AS SOURCE DIRECT DRAWS to a close for 2020, it is time to review one of the darkest, craziest twelve months on record. These will be my own deliberately impressionistic and personal reflections on the political year – feel free to send in your own to the usual email address.
2020 began a lifetime ago with the Conservatives on a high, led by an invincible looking Boris Johnson, whose approach to Brexit trounced Labour’s at last December’s General Election. Conservative success in the “red wall” seats of Northern England suggested a potentially unbeatable new electoral coalition.
Donald Trump was also doing rather well, scoring some of his highest net favourability ratings thanks to the Democrats’ fixation with Russiagate, a conspiracy theory which ultimately rebounded to Trump’s favour. In early 2020, it looked like being another good year for the libertarian populist right.
Which only highlights how 2020 transformed our economic, social and political lives. The pandemic halted the populist right juggernaut. Their libertarian rhetoric never had any air of conviction. Where their solutions were tried, the effects were disastrously counterproductive, as in Bolsonaro’s Brazil, Trump’s America and Johnson’s United Kingdom.
2020 was thus, overall, a bad year for the populist right. Yet, to temper that, November’s American election showed there was life in the old dog yet. Despite a year of riots, economic failure, unemployment and the extraordinary mishandling of the pandemic, Trump did far better than expected. And that can’t be blamed on the old convenient excuses of racism, misogyny and so on – not alone. Trump’s vote rose with key minorities and fell among white men without college educations. All of this serves to highlight that something needs to take the place of the populist right, and it cannot be the anaemic likes of Starmer and Biden.
2020 was the year, nonetheless, where the world paid attention to our sole superpower’s glaring problems of racism and gun culture. Black Lives Matter went global. Social movement organisation in working class Black communities was an inspiring and hopeful feature of a grim year. By contrast, certain types of white, middle class liberal radicalism that grew on the back of the movement suggested immaturity that quickly led from extreme talk to compliance. Calls to abolish the police morphed at a blur into gushing over Biden’s VP Kamala Harris, a prosecutor notorious for her “tough on crime” rhetoric. This highlighted the old difficulty – I hope the cliché will be forgiven – of turning morally satisfying slogans into real political solutions.
2020 was a bad year economically, full stop, but an especially bad year for the pro-market, pro-privatisation, pro-austerity, pro-globalisation orthodoxies that dominated politics for the last generation. Once again, the capitalist system needed public bailouts to survive. Government entered our economic lives in unprecedented ways to keep the economy afloat. We have yet to fully process the implications. The long-run economic impact of this year remains unknown. But some form of state planning is back.
2020, by contrast, was a fantastic year for tech overlords. Their fortunes swelled with the pandemic, and there is growing talk of the world’s first trillionaire. “State monopoly capitalism” seems like an increasingly apt description of the emerging world order.
2020 was a bad year for the British state and a good year for Scottish independence. Another poll today is showing support as high as 58 percent. Westminster’s bungling of the pandemic added to Brexit has served to drive traditional unionist holdouts, the small-c conservative middle class, towards the Yes side of the national question.
However, the debate on how to actualise independence, whether in a referendum or not, is no further forward. Equally, the growing popularity of independence among the middle and upper classes of Scotland has prompted an identity crisis in the broader Yes movement. As the SNP leadership surrounds itself with a flanking of corporate lobbyists, the largely working-class movement that fought in 2014 and joined the SNP in mass numbers has been side-lined.
Nonetheless, 2020 may well prove the year when the Yes movement regained some autonomy. Regardless of your view on the individuals who won the SNP’s internal elections, the fact that handpicked media operators like Alyn Smith were booted from power suggests a membership that will not be cowed by an extraordinarily centralised party leadership. That should inspire anyone with a smidgeon of democratic instincts.