Goodbye to all that...

2016 began with the death of David Bowie, and to be honest it went downhill from there.

At times it felt like being trapped on an out-of-control log flume, slamming into endless waves of effluent, reaching its inevitable conclusion with the election of Donald Trump. Because of course Donald Trump would win an election in 2016. It's been that kind of year.

Brexit, Trump & more in the 2016 review podcast...

Brexit, Trump & more in the 2016 review podcast...

If 2016 has taught us any lessons it's that lying - on a grand, extraordinary scale - is no longer punished. Instead it is rewarded. And no-one seems to mind that huge decisions are made on the basis of outright lies. 

The other lesson is that those of us who report or comment on politics for a living have never been more out of touch with the people with real political power -- voters. In the UK, we missed the years of pent-up fury that led to Brexit, while in the US we convinced ourselves everyone was equally repulsed by Donald Trump's antics, and equally certain they rendered him unsuited for high office.

The Brexit hand grenade

Voters' primary desire this year has been to lob a hand grenade into the heart of government, and just see what happens. In the UK, few of the leading Brexit campaigners thought a win was possible. Nigel Farage admitted defeat within fifteen minutes of the polls closing, and Michael Gove went to bed expecting only bad news. 

Boris Johnson appeared to base his biggest-ever gamble on the idea voters would be reluctant remainers, leaving him a heroic loser in the eyes of the euro-phobic grassroots Tories who choose the party's leaders.

This conviction of inevitable defeat emboldened the Leave camp to pile one hyperbolic claim on another. No-one actually believed the UK sent £350-million to the EU every week - but it didn't really matter. 

The Remain camp was as bad, portraying a post-apocalyptic world outside the EU where, jobless and homeless, we would pray for the sweet release of death. Towards the end, the Chancellor resorted to outright threats, warning of cuts in school and hospital budgets unless voters did as they were told.

In the end the campaign boiled down to how people felt, not just about Europe, but about their own lives. Many felt things were little better now than ten years ago, maybe even longer. Politicians did nothing to help them, and seemed to have no concern for them. Given that, a vague promise of a better life was enough to prompt many to take a gamble.

Mistrust of elites was a big part of the Brexit rebellion, and yet those elites -- on both sides -- lied again and again, and voters didn't seem too bothered.

May Day

And so, a little over a year after pulling off an unexpected election victory, David Cameron fell after an equally unexpected referendum defeat.

Hold off on the sympathy though -- the former Prime Minister is entirely the architect of his own downfall. He offered a referendum he didn't want because he thought it would kill off UKIP -- it didn't. He thought he'd be able to abandon the pledge in return for another coalition deal with the Lib Dems - but that party's total collapse handed him an outright majority. He thought key allies like Gove and Johnson would eventually line up alongside him -- wrong again. And he arrogantly assumed the "scare the hell out of voters" policy that worked in Scotland would allow him to drift to victory.

David Cameron, the man who accidentally took Britain out of the European Union, and triggered a summer of insanity across both main parties.

While Labour wasted months on an amateurish, and ultimately pointless attempt to oust Jeremy Corbyn, the Conservatives demonstrated their ruthless streak. Michael Gove plunged a dagger into Boris Johnson, and managed to skewer his own prospects too. Andrea Leadsom (remember her) managed to destroy her campaign with a single newspaper interview.

So our next Prime Minister took office after saying almost nothing, and just waiting.

Theresa May has benefitted from the opposition's disarray, but her gigantic opinion poll lead is deceptive. She heads a government with a tiny majority, yet isn’t shy about making enemies, sacking the best part of a dozen ministers from her government, banning MPs from Downing Street for saying rude things about her trousers, and cutting off anyone who points out that "Brexit means Brexit" is not, strictly speaking, a plan.

If the opposition ever actually got its act together, she could find life a lot more difficult. Right now, her biggest difficulty comes from the Supreme Court, ruling within weeks on who has the right to activate Article 50 (Spoiler: probably not her)

Hail to the chump

But Brexit was nothing to the globe-shaking tremor of Donald Trump's election. A man who insulted Mexicans and Muslims, went to war with a dead soldier's parents, mocked the disabled and in the end was caught bragging about sexually assaulting women -- all things that did nothing to dissuade 60-million Americans from making him the most powerful person on earth.

No-one has assumed such high office with so little preparation before, and with so many of his own citizens so implacably opposed to his leadership. Trump is a carnival barker, whose bluster took him further than even he imagined possible. That says something about the profound distaste so many people have for the political class. 

But voters so willing to ignore the lies, the insults and the self-confessed sexual assaults have accidentally empowered some pretty nasty people. Those giving Nazi salutes to welcome Trump’s victory may be a tiny minority, but they’ll be a loud and disturbing one.

Now this over-promoted self-publicist has to lead the most powerful nation on earth, and at times already gives the impression of being worked by strings stretching all the way to the Kremlin.

It’s tempting to welcome the end of 2016, and hope it signals a change in our collective fortunes. Maybe 2017 could bring a little less lying, a little less hostility in public discourse. Maybe we could all just try a little harder.

It just doesn’t seem terribly likely.

for more on the events of 2016, listen to our podcast review of the year, or subscribe at paulosbourne.net/podcast