2018: STUCK BETWEEN STRONGMEN AND SNOWFLAKES
Thank goodness for Gareth’s waistcoat, says Allison Pearson, as she introduces our photo-a-day review of the year
IT WAS A TETCHY, overcast sort of year, but the gathering gloom was pierced by moments of superb national joy. A royal wedding unlike any other, an England team at the World Cup that made you think that, if football wasn’t coming home, at least you no longer felt like running out of the room screaming every time our boys took a penalty. Manager Gareth Southgate’s natty waistcoat – £65 from Marks & Spencer – was the Fashion Statement of 2018. It set the sartorial standard for a new, calm, businesslike approach to a game that too often in the past had been the cue for a national nervous breakdown. Bliss was it in that record-breaking summer to sit in the garden with a glass of something cold and chart England’s progress purely by the jubilant cries and moose-sized groans bursting from the open windows of every home.
The performance of Southgate’s squad reinstated patriotism as a guilt-free pleasure and, for 90 minutes plus extra time, we were neither Leave nor Remain, just Us again. Moments of such national unity were all the more precious for being rare. The tribal fault lines that were exposed during the EU referendum in June 2016 had not faded; on the contrary, as the deadline for Brexit grew nearer, the scars became more livid. ‘Most people just want the Government to get on and deliver a good Brexit, and that’s exactly what we are doing,’ the Prime Minister said in her New Year message for 2018. Theresa May’s hope was that the electorate, exhausted and disgusted by the Brussels shenanigans – there was even a new acronym for it, BOB (Bored of Brexit) – would go along with her flexible definition of ‘a good Brexit’. Or (whisper it low) a good enough Brexit, which would somehow contrive to honour the wishes of the 52 per cent who voted Leave, while keeping on side Remainers whose priority was economic stability. The PM was right to deduce that we had had it up to here with talk of ‘regulatory alignment’, ‘bespoke customs union’ and something called the backstop, which, sadly, turned out to have nothing at all to do with rounders.
She was dead wrong to think that weariness alone would cause Britons to capitulate to her pushmi-pullyu deal, drawn up behind the scenes by civil servants – to the not inconsiderable surprise of two successive Brexit Secretaries. A powerful group of Remainers (from left and right) lobbied for a second referendum called the People’s Vote which, they claimed, would settle the matter once and for all. (Yeah, right.)
By July, when the PM tried to bludgeon her Chequers deal through Cabinet (ministers were warned their official cars would be confiscated immediately should they resign), her mantra, ‘No deal is better than a bad deal,’ seemed to have been superseded by, ‘Any deal is better than no deal.’ David Davis resigned, followed shortly by Boris Johnson who, for Brexiteers, assumed the talismanic power of a King Across the Water. Another acronym was coined: BRINO (Brexit in name only).
In an attempt to unplug her Maybot image, May gamely joined in the dancing at a South African school. A stranger to rhythm, she looked like a stork struck by lightning. Undeterred, she reprised the routine to break the tension at a deeply uneasy Conservative Party Conference, coming onstage to Dancing Queen. It bought her some time, but critics suggested she had chosen the wrong Abba track. May was certainly a Super Trouper but, as her net favourability score plunged to minus 37, it was only a matter of time before she faced her Waterloo.
Sure enough, it came towards the very end of the year, when her Withdrawal Agreement was hastily withdrawn, and her leadership was put to a vote of confidence by her own MPS. She won it by 200 to 117. Nonetheless the pound slipped back from earlier highs. It was as if sterling, like the rest of the UK, understood that, from now on, she would be PRINO: Prime Minister in name only. The one piece of luck was that the Leader of the Opposition was almost as unpopular as she was. Jeremy Corbyn must have developed raging haemorrhoids from sitting on the fence throughout the Brexit negotiations.
If backstop was the word of the year, the runner-up was the even more toxic Novichok. Few Britons had heard of the deadly nerve agent smeared on the door handle of a house in Salisbury owned by Sergei Skripal, a retired Russian military intelligence officer. Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found collapsed on a bench in the city centre, poisoned by two GRU hitmen. Identified by CCTV, the bull-necked assassins gave a priceless interview on Russian television in which they claimed to have been mere tourists in ‘the wonderful town’, making a lightning-fast trip ‘to visit the famous cathedral and its 123-metre spire’.
The most disturbing aspect of the case was that Vladimir Putin’s henchmen had taken out a relatively minor traitor not because he presented any danger, but simply because they could. A warning to anyone in Russia’s elite who might think of acting against the president, it was also a swaggering sign of contempt for the UK.
The 12-year-old we had watched following his mother’s coffin finally got his happy ending
Angered by a remote, self-serving class of globalist politicians, ordinary voters turned in their millions to tough-talking populists. Time magazine dubbed this the Strongman Era. In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte acted more like a mafia boss than a president. China’s Xi Jinping consolidated his hold on the country when he erased presidential term limits. In Turkey, President Erdoğan played a similar tyrannical game.
Hopes for reform in the Middle East were pinned on Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Saudi women were finally allowed to drive a car on 24 June, although they still had to cover their faces, which made you worry about their three-point turns. Alas, the Crown Prince’s reputation took a bit of a dent when his hand was detected in the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and journalist. Khashoggi’s gruesome murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul had eerie echoes of the Salisbury poisoning. The assassins were brazen, the official denials preposterous but, in both cases, their masters had calculated they could get away with extra-judicial killings
on sovereign territory because weak-minded states either needed their cash or didn’t have the stomach to retaliate. Meanwhile, earlier in the year, the repressive theocracy of Iran demonstrated that it could continue to do as it pleased: in January, the image of 31-year-old mother Vida Movahed standing on a street corner in central Tehran simply waving a white headscarf to highlight the lack of women’s rights in the country, began circulating online. She, along with dozens of others this year, was arrested, but, stirringly, the protests continue.
The Strongman was also throwing his weight around in Europe, to the horror of a priggishly simpering EU. Viktor Orbán won another landslide in Hungary as prime minister, while Italy’s elections produced a populist coalition promising to deport 500,000 migrants. In a speech to the European Parliament, President Macron said, ‘There seems to be a certain European civil war. There is a fascination with the illiberal, and that is growing all the time.’ He couldn’t know that the war would soon open up in his own land when the so-called gilets jaunes co-opted yellow hi-vis vests as symbols of rebellion and fought pitched battles in the streets of Paris. Ostensibly a protest against fuel prices, the yellow jackets were another example of ordinary people trying to defend their interests against condescending globalists.
Increasingly embroiled in scandal, President Donald Trump could be seen as the poster boy for the Strongman Era. Previously, the leader of the free world could be relied upon to act as a counterweight to demagoguery, but this one positively revelled in flouting the fundamentals of American liberty. Famous for branding critical reporting ‘fake news’ – a phrase that was gratefully adopted by Putin in the Skripal case – this year Trump went even further, calling journalists ‘enemies of the people’. Among other depths the president was unafraid to plumb was the separation of hundreds of migrant children from their parents at the Us-mexico border as part of a ‘zero-tolerance policy’ to curb illegal immigration. At the height of the outrage, Melania Trump went to visit some of the children in detention. She wore a military-style jacket with ‘I Really Don’t Care, Do U?’ scrawled graffiti-style on the back. It
was hard to tell whether this indicated a chilling lack of compassion or simply shocking stupidity; either way it was the Worst Look of 2018.
While all this was going on, the liberal left responded with trigger-sensitive identity politics. Race, gender (always fluid), trans rights, even veganism were all minefields in which the unwary could see their livelihood taken away by the Twitter mob. Manchester University Students’ Union recommended that ‘jazz hands’ be used instead of clapping, lest anxious people be startled. The new secular Puritans were nearly hoist by their own petard when someone even more ‘woke’ than they pointed out that jazz hands could be seen as cultural appropriation. Oops! You can’t be too careful.
ON A MORE SERIOUS LEVEL, the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the American Supreme Court caused a furore after Christine Blasey Ford, a psychology professor, claimed that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her while they were still in
high school. In general, Republicans heard the allegations, shrugged and said, ‘So what if he did? He was just a kid.’ On the Democratic left, it was compulsory to believe the victim.
Somewhere between the Strongman and the Snowflake, between minding too much and minding too little, is where most of us used to live. A place of give and take, of harmless banter and flirtation. In 2018, that middle way got much harder to find.
No wonder that escapism, wherever it turned up, was in such demand. Strictly Come Dancing produced a mini scandal when comedian Seann Walsh was pictured kissing his professional partner, Katya Jones, in the street. Seann’s girlfriend, Rebecca Humphries, put her beau in the modern stocks via Twitter and waited for outrage to engulf the cad. Which it duly did.
Without doubt, the biggest watercooler moment of the year was the royal wedding. The marriage of Prince Henry of Wales to Ms Meghan Markle had threatened to go awry – the ‘Markle Debacle’ as palace insiders called it – after the bride’s father naively cooperated in a photoshoot and then failed to be present at the ceremony. In the end, Prince Charles stepped in to escort the bride halfway down the aisle. That kind gesture felt utterly right at an occasion that somehow managed to combine tradition and modernity, accessibility and elitism, Britain and America, black and white, Thomas Tallis and Ben E King, Serena Williams and Prince Philip, skimmed-milk C of E and full-throttle Episcopalian, stifled giggles and heart-stopping beauty. For their part, the British people were simply delighted to see that the 12-year-old boy they had watched following his mother’s coffin had finally got his happy ending.
God knows, 2018 was a rancorous 12 months, with the bad blood threatening to seep into next year, and tolerance and forgiveness in short supply. So let us end with that crazy, joyful tornado of a sermon given at Harry and Meghan’s wedding by Bishop Michael Bruce Curry from Chicago. ‘Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire.’ Bugger the backstop. Just for one day, a glorious and gladsome day, the Power of Love got the People’s Vote.