Skip to Content

Hugo Rifkind

How to put a positive spin on this bizarre year

We are witnessing the baby steps of a truly mass political engagement

10 December 2016

9:00 AM

10 December 2016

9:00 AM

This is going to be a positive, optimistic column. I promise. Because, look, let’s be honest, I’ve been a bit moany this year, haven’t I? Which may, I suspect, have been a bit misleading. Read me here, or indeed anywhere, and I suspect you could come away thinking I’ve spent the last 12 months, or at least the last six, lying awake, staring at my expensive north London Farrow & Ball ceiling, weeping sad, shuddering, self-indulgent tears at a world moving beyond my ken. I know, I know. I do go on.

Whereas actually, it hasn’t really been like that. For one thing, the bedroom ceiling is just white, so Farrow & Ball would have been a terrible waste and I think we just went with the cheap stuff from Homebase in the end, and that was years ago so it’s all a bit cracked now and frankly not the sort of ceiling you’d expect a cheerleader of the metropolitan liberal elite to have at all — unless you’ve been to one of their houses, of course, in which case you might have looked around in some disappointment and wondered if we were all just doing it for the lols.

More importantly, I’ve actually been quite cheerful. The news has been upsetting, yes, and it has sometimes felt personally so, even though I didn’t actually know David Bowie. Still, anybody working in news who hasn’t found quite a lot of this year utterly thrilling really ought to have been working somewhere else. News, moreover, is just a part of anybody’s life, wherever you work. For me, more importantly, my kids have been happy, my family are all still here, and my newly acquired gym habit has seen me drop a stone and pick up biceps to rival Michelle Obama. Also, quite a lot of my oldest friends have turned 40, meaning I’ve made the trek back up to various bits of Scotland far more often than had become the lacklustre norm.


It was on one such trek that I had an epiphany. It was post-Brexit and pre-Trump, but I think it still stands. It was a friend’s 40th, in a field on a hillside in East Lothian. It was early autumn, and we’d set up a couple of gazebos and a sound system, and later we’d all jump up and down for hours to the sound of silly bands that you probably had to have been a teenager in the early 1990s to really appreciate, such as Therapy? and Faith No More and possibly Rage Against The Machine, although I was a bit wasted by then and couldn’t really bet on it. This, though, was earlier. I was sitting on a log by the fire with a friend of my friend, and we were eating something wholesome and barbecued and wonderful, and I found myself trying to put the most positive spin I could on this odd, frightening year, if only to keep things cheerful. And, as I bullshitted on, I realised to my delighted surprise that I wasn’t bullshitting at all.

The positive spin is about people, and power. Like Brexit or not (and I did not) it is, undeniably, an expression of the (narrow) popular will of the people. The public has been reminded that if a (narrow) majority of them want something to happen, it most certainly can. Which can only be good in the long term, even if it proves to be disastrous in the short term. Indeed, spin it like this, and the more disastrous it turns out to be, the better the fact that it is happening anyway seems to be. Sort of.

People talk a lot of rot. Ideas spread, and sometimes they gain common currency despite being simply nonsense. One such idea, now almost universally believed, is that the ‘political class’ is today more estranged from the public at large than ever before. Historically speaking, however, that just can’t be true. Watch The Crown, for God’s sake. Look at that world of wing collars and waistcoats and country houses, and then look at Ed Balls on Strictly Come Dancing, and tell me this gulf has grown — and I’m sorry, but you’ll just be talking nonsense.

In truth, it is not estrangement which has grown but familiarity, and that familiarity, in good ways as well as bad, has bred contempt. No longer do people look at power and see a tribe wholly different to their own. Rather, they see people exactly like them who appear, through no obvious or evident virtue, to have won a lottery. And so, rather than forgoing control with a forelock–tugging shrug, they take it back, because they can.

For now, granted, I’m not wholly convinced they’re doing anything particularly wise with it. But that’s the process, isn’t it? Momentum, Scottish Nationalism, Brexit, Trump, all that crazy nonsense; these are the baby steps of a truly mass political engagement, brought about by technology that suddenly makes truly mass political engagement possible. Sure, they might not exactly be steps in a great direction, but the printing press also spread pogroms and mass broadcast technology also spread fascism, so thus far perhaps we’re getting off pretty damn lightly.

In the end, if either Trump or Brexit are even half as disastrous as I fear they could be, then perhaps the masses who voted for them will have learned a valuable lesson about the way that (as Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben put it) with great power comes great responsibility. And if they aren’t, as people keep telling me they won’t be, then I suppose we don’t really have anything to worry about anyway. So, chin up and happy Christmas. I’m taking a few days off. Might paint the ceiling.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.


Show comments
Close