It’s still, basically, 2016. We’re still in shock over the two huge geopolitical convulsions that have logjammed the anglosphere – and, though we’ve done our best to kid ourselves that steps are being taken to recover in reality nothing of the sort has actually happened.
The trails of Trump and Brexit both appear to lead back to Russia -findings confirmed multiple times in the mountains of opinion, research, conjecture, and official statements that we have amassed over two-and-a-bit years of hand-wringing. None of this has made the blindest bit of difference to anyone other than the small number of low-level functionaries in the UK and US who have been found guilty of breaking an actual law.
Meanwhile – from poison in Salisbury to drones in Crawley – the UK feels less safe and less orderly, a sensation that can be only be heightened by careful viewing of goings on at Westminster. If I did a book of the year prize it would have to be Erskine May – never has parliamentary procedure been more newsworthy. Procedure is also a great substitute for activity – most government time this year has been spent in interminable debates on broad-brush topics. Speeches in the Commons are now made with at least half an eye on how they can be edited for sharing on Facebook.
The leader of the opposition is stage-managed to a degree that would make Peter Mandelson blush. But Blair never had a cadre of fans determined to paint his every act as strategically designed to further the cause of whatever socialism now is. It’s as if, having seen how Theresa May used a tone-deaf, core vote strategy to narrowly win an election in 2017, Labour are intent on copying her. So, in flitting between nearly taking a strong line on actual issues and (again Blairish) schools-and-hospitals style crowd pleasing, nothing has changed.
Meanwhile on the other side, the grand strategy appears to be that we’ll eventually feel sorry for Theresa May because of how useless she is. This of course means that we forget the cold nastiness of her Home Office days, and mistake her arrogant refusal to ever admit she was wrong on anything as some kind of inner strength. Government resignations (including – a personal highlight – the two most recent Higher Education minsters) from every possible ideological persuasion have done nothing to staunch the inevitability of a shambolic disorderly exit from the EU – and with the 1922 committee card played and lost, the rest of the party seems out of ideas.
This legislative inertia points the way to a disorderly Brexit – the deal on the table being an uncomfortable reminder that red lines don’t allow for a blue sky. It is indeed the best and only deal in that it is the only deal Theresa May could accept – with her increasingly childish parlaying of “laws, money, and borders” into an end to the kind of international cooperation that we spent so long trying to convince the former Eastern Bloc to adopt in the 1990s.
So much of the thin gruel on offer can be traced back to a bizarre hatred for the European Court of Justice. A tale of one woman against the very idea of international law. The checks and balances that have prevented a world war have never looked so vulnerable.
There are any numbers of awful stories about people disadvantaged by this retreat from the global stage – and the numbers hurt by stupidly implemented UK policy have grown too. Universal Credit – in normal times – would be seen as a totemic failure of project management. Ministers would have resigned over it. But in 2018 it’s been mood music.
The man who literally wrote the book about the science of project delivery in government now spends his days trying to prove how tough a universities regulator he can be. But if 2018 has had a theme, I’d go for the weakness of project delivery (with maybe our collective rediscovery of the unicorn as a counterpoint).
Agile project management – invented by software developers so they could ignore specifications and avoid writing project reports – is an essentially reactive structure. One leaps from bad idea to other bad idea, hamstrung by the need to “ship” something, anything, and get through to the next scrum. If you wanted a case study as to the dreck this process can produce then you really couldn’t do better than the Home Office Settled Status mobile app. Notoriously unreliable, compatible with a small enough handful of android mobile phones that law firms and universities have been resorting to just buying some that they know will work – it’s a metaphor for how badly we’ve prepared for everything.
Brexit – I sometimes believe – has been an Agile project. It kicked off far too early, and the first iterations were riddled with basic logical errors. The instinct has been to polish presentation rather than build core functionality – where work has been done it has been on aspects that are meant impress users.
Meanwhile Trump starts from a blank page each morning, and often manages to upset or offend just about everyone by the end of the day. Yet he still has around 40% of the US population agreeing with him. Expecting him to deliver anything would be so basic a category error that the mere idea seems laughable. As I write he’s shut down his government to build a wall – a wryly apt season finale for the scripted reality that is US politics.
Or maybe that’s too generous. Scripted reality was what the Trump campaign felt like, or the early red-white-and-blue Brexit days. Remember the Brexit dividend? If there’s a script now you need to be a conspiracy theorist to discern it – but there again isn’t everyone a conspiracy theorist now?
And shall we talk about how Putin seems to sit at the centre of everything? A modern day Rasputin using magic to control the world? Democracy as a plaything in the world’s first genuinely post-democratic state? Are we perhaps projecting here a little? If we find a villain does that mean we are absolved of our own villainy?
I’ve been thinking a lot about three other periods of history this year. Have these as three ghosts of Christmas past if you will.
- The first is the early 90s – the “End of History” days where we all felt that liberal democracy was the cut-scene at the end of the final level… that the Generation X idealist cynicism was the future of progressive protest. We felt like we could leave the strife of the past behind us even as we invaded oil rich countries. Shorn of our own significance, we replayed the prime mover moments of our history, until two buildings fell and the age of fear began.
- The second is the end of the First World War. Years of pointless deaths ended in the least military way that could be imagined – a far left uprising. We entered into international relations but retained the caution and lust for vengeance. Meanwhile, capital began to collapse everywhere – reality didn’t agree with capitalism so we broke the links to reality. But in the midst of this the golden age of civic responsibility continued, and we still believed that progress was possible
- The third is the middle of the fifteenth century. New media gave a voice to the unheard – the elite didn’t like what they said so we overthrew them. Religion and direct experience won out over scholarship, history, and reason – but only because the latter was in the service of corruption and funding. The upheaval lasted only a decade, but the scars shape the world we live in.
We are in the same place that we were twelve months ago – the only change is that matters that were once pressing have become urgent. The dwindling pro-Brexit (or pro-Trump) rump are the “snowflakes” we hear so much about, painfully sensitive to the idea that anyone can hold opinions that disagree with their own received thinking. We’re carving out safe spaces in the conversation about our future for those who cling to old, discredited, ideas based on fear, hatred, and wishful thinking. Sometime soon we need to face this down – agree that freedom of speech does not guarantee a respectful hearing.
But I don’t think 2019 will be that year. 2019 is another placeholder.