20 December 2012
versions of 2012.
What was yours?
How can you tell the story of a whole year? It's not possible, of course, since any account is bound to be selective and reflect the limited perspective of the writer.
So 2012 could be portrayed as a year of global conflict and economic uncertainty (no shortage of material on these topics); or, on the domestic front (whether defined in UK or Scottish terms), as a series of political embarrassments from which none of the main parties has emerged with credit; or, as a description of the changing face of Britain, taking account of evidence on migration, religious belief, health, housing and employment; or, less seriously, as a record of the rise and fall of real stars and fake 'celebrities', some of whom made their final appearance on the stage of life in the course of the year.
I shall not attempt to offer a 'grand narrative' of 2012. Instead, I shall sketch three versions of the past year, written from different angles. The first will be an upbeat story of Britain's achievements, seen from the viewpoint of mainstream politicians and establishment institutions. This will be followed by a rather more critical account, partly informed by the topics which have preoccupied SR contributors and readers in the course of the year. The third version will suggest that, for many people, the significance of 2012 resides in very personal experiences which have touched their lives.
Version 1: Rule Britannia
Judged by the publicity that accompanied them, the showcase events of the year were the Queen's diamond jubilee celebrations and the London Olympics and Paralympics. They occupied many column inches in newspapers and many hours of radio and television coverage. Viewing figures for the rather damp River Thames pageant and the Buckingham Palace concert (featuring several ageing pop stars) suggested a nation with a continuing appetite for all things monarchical.
For ardent royalists, the various events to mark the queen's 60 years on the throne were a tribute to the steadfastness and dedication with which she has fulfilled her duties – qualities that stand in stark contrast to some of the politicians with whom she has had to deal. In Scotland, the jubilee celebrations were relatively muted compared to other parts of the UK but most Scots enjoyed the extra holiday and the people of Perth welcomed the reinstatement of city status.
We are pretty good at ceremonial events in Britain, whether it is a royal wedding, the opening of parliament, or an investiture at Buckingham Palace. The symbolic value of these occasions is, however, open to various interpretations: they can be seen as an important expression of tradition and continuity; or as a demonstration of archaic forms of power and privilege; or as the retention of the trappings of empire long after Britain's standing in the world has declined. However, whatever the preferred interpretation, it cannot be denied that the diamond jubilee loomed large in the national consciousness in the first half of 2012.
Despite pre-event criticism of the award of some contracts, the online booking system and arrangements for security, both the Olympics and the Paralympics turned out to be huge successes. The national tour of the Olympic torch attracted much more enthusiasm than many anticipated (even I made an effort to see it as it passed through Bridge of Allan) and British competitors did well in most sports: the achievements of Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah, Sir Chris Hoy, Andy Murray, Ellie Simmonds and Bradley Wiggins (among many others) gave great pleasure to spectators and viewers. The BBC occasionally became the British Boasting Corporation with its jingoistic support for home athletes but, compared with what emerged later in the year, that turned out to be a minor transgression by the corporation.
Politicians made great play of both these events, seeking to mobilise them in support of a positive spin on the state of the nation: the message was 'Here's what Britain at its best can achieve'. However, some commentators did not fail to observe that this line had the added advantage of deflecting attention from other areas of public life that conveyed a very different message.
Version 2: Broken Britain
We may have moved on (a little) from last year's stories about greedy politicians fiddling their expenses and out-of-touch bankers rewarding themselves for failure, but there was no shortage in 2012 of other episodes that cast serious doubt on the integrity and competence of major institutions. The reputation of the police was seriously damaged by the report on the Hillsborough disaster; the performance of some hospitals, health boards and care homes, particularly in their response to complaints, came in for criticism; the phone hacking scandal which had led to the closure of a national newspaper and the arrest of leading journalists, prompted the Leveson inquiry which uncovered all sorts of dirty deeds in high places; and the BBC's mishandling of the Savile affair exposed a culture in which questions were not asked and responsibility was evaded, defects which led to the very early (but not unrewarded) departure of its director-general.
One consequence of episodes in which powerful institutions fail to live up to decent standards of behaviour – and then try to conceal their shortcomings – is that there is a general loss of trust and respect for those occupying leadership positions. All the regulatory mechanisms in the world will not bring about effective change if senior people simply cannot be trusted to act on the basis of conscience or principle. In the longer-term, this is profoundly damaging for the democratic basis of society, perhaps opening the door for extremist groups claiming to offer 'solutions'.
In Scotland we have had the endless tribulations at Creative Scotland, leading eventually to the resignation of the chief executive (though board members remain in place). Quite apart from its lack of a coherent policy on the arts (a term which should be reinstated to replace the wretched 'creative industries'), one of the major offences of Creative Scotland – as Kenneth Roy has pointed out – was its abuse of language, as reflected in its press releases and official statements. Any organisation which has 'autodrivel' as its default form of communication simply cannot be taken seriously.
We have also had the continuing fallout from the Rangers saga, a topic which prompted a number of lively SR articles. Likewise, the debate about gay marriage in the national press produced some no-doubt sincere, but occasionally overwrought, diatribes on both sides. The Scottish Government has wisely steered clear of the first issue (presumably for fear of inflaming sectarianism) but has maintained a steady position on the latter.
Tension between Westminster and Holyrood over the forthcoming referendum on independence has been a recurring theme, with many questions remaining unresolved. So far the debate within Scotland has not been impressive, with both the 'Yes Scotland' and 'Better Together' campaigns preferring to trade abuse rather than address the hard issues on which voters seek clear answers. The prospect of another 18 months or so of more of the same is not attractive. Such an important decision requires a well-informed electorate: the situation is not helped by the decline in newspaper readership and shallow 'sound bite' coverage on radio and television.
Version 3: Personal Stories
For some people 2012 will not be memorable because of grand matters of state or shifts in social attitudes. Instead, they will remember the year for quite different reasons. This was brought home to me by two recent communications I received. One was a message in a Christmas card from a friend from university days in the 1960s.
John lives in the south of England and we have not met for some time but we keep in touch by letter and telephone. His year had been dominated by two events. The first was his involvement in a lengthy public inquiry. He was the chief witness in a case where all the big guns were on the other side. As a rather reserved man, he would have found the experience difficult and perhaps intimidating, especially as his word was subject to sustained challenge. But he is also a highly principled man and it must have been a source of considerable satisfaction when the outcome of the inquiry had clearly been strongly influenced by his evidence.
The second part of his year was challenging in a different way. A close friend sustained a serious head injury as a result of a fall and was in the neurological ward of a hospital for eight weeks. On release, the friend initially required 24-hour care and John provided this for five days a week, willingly giving up his time to aid the process of recovery. In such a situation, the significance of public events must recede as one's sense of what really matters focuses on the immediate and practical.
An even more dramatic adjustment of outlook was suggested by another communication I received. I used to teach for the Open University and one of my first students was a delightful and extremely able mature lady who went on to gain a first-class degree. We normally exchange Christmas cards but this year she wrote to say that she wouldn't be sending any as there had been a family tragedy earlier in the year. Her 28-year-old grand-daughter had suddenly died in her sleep without any prior indication of illness. The family simply couldn't face the celebratory atmosphere of Christmas and were going away. For them 2012 won't be remembered as the year of the Olympics or the diamond jubilee. It will forever be associated with their tragic loss.
These are just cases that I happen to know about. Extend the analysis to include the families of soldiers who have been killed in Afghanistan, of victims of crime or road accidents, of people who have taken their own lives, and you have a very different perception of how 2012 might be regarded. Newspaper and television 'reviews of the year', which are often driven by the availability of dramatic photographs or film footage, can fail to capture the intensely personal nature of memory, its emotional depth and evocative power. At a human level, such experiences are much more significant than public spectacles or political controversies.
Alongside end-of-year surveys it is common to find predictions of what the year ahead might bring. In a recent SR article (6 December), Ian Hamilton launched an impassioned attack on the shallowness and materialism of contemporary society, with its lack of worthy ideals. His plea that 'We need a new society' clearly struck a chord with many readers. I know what he means. In my gloomier moments I sometimes think that spivs have taken over everywhere – not just at the sharp end of business or in the machinations of government, but in places where you might expect something better, such as the professions or the academic world.
But in my more positive moods I am struck by the number of people (like John) who continue to try to act on the basis of principle, rather than self-interest, even if in some cases they find themselves working in institutions that seem to have lost their way. That gives me hope that it is still worth fighting against the forces of darkness in society. A suitable challenge for SR contributors and readers in 2013 would be to think of practical ways in which that fight might be pursued.
Walter Humes held professorships at the universities of Aberdeen, Strathclyde and West of Scotland and is now a visiting professor
of education at the University of Stirling