One year ago, I excitedly declared that 2016 had changed everything in politics. There were a lot surprises last year and it looked like 2017 would also be a year of upheaval. But generally, it wasn't. The most surprising thing about 2017 was that it was quite unsurprising.
2017 was the year that the vague promises of a resurgent Britain post-Brexit had to become some kind of reality. It was of no surprise that this process revealed that the government had no idea what it wanted from Brexit, had a weak negotiating hand and was more interesting in keeping the Tory party together than in the best interests of the country. What hasn't happened is a grand re-organisation of British politics around a nativist/globalist axis. This is mainly because there is no serious energy behind overturning or ignoring the result of the referendum.
Unsurprisingly, the Brexit program became unstuck when it met the political reality of the EU. The government has no solution to the problems raised by the Irish border and no leverage to reduce the divorce bill, as no deal is far worse for Britain than the EU. The referendum didn't deliver any idea of what the country specifically wanted from Brexit (EEA, customs union, Canada plus, Norway minus) so the government, not having an easy option available, is handling Brexit the same way as everything else: badly.
Leaving the EU is progressing in a fairly normal way. The government is trying to keep all its various factions on side, whilst trying not to do anything that would devastate the British economy and leave the Tories unelectable for a generation. This is, in essence, what every government does all the time. This is normal. It doesn't mean that Brexit won't be a disaster - it could well be - but it is progressing exactly as we expected.
One of last year's biggest shocks was Donald Trump's surprise victory in the US Presidential Election. Much like Brexit, Trump's programme has come unstuck when faced with political reality, despite his claims to be a brilliant deal maker. Trump has done little in his first year, save annoy liberals and shout at the media. His healthcare reforms have failed, the wall remains unstarted, his infrastructure program is nowhere to be seen. This administration has been characterised by incompetence and scandal. This is what happens when you elect an anti-system populist with no experience. Unsurprisingly, he does badly in a job he is not prepared for.
The biggest surprise of this year was firstly that Prime Minister Theresa May called a general election, after saying that she wouldn't, and then that Labour did so well. In April the polls indicated that Labour were headed for a massive defeat, but Jeremy Corbyn was able to do the unprecedented and close a 24 point poll gap in six weeks. This showed that politicians do get second chances at a first impression, as May was able to fall so far in the estimation of the electorate and Corbyn was able to rise so much. I am glad that the biggest surprise of this unsurprising year was a good one.
Neither Brexit nor the general election changed the alignment of British politics. The broadly left and broadly right camps are stronger than ever. The two main parties received 82% of the vote between them their largest share of the vote since 1970. Corbyn didn't run on a populist anti-globalist platform and May didn't make defending neo-liberal globalisation the central message of her campaign. Labour ran on building houses, protecting the NHS, lifting the public sector wage gap, abolishing student fees and renationalising the railways. May tried to run on the economy and her record in government. These are standard centre left and centre right platforms.
Despite sometimes hinting that more radical ideas were being considered, there was no mention of breaking up the banks (or even separating the high street and investment banks), abolishing the GDP growth targets, making a big investment in green energy or introducing universal basic income. The Corbyn campaign was successful in moving the Overton Window to the left on issues such as rail nationalisation and tuition fees. It also proved that young people will vote if they offered a platform that appeals to them.
Corbyn's manifesto is standard social democratic politics in a lot of our European neighbours. Despite the backdrop of Brexit and Corbyn's past being very different to a standard Labour Party leader, this election didn't signal a titanic shift in politics. Corbyn was able to defy all expectations and Labour are now in a much stronger position to win the next general election. But he did this by rallying the liberal sections of society around a social democratic platform not by proposing to overthrow the system.
On the international stage there were few surprises. IS were driven out of Mosul and are likely to be completely defeated soon. This shows that when the world's most powerful countries collectively decide that they want to destroy something, they can. Whether they can build a lasting peace is another question.
North Korea did exactly what we expected and tested more ballistic missiles. The rest of the world is paralysed when faced with the option of a nuclear missile armed North Korea or a war that could cost the lives of millions. None of this is shocking. The problem is that we are only faced with bad options.
This year saw an explosion in allegations of sexual harassment against prominent politicians and members of the media. Sadly, I was not surprised that men in positions of power had been abusing female colleagues for years. The scale of the accusations indicates that a change of some sort is likely to follow. The hushing up of such cases cannot be allowed to continue. These revelations could be the event of 2017 that has the biggest long-term impact. Although at the time of writing, a lot has been said, but wide sweeping change is yet to come.
Next year Brexit, the Trump administration and the North Korean problem will continue as we expect. On Brexit, a deal that makes no one happy, but avoids a disaster, will most likely be struck. The world will still not know what to do about North Korea. The American midterm elections have the greatest potential to be surprising. Will Trump's poor performance see a massive defeat for the Republicans and the effective (or literal) end of his presidency? Will right-wing populism be shown as ineffective and doomed to failure? Will Trump surprise us again and defy the odds to win? There may be some surprises (good or bad) next year.
In 2017 politics feels as if it has settled down (as much as it ever does) after a tumultuous 2016. There are still issues to be addressed. Anti-politics remains a potent force. The culture war exemplified by Brexit has not gone away. America remains a divided country. The problems with our economy, the environment and global-political structures haven't been resolved. However, these are not causing dramatic changes to how we do politics.
I have some hopes for next year, mainly that the Labour Party will build on the gains of this year. There might be a general election next year and power is within reach for Labour. Other hopes I have is that a Brexit deal is reached that won’t destabilise Northern Ireland, guarantee the rights of the EU citizens living in the UK and will prevent an economic meltdown. On the Trump and North Korea issues, I simply hope that they don’t destroy the world.
2018 could well be a surprising year. The financial crisis will be ten years old and it's most powerful effects may be still to come. The global economy remains weak, growth is anaemic across the West and a recession is likely. The spectre of war is stalking the edge of the West and are we incapable of tackling authoritarian strongmen. We have had a calmer year, but I don't think normality is back for good.