Moments That Made The Year : Private lives, public debate: The growing moral maze

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The Independent Online
A newspaper editor, said one great journalist, is a man who separates the wheat from the chaff - and prints the chaff. I hope that in this respect at least, The Independent has been thoroughly badly edited throughout 1996. But if the chaff content is ever too high, then I have no excuse; we have had great stories to report and great writers to report them. Our stroppy platoon of columnists have delighted and infuriated you in equal measure, which seems about right. We have taken and used some all-time great photographs and introduced new artists, including the fine, sinewy drawing of Chris Priestley (see below). I have made many changes to the newspaper; and even on the law of averages, it is possible that some of them have been for the better.

But enough of the pottery. What about its contents, the story of 1996? What stands out from the year, and what lessons might we draw?

Politics itself has been dominated by Europe, and by the political decay of the Major administration. Instant historical analysis can be hilariously wrong: we should leave it a few decades to judge the effect of Britain's anti-Continental drift. But it looks as if in 1996 our political class concluded that European union, on the federal model championed by France and Germany, was not for them.

That is a sweeping judgement. But the anti-Brussels fever has spread beyond the Conservative Party and infects much more than the single-currency question. Try to imagine a Tony Blair-led government confronting the hard choices - swapping sterling for the euro, or acquiescing in more majority voting. Even if the Conservatives are in political shreds at the time, he will note the raucous and sentimental patriotism of the press and the self-righteous xenophobia aflame on the right of politics; and he will back off. The Tory anti-federalists may well lose their party the election; but I suspect they have already prevented Britain becoming a full participant in the kind of complete union planned for decades in Paris, Bonn and Brussels.

Withdrawal, which only a couple of years ago was a taboo topic, is now openly discussed by Conservative right-wingers and by the hectoring classes who have signed up for Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party, or the UK Independence Party. "Renegotiate" is the code word for an entirely new relationship with the EU. Unless the union radically changes from within, that seems likely to mean leaving it: even John Major has flirted, however ambiguously, with the idea of a breakdown in British-EU relations. We may come to that, though the decay of the Major administration has probably exaggerated the strength of the "antis" - they are more divided and less numerous than their press support suggests.

The Independent was founded 10 years ago as a firmly pro-European paper. We have agonised and argued about all this; in many ways, we would love to have been the paper that championed the single currency in the teeth of the John Bull brigade. (John Bulls, it should be added, who live abroad and are against the EU in part because they fear that it might try to regulate properly their global businesses.)

But there are deep democratic problems about having a pan-European economic policy. Like: what happens if a democratically elected national government wants to go a different way, and is ordered not to? Like: how would people react in recessions when informed that the austerity policy which cost them a job or a pay cut, came not from elected governments but from a bank? Until there are answers here, we finally decided that monetary union could do more to wreck the union than to build it. This puts us in a minority of a minority; we are part of the pro-European minority in the media, and a minority anti-EMU voice in that. Too bad: the great lack in British and Continental politics has been a strongly pro-European voice which is insistent about democracy, asks for clarity and believes in the rights of regions and small nations as well as big ones. In a small way, The Independent has tried to address this by arguing for a European confederacy, a less ambitious but more tightly drawn, constitution-based political body, overseeing a Europe united by free trade and liberal, democratic values, rather than vague aspirations and directives.

That kind of union is not an impossible dream. The turmoil produced by the march to monetary union, in Britain and elsewhere, may produce a modified and gentler union. If it doesn't, it will surely spawn another generation of aggressively nationalist politics, here and on the Continent. That is unequivocally the last thing Europe needs.

The slow falling-apart of British Conservative government under the pressures of the EU programme has not been an enjoyable or edifying spectacle. Granted, it has been more amusing than watching paint dry, or planks warp. But only just. The depression has not been lightened by stories about sleaze, parliamentary arrogance and political incompetence. The non- headline story of Parliament during the year is, however, the new mood and rules governing MPs' behaviour. The Scott report was not properly responded to by the Government - people hung on who should have gone - but that and the Nolan Commission have changed the political weather. Only a few of the more arrogant and out-of-touch MPs still think they don't have a trust problem with voters. The new rules and the sternness with which David Willetts was treated by other MPs are perhaps a sign of the House slowly coming to order.

Such guarded optimism can't be applied to the BSE affair. As a study in the conduct of public policy, it will go down in history alongside the poll tax, and is about as cheering. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was acting both as a political lobby group for the beef industry and as its health watchdog; these proved incompatible. Maff doesn't deserve to survive what followed. The ministerial response was slow, evasive and at times chaotic. Departments wrangled in public. Newspapers led a public panic; there was too little reasoned and detailed argument. Everyone appealed to "science" and discovered that science was human, and had opinions too. Britain was quickly isolated in the EU and a mixture of pride and timidity meant that the fast, drastic decisions which might have limited the damage were fudged. And the national opportunity to look afresh at intensive farming and ask whether there isn't another, better way to produce safe food seems to have been missed.

Another thing that struck me forcibly is how closely connected our private lives and public debates are becoming. Increasingly, in The Independent, as elsewhere, "news" isn't only a crashing plane or a politician's views; it is also about lifestyle, behaviour and individual choices. In the office, our liveliest arguments tend not be left versus right, but between social conservatives and libertarians, on issues such as censorship, morality, privacy, drugs and the new bio-technologies. Here, as with the more conventional issues, we have analysed and argued and I'm not ashamed of the results.

For, throughout the year past and, no doubt, through the year ahead, we have been struggling in the most savagely competitive newspaper market - the toughest in the world. We have faced Rupert Murdoch's price-cutting - an attempt to close us down, whatever his minions say - giveaway offers and awesome advertising campaigns. Privately, senior Tory and Labour politicians agree that Murdoch is using business tactics that wouldn't be allowed in other countries. But they are too frightened of his power to intervene. We will manage without them. Our core readership has stuck with us, forgiven me the mistakes of a novice editor and kept up a lively correspondence with our writers. The year ahead will bring the most important election Britain has faced for very many years. And that means that it will also bring ranting and obfuscation, xenophobia and propaganda, bullying and a certain amount of hysteria. We are a young newspaper. But the coming year, like the past decade, will be a time when Britain needs a decent, liberal, pro-European and above all independent newspaper, one with an open mind and no political baggage. I may be a little biased but it seems to be that this would be a less interesting and less informed country without The Independent. I hope that, as you sip your Boxing Day soda water, you think so too.