For those who think politics does not matter last year provided a rebuke. Politics matters. Politicians matter. How we chose them and who we chose to elect matters. The year ahead will be one of great year of change and the outcome will rest on political leadership. Do our leaders have what it takes?
The challenges are immense. The UK remains focussed on Brexit, the US has sworn in a new Congress and will shortly inaugurate a new President, Europe will see crucial elections in France and Germany, across Syria and Middle East relationships continue to churn and be disrupted, in their different ways China and Russia are increasingly assertive, and Africa will continue to be a continent of contrasts. Not since the end of the Cold War have so many parts of the world experienced change on such a scale at the same time.
But globalisation – the seemingly limitless access to information and apparently increasing ease of movement – was always going to run up against the buffers of the real world in which people live. It was just a question of time. Technology and the rise of robots will continue to dramatically change the way many live and work, but the threats hacking, spying and misinformation that accompany these changes have provided a very real check to the apparently limitless opportunity such change offers.
Human beings still essentially live in communities, walk streets, share public spaces, services and facilities. We remain a socialised group whose main focus is on family, friends and colleagues. The challenge for policy makers remains one of how to include the whole community in the opportunities technology provides and how to ensure groups of people are not excluded from the increasing prosperity such progress delivers.
In many countries across the world it is clear a sense of exclusion and perceived inequality is exacerbating and driving significant political change. The UK is by no means unique in seeing its political settlement disrupted by a significant change in economic circumstance. In 1945 and again in 1979 the country responded to the need for a radically different approach to politics. The 2016 Brexit referendum result was in the tradition of UK voters wanting a decisive change of direction.
US voters opted for change too. In Donald Trump it is certainly what they will have. For the first time in a long time all three branches of the Federal government have a Republican leadership – Congress, Senate and the White House. At state level the Republicans have outperformed their opponents for sometime. That does not necessarily mean it will be harmonious and unified government – but the opportunity is there. It is a stunning reversal for the Democrats and one which will take them a long time to recover from.
Brexit will affect every single person in the UK and across the EU. It is quite possible that the French and German elections will fundamentally alter who we will negotiate with and what they will agree to. It is not at all clear that by the end of 2017 the EU we voted to leave will be the same as the one we are negotiating our departure with. In these circumstances Theresa May is right and sensible to take a measured and thoughtful approach to Brexit. The Prime Minister shows every sign of being resolute and doughty in her approach. This year will need superb leadership and great strength of character. In Mrs May that is precisely what we have.