Belfast Telegraph

Always look on the bright side of life - in spite of 2016 being a year of tumultuous political change

In spite of 2016 being a year of tumultuous political change - and the deaths of 19 of his contemporaries - Paul Hopkins' New Year's resolution is to be optimistic

The year about to close on us was a funny old one, to put it mildly. A year is measured in 12 months, 52 weeks, 365 days, 8,760 hours, 525,600 minutes, 31,536,000 seconds. How it unfolded for you and me, mere mortal souls, we most likely did little to deserve or earn. Like the air we breathe, the passing of time comes as part and parcel of life. You cannot stop it, slow it down, turn it off, or adjust it. It marches on.

And you cannot bring time back. Once gone, it is gone. Yesterday lost forever, tomorrow always that unknown.

The year 2016 may well be summed up as the year of the politically unexpected or perhaps more accurately, the year of the politically unimaginable.

The most surprising event of all was the election of Donald Trump. He is the ultimate outsider, the first elected US President with no experience in either government or the military. His victory represents the triumph of a new wave populism over a comfortable political and financial Establishment. And it didn't happen in isolation.

Around the world economic hardship and growing unease with globalisation, immigration, and the established elite have propelled populism to power, leading to huge support for parties and leaders viewed as capable of holding cultural and social change at bay.

In Europe populist parties dominate in Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Slovakia and Switzerland, and are part of governing coalitions in Finland, Norway and Lithuania. In Asia Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte is pursuing a populist agenda. And here, of course, we have Brexit, also the result of a swing to populism.

As the great recession, euro crisis, stalled trade deals, increased conflict between Russia and the West and those electoral revolts against European political elites and Brexit followed the 2008 financial meltdown, it seems pretty clear that globalisation is running out of steam. Western civilisation, as we have understood it, is in decline.

Since those planes brought down the Twin Towers, shaking world markets in the process - initially slowly, but gaining momentum as they were left wide open to manipulation and corruption and the whole fall-out from sub-lending and the like - we have been witnessing the fall of capitalism.

Since 9/11, too, terrorism has reigned and, in 2016, reared its ugly head across Europe. Attacks in Paris, Brussels, Nice, Berlin and elsewhere left scores dead and, while Islamic State appeared to be in retreat, 'lone wolves' were brandishing their own particular terror.

The flow of migrants to Europe continued. Harrowing and pitiful footage and accounts of the battle for Aleppo dominated many headlines this past year.

Barack Obama and the US was widely blamed for failing to stop the violence.

The competing interests in Syria turned a pro-democracy uprising into an ever-more-brutal proxy war.

Meantime, something strange, unnerving even, happened to me in 2016. It crept up on me in the last 12 months or so, during which time 19 former colleagues died, ranging in age from early-40s to mostly late-50s and early-60s. Gone, just like that. Their final deadline met.

In the same period I lost three old friends from the days of my youth and, though our paths had seldom crossed in latter years, their passing was nonetheless a huge blow to me.

Then came the departure of David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Glen Frey, Terry Wogan, Prince, William Trevor and the enigmatic Leonard Cohen among many, and latterly George Michael, Carrie Fisher and her mum Debbie Reynolds.

With the front pages of 2016 also being dominated by the deaths of celebrities - those we often think immortal like gods of old - Bap Kennedy, Paul Daniels, Caroline Aherne, Ronnie Barker, Victoria Wood, Jean Alexander and one Fidel Castro, here it was once more: the melancholic and salutary reminder of my own mortality. That one day, I, too, should cease to be.

Celebrities apart, I lost amazing Maisie in 2016.

She was the dear mother of the woman I share my life with. Some would say she had a good innings, being 91. But though I only knew her, in any sense of the word, the last six years, her zest for life left an indelible mark on me and her going was a thing of great sadness.

I know, too, that many of you fellow mere mortals lost loved ones this past year, and some in the most extenuating and trying of circumstances, and that 2017 will see, in that intimate abode of family, friends, and community, the "empty chair".

But enough of this indulgence and back to the matter at hand.

So will the drama across all stages in the last year continue in 2017 - and, if it does, what should we look out for?

At first glance there aren't the same spanners-in-the-works in the next 12 months as there have been in the last. Scotland considered, there's no era-defining UK referendum and no US election. However, 2016's big themes - the rise of the Right, the fall of the Establishment and the struggle of the Left - could well carry on.

Brexit talks will unfold against a backdrop of key European elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands.

And we have to pencil in China, Brazil, Nigeria and the emerging economies, each with their own, differing agenda. There's the climate change business, too, and the ever-increasing nuclear threats.

The year 2016 was the year of the unravelling, as norms were dispensed with and old ideas challenged and discarded.

Our settled world has been shaken and stirred and we're getting used to the mix of the new cocktail.

In 2017 it will be 100 years since Vladimir Lenin seized power in Russia.

Lenin's putsch led to a number of tragedies: Stalin's rise to power; the death of more than 20 million as a result of the collectivisation of agriculture and forced industrialisation; and, partly in reaction to communism, the rise of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco.

From the dying days of the Second World War onwards Western policy was dedicated to making sure that the problems that had produced authoritarianism, both Left and Right, could not occur again.

Global institutions - the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations - were set up to stabilise the global economy and prevent conflict. Now, seemingly, this is coming to an end, the first shots fired by the Right rather than the Left, by the Brexiteers and the Donald Trumps.

Maybe it won't all be bad, though, in the coming year.

Nationalism is back, not in its old form, but rather an economic nationalism of sorts, about keeping the pound in your pocket.

Trump has reclaimed an old isolationist slogan - America First. In trade deals, in international relations, the deciding factor will not be policing global order, but serving US interests.

In the UK campaigners in favour of leaving the EU have offered voters the chance "to take back control of the country".

In France, centre-Right politician Francois Fillon - and the man most likely the next resident of the Elysee Palace - has said: "French foreign policy must serve French interests. Let's leave aside the dream of a federal Europe."

Former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers has spoken of a responsible nationalism. "It starts from the idea that the primary responsibility of any government is to the welfare of its citizens, not to some concept of international order," he says.

Given the increasing marginalisation, economically, socially and culturally, of many of us - and, personally, 2016 was my worst on most fronts - that's not a bad notion to go into 2017 with.

This time of year is the time we celebrate the solstice and the passing of the old and the coming of the new. It is, if not a time for New Year resolutions (or even revolutions), a time to give thanks, to regroup, to rekindle and to look forward.

To everything, there is a season. From today on, argue the season-watchers, the dark days are behind us and the days can only get brighter.

Though, mind you, to say 2017 is going to be turbulent is not the half of it.

It might even turn out to be a funny old year.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph