2011 has been an astonishing and at times epoch making twelve months. It is a year that has had more than its fair share of events that will mark it out and make it forever memorable, that will resonate through history, bending and shaping it in ways for now unknown, like a massive star bends and shapes space time.
What has made it so astonishing is that so many of these events came out of a clear blue sky, entirely unforeseen. We had the usual natural disasters, the usual political and personal folly; but on top we had events and revolutions, a domino effect across the middle east which made regimes around the world tremble with fear and inspired hope in anyone who cares about freedom, human rights and democracy.
The overriding theme of the year has been technology. We have long known that we are living through a technological revolution, a time when constant innovation has changed our lives in ways few could have imagined, least of all those who, without irony, call themselves futurologists. But most of this technology, though exciting and life changing for those fortunate enough to be able to afford to ride the bandwagon, has been about leisure and, at best, education. The fact that few nowadays are untouched by the internet and the rise of the mobile phone has been more a matter of curiosity than anything else. When 3G first came along the phone companies didn't really know what we the public would do with it. Now we have Twitter and Facebook constantly at our fingertips, we have mobile e-mail and documents. We have pocket cameras ready to capture life's minutiae and to spread those moments virally around the world.
But it was 2011 which revealed to us the power of these devices and just how our interconnected world can be a force for good, or at least a force for change. Nobody saw the Arab Spring coming. Nobody imagined that we would soon be rid of three of the world's nastiest but most entrenched dictators. This time last year it had started, we just didn't know exactly what had started. Mohamed Bouazizi, enraged by the arrogance of officialdom denying him a living, set himself alight. Word spread through the internet. The technological revolution had created a real revolution, the old fashioned sort and, within a month, the first of that triumvirate of torture and tyranny, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had fled abroad with as much of his ill gotten gains as he could load on a plane.
Within weeks a second had departed as the revolution spread to the lynchpin of the middle east and its most populous state, Egypt. Then it spread to Libya. Surely, the experts opined, that wily old madman Gadaffi would survive. He was more entrenched than all of them. After all, the revolutionary fervour spread to Bahrain and Yemen and Syria, but without the same success. The dictators were learning from the mistakes of their peer group. But around the world regimes trembled. Some responded by oppressing their people further. Others chose to at least talk about reform and greater openness.
And when eventually Gadaffi fled and was eventually despatched by a people mad for revenge, there can have been few dictators around the world who did not tremble a little more and few who, though revolted by the images of blood and pitiless violence, were not a little thrilled that this most cynical of dictators, this man who only weeks earlier had promised terrible retribution on the dogs rebelling against him when NATO went away, had got a dose of his own medicine. He was reported to have asked his assailants 'what did I do to you?'
Technology played its part here in Britain too. Journalists had discovered many years ago, before phones became smart, that there was gold to be gleaned from hacking into the phones of celebrities and other targets. This was journalism that could be done from the comfort of their desks, serving up gossip and occasional even juicier titbits about the lifestyles of the rich and famous. It would probably all have been restricted to angry actors and tv presenters but for the revelation, subsequently shown to be untrue, that the News of the World had deleted messages on the phone of Milly Dowler and other unwilling participants in the media circus.
Before all of this came out, we had had seen technology confounding British justice and showing the law to be an ass once again. Celebs and errant husbands had taken to securing privacy orders with draconian measures which prevented freedom of speech and even the reporting of cases. The masses of the Twitterati and blogosphere expressed their outrage at the likes of Ryan Giggs trying to hide his indiscretions behind the mask of privacy. The line between freedom of expression and the right to privacy was a debate that started in the press only to be drowned out by the News International furore. It is a subject we will return to, perhaps in a less busy year than 2011.
The British riots in August were a less wholesome example of what technology can do. This eruption of violence and greed, shown in real time across the 24 hour news networks, shocked the nation and the world. It came about at first because one man was shot and youth rioted. In subsequent days that link was purely imaginary. The real link was once again mobile phones and 24 hour news and the realisation that people could loot and rob with impunity. Later studies sought to pin the blame on the police, who apparently are not liked by large sections of our youth, usually the criminal sections. One even flew back from his holidays early to join in the fun. Quite how this proved the point of those arguing that the riots were down to police oppression and government cuts remains a mystery.
Yet it is undeniable that the Metropolitan Police, which has had another disastrous year, for those few days, lost control of the streets of the nation's capital. Only when they deployed to their full strength, supplementing their numbers with officers from as far afield as Wales, did London's streets become calm again, albeit an eerie, nervous kind of calm. Time eventually changed the mood as only time can. Lessons will have been learnt. The only revolution sparked was one in police tactics and public attitudes. The prevailing attitudes were that these were greedy thugs who saw an opportunity. If it were to happen again they would not have it so easy, not least because shopkeepers and communities would fight back, as they did in parts of London.
Contrast those few days in Britain (or England as the ever precious Scots insisted we call it on this occasion) with the scenes in Japan following the devastating earthquake and tsunami, another event brought to a watching world live on television or your chosen viewing device. There was no looting and lawlessness, there was just quiet, dignified grief laced with shock, plus a stoical determination to rebuild. Even the nuclear plant at Fukushima was dealt with with quiet efficiency, despite the media jeremiahs predicting imminent disaster. In Europe, German politicians reacted in a very unGerman way and decided that nuclear was altogether too dangerous, despite clear evidence of design flaws in notoriously earthquake prone Japan (where do we get the word tsunami from after all?)
Yet that reality is some way from dawning as we reach the end of 2011. Britain vetoed one of those deals which was meant to save the Euro but which was actually just a power grab by France and Germany, along with a nice opportunity to pin the blame on we recalcitrant and insufficiently European Brits. At the time of writing there is every chance that Europe will simply do what it always does and refuse to take no for an answer. Those nice Lib Dems will probably help our European partners get what they want, whilst claiming to do the opposite in their electoral strongholds in the south west. Fortunately other countries, notwithstanding the previous agreement, have now realised how dangerous what is being proposed could prove to be. Another summit will soon appear on the horizon at which nothing will be achieved.
Meantime Europe, whilst the middle east fought for democracy, managed to become even more undemocratic in 2011. The prime minister of Greece was swiftly despatched for having the temerity to suggest that he should consult the people through a referendum. He was followed by Silvio Berlusconi, both replaced by unelected technocrats, alleged experts who will toe the European line and impose cuts on their people to save the great Euro project. This is odd when you think about it, since Berlusconi, in at least his private affairs, was famous for buying off people who initially said no. But then the same was true of Dominique Strauss Kahn. He liked women who said no. It excited him. Perhaps that's why he was, until one such woman spoke out and was joined by others, regarded as favourite for the French presidency.
In domestic British politics, the clear winner was Alex Salmond who achieved what few thought possible and which was actually supposed to be impossible by design thanks to the devolution arrangements - namely a majority in the Scottish Parliament. He now intends to hold a referendum on independence, albeit at a time that suits him after engineering a big row with London. For now it looks unlikely, but then we said the same this time last year about his election chances. Indeed Ed Miliband this time last year said that Scotland would be the setting for Labour's fightback.
Speaking of Miliband, or Forrest as he is known on this blog, it has been a terrible year. But for a brief spell when he set the agenda around the phone hacking and News International story, he has consistently failed to make an impact and is actively sinking in the polls against a government presiding over a flatlining economy and imposing spending cuts.
Ah, say his defenders, but that is based largely around his performances in the PMQs sessions, when David Cameron can produce a good line and Forrest, in his flat footed way, can be made to look rather silly. But that is very far short of his problem. His problem is that he is the geek who stabbed his brother in the back. He is someone who wanted the top job and, but for a few soundbites, seems to have little idea what to do with it. It's like Gordon Brown all over again. He is a bandwagon jumper who consistently jumps on the wrong one or manages to get the tone wrong when he chooses the right one, witness his ill judged attempt to side with the Occupy movement of latter day hippies and Marxist fantasists currently besmirching one of our greatest landmarks in London.
It's actually British and indeed western politics in microcosm. We have leaders who cannot lead and who speak in endless soundbites without any content for fear of saying the wrong thing or offending the wrong people. Have we forgotten this much mocked but actually quite instructive interview? It's unintentionally hilarious but shows that it is not just on the floor of the House of Commons that this alleged intellectual is utterly incapable of thinking on his feet and talking extemporaneously without resorting to pre-prepared lines and soundbites. It's no wonder people think he's weird.
David Cameron is looking increasingly like a prime minister blessed with good luck. His opponents are looking clueless and conflicted and struggling to come up with a convincing line on the economy. His partners in government are restricted to claiming that they are there purely to restrain those evil Tories and send their spokemen out to trot out this line whenever possible. Oh and Clegg is going to reform the House of Lords too we're told because this year's other attempt at constitutional change via a referendum so excited the public.
Across the pond, Barack Obama is ending the year looking surprisingly likely to be re-elected at the end of 2012. This is not because he has a good year in international diplomacy, because it has been as disastrous as all of the others and with another war in the middle east a looming possibility just as he as pulled out of Iraq; it's not because the American economy is on the mend or that unemployment is falling. It's not even because he managed to kill America's public enemy number one just before the anniversary of 9/11. It's actually because, like his table tennis partner David Cameron, he is lucky enough to be facing a party in disarray with no clear leader, just a bunch of opportunists who look more like they are trying to build a media image to sell books and forge a media career rather than be leader of the free world.
The one thing that was not extraordinary about 2011 was that we lost a number of people to disease, old age, violence or simple human folly. The death of Elizabeth Taylor would at any other time have been front page news. On many occasions, as this blog pointed out, there was just too much news in 2011.
The shock of the murders of 69 people in normally sleepy and peaceful Norway will live long in the memory. Anders Breivik, the perpetrator, has since been judged to be insane, but it is hard not to worry that his kind of insanity may spread if our politicians do not get to grip with our economic woes and find a way to embrace and seize on the opportunities of globalisation without marginalising those who have been priced out of markets and decent paying jobs. We will need better and braver politicians than those we have watched in frustration in 2011 if we are not to descend into the kind of politics Breivik espoused, however deranged he may be. I have a friend who lives in Norway as an immigrant who, not long after the murders, had a Nazi sign daubed outside his home. We should be fearful. Norway, after all, is rich and prosperous and not in the dysfunctional, undemocratic, sclerotic EU and its absurd common currency.
And of course we lost Amy Winehouse this year too. Few were surprised. But we were still sad. Her legacy of sublime music, though a consolation, cannot diminish the regret of what else she could have achieved.
We should however mention that this was the year of Adele, and what a year it was for her. At a time when British female songstresses seem to be everywhere, she was way ahead of the field. Apparently there were more singles, in their various forms, sold in the UK last year than ever before which is a surprising but uplifting statistic. Adele must be responsible for a large part of that success story, something that Britain remains very very good at. Sadly she ended it having to have surgery on those astonishing vocal chords of hers.
And in this year when technology helped to change and shape the world in ways that are still emerging, we also lost a man who helped bring that technology to the masses. Steve Jobs was a visionary, a challenging man who challenged those around him to create extraordinary devices and products we didn't know we needed. In the years to come those devices will continue to change and shape our world as they did in 2011, so perhaps it is appropriate that this year ends with the British designer of some of Apple's most iconic products, Jonathan Ive, being knighted.
Finally, as if to prove that this year was the year of technology, North Korea, a country that cuts itself off from all of it, proved the point. This pariah state and feudal dictatorship lost one dear leader and has now handed the crown (they might as well have a crown) to another podgy, overindulged misfit in a land of famine and malnutrition. This is a country that needs a lot of things more than it needs smart phones, but the fact that they are denied them means that it is likely to endure.
So goodbye 2011, wou will not be forgotten, even if we are glad that you are now gone.
Happy New Year!