Tobias Ellwood is Conservative MP for Bournemouth East.
Perhaps we are too close to events to appreciate it, but historians may single out 2011 as exceptional, not just for the dramatic events that took place but for the enduring consequences that may result. RA Butler commented that politics is the art of the possible. 2011 saw that unravelling 13 locust years of New Labour would test the limits, both of what Government felt it could do, and of what the people would accept.
Over the last couple of years the once impregnable pillars of the establishment have been shaken to the core. Against a collapse of public trust in politicians, the City and the press, navigating the stormiest economic seas in a generation makes the PM’s job the toughest since Thatcher took the helm thirty years ago.
1. The Economy
At home, this year brought the harsh but necessary decisions required to moderate Labour’s reckless spending. Other than the Trade Unions, most people recognised and accepted the need for Government to live within its means, bring the deficit under control, overhaul public sector pensions and challenge expectations we can no longer afford, including how we pay for university, what age we retire at and who should be entitled to benefits. Everyone from the IMF to the OBR predicted tougher times ahead forcing budgets to be revised.
2. Public Trust
Following the financial crisis and the parliamentary expenses affair, the phone hacking scandal exposed the tawdry behaviour of the press and resulted in a public outcry against News International. It posed awkward but long overdue questions about the power of the whole of the media and its relationship with the public and politicians. It caused police resignations, the first recall of Parliament for this Government, the launch of a number of public inquiries and the closure of a newspaper published in the UK since 1843.
The mindless riots saw an orgy of looting take place across Britain lasting four days. The drama forced the second recall of Parliament and posed difficult questions about the very fabric of our communities and how they are policed. Whilst Government reviews will dissect the cause and effects it was modern technology in the form of text messaging and social media that allowed such efficient mobilisation of large numbers to outsmart the police. It was, however, that very same technology that helped mobilise the ‘broom brigades’ allowing residents and businesses to immediately distance themselves from those who showed such little respect for their own communities.
4. The Banks
As the crisis of globalisation displayed the powerlessness of government, the protest against corporate greed and failure spawned the ‘Occupy’ Movement aimed at addressing the growing disparity in wealth. It began in Wall Street but courtesy of Facebook and Twitter, similar protests spread across 85 countries within days. The power of the individual, armed with a phone and a popular cause is now phenomenal. The collection of tents packed in St Pauls grounds may be no modern Greenham Common but shows a generational discontent to which there is no clear answer.
The Arab Spring arguably qualifies as the biggest game changer in a generation, challenging, and in some cases removing, decades of rule by dictators, despots and absolute monarchs. Aside from the obvious opportunities and threats these countries now face, successful intervention in Libya provided a new benchmark in avoiding ‘boots on the ground’, made the Arab League relevant and improved Turkey’s status as a secular model which newly liberated Islamic countries might emulate. Jefferson’s tree of liberty certainly has been refreshed with the blood of patriots and tyrants, and nowhere is this more pertinent than Syria which is sliding closer to civil war. This grassroots appetite for democracy is not just reshaping the Middle East and North Africa but worrying those who tread the corridors of power in other countries including Algeria, China and Russia.
6. European Alliances
Closer to home, 2011 will be remembered as the year when design faults in the Euro project were laid bare. David Cameron might have upset our continental neighbours by wielding his veto, but this was the eighth summit of the year and still a solution to install fiscal discipline eludes the Euro club. Both the Euro and indeed the EU are set to change. Worryingly for the markets and the economy – no one can predict how. NATO, that other great European institution, is also facing difficulties. Its operation in Afghanistan is far from a success and, if the now departed Defence Secretary Bill Gates’ valedictory speech reflects White House thinking, the US will no longer cough up 75% of NATO’s running costs or assume the growing security burden left by cuts in European defence budgets. This may be the last year NATO continues in its current form.
7. US influence
Thanks to the political maths in Congress 2011 and was an unimpressive year for the White House. One notable exception was its covert operation, deep inside Pakistan, to eliminate Osama Bin Laden. A totemic victory for America, allowing its politicians to close a dark and costly chapter in its history and justify early troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Cathartic though his death was, the manner of his removal has also killed off any remaining hopes of co-operation with Pakistan. Whilst this might mean little to a US audience that sees Pakistan facing both ways when dealing with the Taliban it complicates any long term solution for peace in the region. Whoever occupies the White House next November will have to pick up the pieces.
The earthquake measuring 8.9 and subsequent Tsunami off the coast of Japan illustrated once again how our modern cosy world can be turned upside down by the supreme force of nature. 25,000 were killed and hundreds of thousands made homeless. The economic impact rippled across the globe and changed some nations’ attitudes to nuclear power.
2011 has indeed been turbulent and challenging year; Britain made it clear, we like our forests, Downton Abbey and Royal Weddings. And we don’t like alternative voting systems, phone hackers and looters posing as society’s victims.
Amongst others we said goodbye to were Lucien Freud, Steven Jobs, Vaclav Havel, Christopher Hitchins, Elizabeth Taylor, Amy Winehouse, Henry Cooper, Seve Ballesteros, Jimmy Saville, Joe Frazier and my own hero: Major Richard Winters, commander of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506 Parachute Infantry Regiment and leader of the ‘Band of Brothers’.
2011: a watershed year and the beginning of a lot of unfinished business.