Moments that made the year: A nation at ease with itself? We're getting there

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Indy Lifestyle Online
It has been a good year. Good for Britain and good for most of the world. News is mostly led by bad news. Looking back at The Independent during 1997, one finds the whole gamut of human folly and wickedness, in daily instalments: rapes, murders, callous bureaucracy, brutal little wars, child abuse, corruption.

But actually, away from the headlines, the underlying themes we reported and discussed are, when swallowed in retrospective gulps, cheering and positive ones.

Remember, first, that the vast bulk of what mattered in the past 12 months happened privately, in families and companies. We continued to become a richer, better-informed and more secure people. Fine theatre, excellent music, daring fashion and innovative art bubbled up all round the country. Our cities pullulated with energy and self-confidence. Britain became a more cosmopolitan, admired and zippier nation than before. Despite close calls and dark predictions, Northern Ireland continued mostly peaceful.

A cloud over the year, rather bigger than a man's hand, has been global warming and the fears of the effects of climate change. Month after month of weird weather helped keep every thinking citizen at least mildly worried. Around the world, floods, earthquakes, storms and droughts seemed to be more frequent than before. At home, water shortages and changes to our flora and fauna were widely muttered about. At least, although it was a muddled compromise at best, the Kyoto summit saw the beginnings of a world deal. But this is one story that is not going away.

Economically, around the globe, stock markets fell as well as rose. Japan has had a tough year and cannot look forward to 1998 with great bullishness. Korea is in really deep trouble. But overall, trade grew and scores of countries raised themselves another notch from Third-World poverty to First-World affluence.

There were still some brutes and maniacs in charge of individual nations, such as Iraq and Serbia; but less of the world was under brutish or maniacal control in 1997 than at any previous year of world history. Algeria had a year of special horror. From Africa to Russia, there are many examples of misgovernment, corruption and economic foolishness. But more of the world is freer and better-run than before; and some important countries, such as Iran, are slowly rejoining the rest of the world.

Here in Britain, as in other developed countries, we were embroiled in no conflict and became richer. There were the gold-rush stories from the City to the privatised company boardrooms. But leaving them aside, wages rose; unemployment fell; banks and building societies cascaded windfall payments; most house prices rose; and we enjoyed low-inflationary growth. There were fewer coalminers, yes, but many more computer programmers.

Next year will probably be a bit tougher; but a soft economic landing seems likelier than a hard one. The strong pound, which made many people's foreign holidays easier than they would otherwise have been, has produced some export problems, but not of the scale predicted at the time.

As consumers, this was the year many of us bought PCs and joined the Internet. For huge numbers of people, neither money brokers nor drug dealers, it was also the year when carrying a mobile phone became a habit, became normal. In the year ahead, and the one after that, our televisions will change dramatically, so that we have huge numbers of channels. Digital radio will become a ubiquitous, user-friendly joy. The Net will become much easier to use.

But we have grown richer not just in money or gadgets, but in information. If you could be bothered to, in 1997, you learnt a vast amount of new things about the world and the universe. Images flashing back from the beginning of time; a more sophisticated understanding of the relations between genes and human behaviour; warnings about the asteroid threat and the difficulties of working in space; new information about early man; fresh insights into the effects of the oceans on the climate

These are things we have reported and discussed, but often on inside pages, in the business section and in supplements. I've tried to bring more of the warp and weft of daily life into the news pages of the paper. I hope this helps explain why.

The other big non-political event that touched the country was the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in a car crash. It was, of course, a ghastly event, particularly for her children, family and many friends, as well as the millions who worshipped her, in an almost religious fashion, from afar. But the effect of the mourning on the national psyche was enlightening and beneficial. It was a time of national catharsis, when we looked at one another anew and recognised just how much we had changed.

Who is that "we"? The country, after all, was divided. Not everyone was weeping or lighting candles or strewing flowers on the streets of London. Some found the whole thing distasteful and mawkish. But the modes of expression of public grief, emotional, gestural, unashamed, revealed a country much less buttoned-up, formal and reserved than its international image. We are not the country we thought we were. It is almost as if the younger British, in particular, are now "in touch with their emotions", to use the language of pop- psychology. The funeral and the days leading up to it were intense. After them, there was a dramatic drop in the number of people seeking psychiatric help, perhaps because they were calmed and cheered by being part of something bigger than themselves. The aftermath of Diana's death was not all backward- looking sorrow; it had elements of renewal too.

What, though, of the more predictable news agenda, in particular the political scene? Again, the message of 1997 has been mostly good. The revolution in British politics can be overstated.

We have exchanged one decent, liberal-minded prime minister who was struggling with big questions of reform, for another. Tony Blair's problems in trying to reform welfare and keeping up with the rest of the European Union without entering the first phase of monetary union are just the same as John Major. On a smaller scale, he finds himself attacked by the press over ministerial behaviour and by farmers over the continuing beef crisis, just as his predecessor was. The two men are not so ideologically distinct as either would wish us to think. Perhaps Mr Blair is a little more enthusiastic about the Thatcher legacy - certainly, she admires him.

The great difference, and good news for Britain, is that Mr Major commanded an exhausted, divided party which was weak in parliament and running out of time, while Mr Blair has a huge majority, a phalanx of energetic and talented ministers and (by the standards of politics) all the time in the world. He has the support of most of the press. The public finances are relatively strong, and strengthening.

All of this is good news simply because it means he has a far better chance of achieving the necessary modernisation than Mr Major ever did.

Some of that modernising would be anathema to almost any Tory, of course: the constitutional changes - from the steps towards devolution to a serious national debate on voting reform, to the proposed abolition of hereditary peers as political players - are all long-overdue. The seven Blairite months of 1997 did not give us the impression of a government of passionate or particularly well-organised political reformers but still, they have done more reform work already than any other administration since the war. But there will be much more in the year ahead - the detailed legislation setting up the Scottish and Welsh assemblies, and the great debate about London's elected mayor.

What about reform of the welfare state? The cuts to single-parent benefit and possible cuts in disability payments have already caused Mr Blair his hardest moments since taking office.

But no one doubts his iron will on the overarching issue now. In a preview of 1998 recently published by the Economist, Chris Patten, one of the Tories' lost leaders, reflected that "Sooner or later, governments will have to make hard choices. When Britain's Labour government, like other centre-left governments, declines to do so, Mr Hague's Tories must have something coherent to say." He was barely in print before he was out of date.

The new government has been less adept at beginning the national debate about welfare reform, and choosing its targets, than you might have expected. At worst, it has seemed harsh. In other areas, it has not yet demonstrated that it can deliver on educational reform, or is wise in picking its friends. But by any standards, it has made a cracking start, perhaps the most exhilaratingly fast-paced political debut from any administration this century.

Adn that's good too. Isn't it? Sometimes it seems that we are a cynical, grumpy nation, loathing our world decline and terminally nostalgic. But looking back at 1997, there is really no excuse for being a whingeing Brit. Overall, this has been a year of very good omens at home and abroad.

At The Independent ,we have enjoyed ourselves reporting and arguing about them; and we hope you have enjoyed the paper; and we wish you, our readers, a lively, enlightening and lucky year ahead.