In this series of articles, 2017 in Review, we look back at the year in each region of the world. Here, Roy Manuell looks at the UK’s turbulent 12 months.
2017 has been a year of political and social turmoil for the world’s fifth largest economy. At last, better news has arrived just when it was needed most.
A Brexit deal has been agreed after phase one of negotiations drew to a close, and Prince Harry – once the world’s most eligible royal bachelor – is to be married to filmstar Meghan Markle in May. The big news, for those who deem it significant, is that Markle shall be spending Christmas at Sandringham with the Queen.
But in reality, the dark times are far from over for a nation that is coming apart at the seams. Chaos, confusion and scandal defined 2017 for a nation that has often been considered a beacon of stability.
From bad to worse
The UK suffered one of the most challenging years in its history, staggering through a divisive election; blindly fumbling in the darkness towards a far-from-popular Brexit deal; and grieving several terrorist attacks on its capital, as well as the horrors of the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
All the while, the country has been led by one of the most ideologically-incoherent governments it has ever had, and a prime minister whose embittered battle to survive has dogged her every move.
Two years ago, all looked bright for the Conservative Party and the country. Headed by a moderately popular prime minister in David Cameron and able to present strong post-crash economic figures from 10 Downing Street to the world, Britain seemed to stride with confidence and purpose towards economic recovery and prosperity. How things have changed.
Not unexpectedly, Brexit has defined the media narrative for Britain in 2017, making a morning scan of the headlines predictable, boring and frequently disheartening.
The insolubility of Brexit has been exacerbated both by Britain’s misconstrued conception of its own importance on the world stage; and a supranational European body that, from its position of relative strength, is extremely inflexible at the negotiating table.
It feels as if Britain remains trapped in a delusional, degrading spiral. Each and every day, the headlines have been dominated by the ongoing and irresolvable onstage conflict set at the theatre of Brussels at which David Davis – often through little fault of his own – has made next to no progress.
In short, the impossibility of pleasing all factions within the Conservative Party has ensured that blame for both the referendum’s vote in the first place and the mess made of its fallout can be can be laid at the feet of the Conservative Party.
The party’s leader, Theresa May, personifies these problems, as she keeps herself afloat – just – as the weakest Conservative prime minister since John Major. Spluttering her way through the summer following a shambolic election in June – in which she lost an unloseable majority for her party – the government has been beset by scandal and controversy.
These culminated in a Westminster sex scandal, to which several cabinet members are linked. Somehow the two favourites to succeed her have been the unnecessarily-verbose and most diplomatically-insensitive Foreign Secretary of all time, Boris Johnson; and the Edwardian, good-humoured 21st Century alien, Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Cometh the hour
Emerging through the gloomy Brexit mist in June strode a saviour; the aged champion of the young – a principled, relatable, reasonably-radical surprise story – Jeremy Corbyn.
Pulling a larger audience than the headliners at Glastonbury and chatting with grime artists, the 68-year-old and his team have exploited social media and popular culture to encourage large numbers of young people to engage in politics and turn out in support for the Labour Party, winning over centrists such as Sadiq Khan and Chuka Umana en route.
Corbyn’s role in encouraging youth turnout has contributed to his polling percentage almost doubling in the space of just a few months. Will his popularity with the youth stand up in a future election?
Labour party’s response in opposition to the Conservative Party’s 2017 has been underwhelming. Its policies remain ambiguous, disparate and crucially, its stance on Brexit inadequately vague for a would-be government. Corbyn’s popularity may well be overrated, and Labour are barely polling ahead of the Conservative Party.
Facing up to challenges
Tragedy has taken many forms in 2017. Five separate terror attacks have hit the UK over the past 12 months; on London’s Westminster Bridge in March and around London Bridge in June; as well as the senseless massacre of children and young adults at an Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena in May.
As islamophobia continued its domination of the headlines, an attack on a group of worshippers outside a mosque in Finsbury Park, North London, by a 47-year-old man from Cardiff.
The heartbreaking Grenfell Tower incident, in which 71 people died as a fire ripped through the West London tower block, became a chilling symbol of inequality in 2017 Britain. Situated in one of the most affluent of London’s boroughs, the building housed some of those with its lowest incomes.
Today marks six months since the devastating fire in Grenfell Tower.
We must ensure the victims, survivors and community get justice. pic.twitter.com/1uK7YdVj7i
— Jeremy Corbyn (@jeremycorbyn) December 14, 2017
The tragedy was a cruel reminder that inequality is often so much more than simply measuring income using graphs, citing figures and then using these to try and explain surprising elections. Jon Snow’s MacTaggart lecture provides a particularly moving and potent analysis of the tragedy and its relationship with disillusionment towards elites.
A glance to the future
With the UK’s productivity outlook likely to continue to deteriorate, something that became glaringly evident following Philip Hammond’s first budget of the current parliament, next year looks to bring magnified disputes with Europe anticipating concessions to be made to avoid a no-deal situation.
Political instability dictates that there may well be another general election on the horizon, at least in part due to the disproportionate power in the hands of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
The far-from-subtle divisions between Leave voters and Remainers; London and the rest of the UK; rich and poor; old and young; are not going to disappear anytime soon.
The royal wedding may bring relief for some, but in a country fast becoming “the sick man of Europe”, surely 2018 can only be an improvement?
The year in quotes
“A mutton-headed Mugwump.”
Boris Johnson on Jeremy Corbyn.
“Running through fields of wheat.”
Theresa May’s response in a pre-election interview question – “What is the naughtiest thing you have ever done?”
“If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower”
Ben Okri’s impassioned poem on the tragic events in West London.