Saturday, 31 December 2016

2017 - The same, but a little bit different

As the final pages of 2016 are freshly printed, a sense of change is in the air. We’ve entered into a chapter of world history as yet unprecedented. The celebrants of change are perhaps using language that some would find coarse and unintelligible, but change is what we have, whether some of us asked for it or not.

America has given the Republicans power again, but not as we’ve seen before. It was probably always going to be like this; the party of big business slowly shifting ever further right, to capture a diminishing pool of ageing reactionary voters, now taken over by an actual businessman. It’s certainly not what it seems though. America has chosen a businessman to lead it on the road to tax cuts, greater government involvement in private enterprise and galvanised it with a sheen of neo-exceptionalism. Rising national debt will be a statistic to watch out for during the infancy of the Trump administration. How will a Republican administration reconcile Trumpism with supposedly being the party of fiscal prudence?

It would be wrong to assume history always follows a progressive course no matter what. History is littered with the remnants of structures people presumed were infallible. The only difference is that the rise and fall of these structures is happening faster than ever before because of globalisation. The Roman Empire rose and fell over about five centuries. The British Empire seemed invincible until two world wars drove a truck through the idea of European imperialism. Back on New Year’s Even 1913, the finest brains were probably insistent that world wars were an impossibility because they would be so destructive.

As we head into 2017, we see the centenary of the October Revolution in Russia, a pivotal moment where an imperial monarch-led nation began evolving into a socialist state. 73 years later, Russia had become the heart of a union of socialist states that was dying by a thousand paper cuts. By the early 1990s, the union had collapsed and we were left with a load of new nation states that had never properly existed in and of themselves in such a way before. Sometimes, decades of change happen in just one year. Sometimes, a year’s worth of change happens over many decades.

2017 offers even more pinch points where public opinion will be exercised across Europe. There’s even a distinct possibility that fresh elections might be called here in the UK, if Theresa May sees the need to have a solid mandate to enforce her administration’s will. Gordon Brown famously chose not to call an election in late 2007, and when crisis after crisis hit his government, his enemies were able to use his lack of mandate as an attack line in and of itself. Theresa May might hold off from calling an election next year, simply because the risks may be too great. In any case, Labour is willing to vote in favour of a fresh election, whatever she does. If an election is held, Labour will have to spend an intensive amount of resources in a small window of time on its old industrial strongholds in the north, many of whom voted for Brexit.

The UKIP situation is complicated. Diane James was leader for 18 days then quit, throwing the party into disarray for a time. UKIP has seen the Brexit vote go its way but it now needs to justify its existence beyond the vote or it will evaporate. Eurosceptic conservative-types have appeared to return to supporting the Conservatives, who will be the arbiters for much of the Brexit plans. Paul Nuttall is now turning his party’s attention to vulnerable Labour positions.

2017 could prove to be every bit as surprising as 2016 turned out to be. The experiences of the year just gone have shown how the internet continues to evolve as a tool. We’re being led to believe we live in a post-truth society, and that’s probably quite an unhelpful admission of defeat. The war of truth and post-truth is ongoing and the matter at hand shifts. Brexit is supposed to mean Brexit; a meaningless phrase in itself, but it’s actually whatever the government needs it to be, to match what they think the public wants. Brexit means so many different things to so many different people, and we can be sure that a significant chunk of the population will be dissatisfied, whatever it ends up meaning.

The situation remains volatile going into the new year. Markets may be jumpy, the fall in the Pound will likely cause prices to steadily rise, which risks snuffing out the recent recovery in real wages. The most powerful jobs in the world have changed and the faces will be fresh, but 2017 will be something of a baptism of fire. Can Mrs May make a success of Brexit, or will the electorate grow impatient? Can President Trump deliver a meaningful economic recovery, or will his trickle-down approach simply repeat the mistakes of the last Republican administration? Let’s see in twelve months’ time.

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