is likely to be built. Even if it is, he’s already made clear that much of it will be fence. But that’s part of his style: he feels he can make any promise he wants, without being bound to deliver – presumably, he has convinced himself that his intentions are pure and, in our post-truth society, honouring his word matters less than getting into a position in which he can mould it as he feels it needs.

His principal concern seems to be to make a friend of Vladimir Putin and an enemy of China. Whatever he does with physical walls, he has a metaphorical one in mind which will include Russia on his side and China firmly on the outside.

Aleppo: handiwork of Trump's pal Putin and his mate Assad
Putin has shown himself to be a strongman and supporter of strongmen, such as Assad in Syria or his new-found friend in Turkey, Erdogan. It’s telling that Trump wants to be associated with that club, perhaps because he also rather likes the homophobic, patriarchal and autocratic views it represents. If so, the US is going to become a considerable less pleasant place to be if you’re gay or a woman (how long will abortion remain a right?) and a great deal more unpleasant for African Americans, Hispanics or Muslims.

Meanwhile, we’d better hope that his attitude towards China represents another promise he has no intention of keeping. If he sticks to the collision course he’s plotted so far, the Trump presidency risks being not just bad but terminal.

Oh, well. George Templeton Strong survived 1862. He got through the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination. He saw the US reunited and prospering. We too may need to keep our nerve and nurse our patience and wait for better days to emerge in the future.

It happened for Strong, so it could happen for us.

In the meantime – happy New Year!

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