It seems terribly poignant that George Michael should die on Christmas Day, yet another in an astonishingly large cohort of public figures who have lost their lives in 2016. David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Sir Terry Wogan, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Leonard Cohen, A.A. Gill, Carrie Fisher: these are just a handful of the celebrities who have died over the past twelve months, and, whilst every year is marred by tragedy, 2016 has been particularly unrelenting. For millennials at least, events around the world have made this one of the most unpredictable and depressing years in living memory. On reflection, it is no surprise that Merriam-Webster selected ‘surreal’ as its word of the year. Defined as ‘marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream’, this adjective perfectly encapsulates the last twelve months.
The mind alights upon Brexit and the election of Trump as the most seismic events in western politics this year, and there are unmistakeable similarities between the two. Both were made possible by vast swathes of aggrieved voters who felt impoverished by globalisation and alienated by a pro-immigration liberal elite. Both thrust us into political terra incognita, and, for those of us who voted to remain and saw Clinton as by far the lesser of two evils, this was immensely unsettling. It is not hard to see why Brexiteers voted as they did, but that does not mitigate the dismal reality that our country has been plunged into confusion and riven by inter-generational and regional disagreements. There is, however, at least some cause for optimism. Our economy, for instance, has proved to be more resilient than anticipated, with the Bank of England even revising its economic growth forecast for 2017 from 0.8 to 1.4 per cent.
Brexit was eclipsed by events across the Atlantic that are far harder to comprehend. Trump, the demagogue, with his charismatic authority and wild promises, has quickened the pulse of an angry nativism coursing through the veins of the American body politic. The prospect of his inauguration next month is horrifying. His election campaign made it clear that he has no qualms about expelling immigrants with abandon, jeopardising NATO, opposing multilateral trade deals and embracing economic nationalism, tearing up Obamacare, relaxing gun restrictions, bolstering the powers of the police, and enlarging America’s nuclear capabilities. It is a profoundly worrying departure from the Obama Administration, and one that has exposed the fragility of liberalism in the most extreme manner.
Brexit and Trump’s election have dominated western political discourse, but these turbulent twelve months have also witnessed other significant developments. Here in Britain, the resignation of David Cameron was followed by a theatrical Conservative leadership contest, during which the dastardly Michael Gove impaled himself on the spike of his ambition whilst stabbing Boris Johnson in the back. It was the quietly competent Theresa May, untainted by any major involvement in the Brexit debate, who won the day and became Britain’s second female Prime Minister. Change was not so decisive on the opposite side of the Commons, however, for the abortive Labour coup served only to increase Corbyn’s mandate as Labour leader. Whether this is a death knell for the Labour Party as we know it is uncertain, but with the purple of UKIP seeping into the fabric of many Labour constituencies, the chances of a 2020 victory are looking increasingly slim. 2016 should be a wake-up call for the left, demonstrating that it must work out how to remain electorally relevant and address voters’ concerns about issues such as immigration, labour relations and globalisation.
On the international stage, the Syrian civil war has raged on. It is against this backdrop that Turkey and Russia have begun to co-operate in pursuit of their policy goals in the war-ravaged country. Ironically, the recent assassination of the Russian ambassador to Ankara attests to the closeness of this relationship, for this murder seems to have united, rather than divided, the two countries. Alongside the Syrian civil war and Turkey’s drift away from the West, the election of Trump, the increasing power of China and Russia, and the troubles of the EU—from Brexit to the rise of far-right populist parties—have also loomed large, and 2016 has left us with the impression that the global balance of power is undergoing a dramatic reconfiguration.
The howl of the lone wolf terrorist was heard with hideous frequency during 2016, and these attacks have been one of the year’s defining features. The Brussels bombings, the Orlando nightclub shooting and the lorry attacks in Nice and Berlin have been the four most prominent in the West. Attacks perpetrated or inspired by ISIS have claimed hundreds more lives in the Middle East, whilst there has been further violence in the West on a smaller scale— from the French priest whose throat was slit in a church in Normandy to the Syrian refugee who blew himself up near a music festival in Ansbach. This was the year when our public spaces began no longer to feel safe, when the values of our countries were thrown into doubt, and when, perhaps, the danger arose of our becoming inured to this sort of terrorism. Each new attack seemed to be greeted with a sense of inevitability—it was no longer surprising when a terrorist struck. In these lone wolves, moreover, ISIS has found a devastatingly potent weapon. Whilst the physical manifestation of the terror organisation may be defeated on the battlefield, its spirit and insidious propaganda has the potential to inspire attackers worldwide and indefinitely.
2016 has upended the post-Cold War order and witnessed unprecedented threats within our borders. From the numerous terrorist attacks to Brexit and the election of Trump, we have seen western liberal democracies shaken to their core and enter a nebulous 2017 reflecting on a year when hope was dimmed.