After Covid I had hoped for a quieter year of recovery, but what an extraordinary year 2022 turned out to be. Who could have imagined a full on conventional kinetic war in Europe, a further swing to autocratic populism, culture wars becoming so extreme as to be almost laughable, and of course three Prime Ministers of the UK within a year. Here are some of my own thoughts…
The war in Ukraine has dominated 2022 for me, personally and in a broader sense. My wife was brought up in the Soviet Union. She has a very close involvement with over 2,500 followers on social media, and we have also had a Ukrainian refugee staying since the early days. My own interest as a historian has developed deeply, and increasingly intensely and personally as people who used to work for me in both Kyiv and Moscow still keep in touch. The invasion has shattered so many of our post war beliefs. I am sure that military historians and analysts will study Russian miscalculations for years, as well as the extraordinary resistance of the Ukrainians, and the perhaps surprising unity of the West.
But what has really affected me profoundly is the human tragedy and cost of a conflict that has been more barbaric than I could possibly have feared. Irina and I are both in pretty constant contact with friends in Ukraine, and perhaps the new year message from one of our friends, a medic in Dnipro, sums up the awful human cost more than anything I can write, since her comments come straight from the heart and the war:
“What an Impossible to sum up 2022.
After all, I have a feeling that this day has not ended - February 24, 2022.
My heart is breaking, crying and thinking about those who have lost loved ones, all those who died protecting us or at home. Torn apart families, lost connections, the inability to hug family and loved ones.
One wish is to hug everyone and save them from this horror and say that everything will be fine. And I really want it to come right now
Hold on, believe, help everyone who needs it.
Set the table for those who are nearby, it's the most precious thing we have
Sadly I think there is much more pain to come but I will go on hoping for a just end to the war. And of course for no further instances of nations thinking that military power can be used to resolve international issues. My memories go back to the heights of the Cold War, and it does seem remarkably similar today. Who would have thought that we would even be considering that any nation would think of using nuclear weapons in 2023? But however unlikely, we are considering that Russia might.
After what seemed like a slight retreat in 2021 the forces of nationalist populism seem to be on the rise again. Israel has its most right-wing nationalist government ever, Iran and Afghanistan continue to deny women even the most basic of human rights. Turkey, Hungary, Poland all became more autocratic, threatening the consensus of liberal democracy that has underpinned society in Europe for so long. In France and even here in Sweden the right made advances, fuelled largely by fears of uncontrolled immigration (and in Sweden by reaction to the rise of violent gang crime, largely immigrant run). I fear it’s a trend that will continue – it’s so easy to blame outsiders for everything that is wrong in society.
As the first world struggles to cope with aging populations, the energy crisis, the cost of living, it will be more and more tempting to blame outside factors. Immigration, war in Europe, the pandemic, anything other than acknowledging that governments have neglected for years the warning signs that were always there, and made no plans for the future. Even climate change has been denied, downplayed, ignored as governments do anything to stay in power. Nice sounding ambitious ideals but almost no explanations of how we are going to achieve those net zero targets!
Solving national problems is not made any easier by our increasingly divided societies. Many years ago I was involved in national politics in the UK. Though I disagreed profoundly with our opponents’ policies, I could still respect their opinions and agree to differ. How different today’s politics seem, parties divided into warring tribes. The USA is perhaps the prime example, with single issues such as abortion dividing the country and generations, while the massive rift between Republicans and Democrats makes the idea of bipartisan co-operation almost impossible. As for the UK, the Brexit referendum was over six years ago, yet still seems to divide the nation beyond party politics and in the most bitter ways.
Single issues feed into the so-called culture wars, fuelled by rabid social media commentators and trolls. Revisionism has gone beyond a realisation that colonialism was not all good into declarations that it was all bad. Historical figures are no longer realised to be products of their time with the values of those times but are condemned outright. Personally I think that Churchill had some unpleasant qualities – as indeed did Gandhi, whose views on black South Africans would not be acceptable in today’s world. But their faults should not negate their positive qualities and achievements.
The past is a different country and its values should indeed be debated and exposed, but to impose today’s values on the past is to do historical consciousness a disservice. Denial of the right to hold differing views is a difficult subject always, as I remember from debating with Holocaust deniers years ago. But it seems to me that tribal divisions reflect not only a growing intolerance of other views, but also increasingly deep fractures in our social contract. An obvious example of extremism in one cause hurting the achievements of others is trans opposition to traditional feminists being able to air their views without receiving threats of losing employment or even personal violence
It’s hard to comprehend from outside how strange Britain seems to have become. Of course I realise that comments like ‘it’s back to the winter of discontent’ and ‘Britain’s once again the sick man of Europe’ are exaggerated, but it is true to say that I and other expats are continually asked what on earth has happened to the United Kingdom. Certainly Brexit was seen in Sweden as a monumental error, and one that inevitably has weakened Britain’s position in Europe and the wider world. But this year has seen more questioning than just why the UK left the EU. Now friends ask how on earth did Johnson get elected even, let alone for so long, since he seems so uncaring about personal morality and belief in truth and serving the nation rather than just himself and his friends. And then we had the difficult task of trying to explain how Truss could be elected PM by only around 170,000 non-elected members of the Tory party. The collapse of her administration seemed to me to be greeted here by heads just shaking in amazed disbelief.
But even bewilderment over British government dysfunction has paled beside the two over all impressions of the UK viewed from Scandinavia at the beginning of 2023. First is the widely covered and seemingly growing impression of what I can only call sleaze. The various scandals in government concerning paid lobbyists, sexual scandals, party donors paying for decorating a Prime Ministerial residence have all contributed to this impression. But what has caused the most raised eyebrows here are the growing scandals over PPE procurement during the pandemic, and how some well connected people seem to have profited hugely and corruptly from a national crisis.
The second comment I hear regularly comes from the current wave of industrial disputes and comments on how bad public services are in the UK, still one of the world’s biggest economies. “Surely it’s simple” one friend said recently “if you want good services you have to pay for them. It’s not rocket science. I don’t understand how you can complain about terrible public services at the same time as refusing to contemplate higher taxes. It just doesn’t make sense.”. Sadly, that seems to me to sum up the basic conundrum in British society perfectly.
So as the year turns I face the future with trepidation and fear for the generatoions younger than myself, facing global challenges that seem to me to need societies to come together not dvide more and more into conflicting tribes. On the other hand I have always been an optimist at heart, so I will continue to hope for a more peaceful and prosperous future. I wish all reading this a personally happy and prosperous 2023.