Snippy at home, snippy abroad- the year of small crises

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The Independent Online

The year 2000 was - in a word - snippy. Snippy at home and, with two great exceptions, snippy abroad. Britain went from flu to floods via a soggy summer, discovering in the process that, as a nation, we possessed the infrastructure of southern Italy and the stoicism, under duress, of Knightsbridge. Out in the wider world, peace processes stuttered, presidents were nearly not elected and summits either failed or merely limped to the finishing line. Meanwhile, there was a sense of troubles ahead.

The year 2000 was - in a word - snippy. Snippy at home and, with two great exceptions, snippy abroad. Britain went from flu to floods via a soggy summer, discovering in the process that, as a nation, we possessed the infrastructure of southern Italy and the stoicism, under duress, of Knightsbridge. Out in the wider world, peace processes stuttered, presidents were nearly not elected and summits either failed or merely limped to the finishing line. Meanwhile, there was a sense of troubles ahead.

The millennium dawned with angry editors and VIPs failing to recover their sang-froid after being stranded at Stratford station en route to the Dome. Their reaction to their humiliation reminded the rest of us of what a powerful force for change is lost when most of this group opts for private medicine, fee-paying schools, houses in the country and chauffeur-driven limos. The year's running cliché of the Dome as a metaphor for Britain began on the very first day - 2000 was not to be a vintage year for our self-confidence.

By the time the Queen joined hands with Tony Blair to sing "Auld Lang Syne", the sentence "routine operations are being cancelled" was already the catch phrase of the winter - just as "severe flood warnings have been issued" later became the almost musical accompaniment to the autumn's news pictures. An entirely predictable minor flu epidemic exposed the shortage of beds (ie nurses and support staff) in our hospitals and care homes. The usual horror stories involving trolleys and ferried heart patients began to appear. Some NHS managers explained the shortage as being a consequence of greater efficiency. To the untutored, however, a health service unable to treat sick people looked to be startlingly inefficient. Eyes were turned to the Continent where even the French seemed to be doing it better than us. Gordon Brown came up with more money.

In the windy spring, the editor of the Daily Mail, among others, decided that it was time for a coup d'état. There had been minor problems for some time in the port of Dover between asylum-seekers who had come over by boat, and some local people who seemed to have forgotten what ports are about. And the number of those seeking asylum in the UK had shown a steep rise - mostly as a consequence of trouble in the Balkans. Nevertheless, the difficulties caused to some councils by this increase were highly localised - for most of the country (as measured by opinion polls) this was not a big issue.

Until someone decided that it should be. For several months, the Mail, and to a lesser extent The Sun, waged relentless war on asylum- seekers. Murdering asylum-seekers were found, asylum-seekers defrauding the social-security system were uncovered. The very phrase "asylum-seeker" began to be synonymous with "cheat". Gypsy beggar women, thrusting their babies into the faces of London commuters, became the Fagins of the 21st-century metropolis, as even some BBC journalists lost all sense of perspective in their hunt for the running story. The word "demonise", so often misapplied, was appropriate here. And sceptical readers may like to ask themselves, whatever happened to the great Roma invasion?

The forcing of this issue on to the national agenda was an astonishing act of will - as well as a shocking abuse of journalistic power at the expense of the weak. The Conservatives, in the middle of their populist phase, castigated the Government for making Britain a "soft touch" for would-be refugees; panicky ministers found themselves competing with Ann Widdecombe for the title of "most tough on immigrants". This stance dismayed some of Labour's natural middle-class supporters as much as Ms Widdecombe's delighted her own more lumpen activists. It was not a battle that Labour could win.

Then came the tragedy at Dover, when 58 Chinese stowaways were suffocated in a lorry coming into Britain. The risks that people would take to enter Britain provided a critical alternative focus for the debate, and dissipated the momentum behind the anti-foreigner campaign. And something else, too: in the May elections for London mayor, for local councils and in the vacant Tory seat of Romsey - where the Liberal Democrats won handsomely - there seemed to be no great populist constituency. It was a warning that William Hague spent the year ignoring.

He could (or so it seemed) afford to. Tony Blair's noisier chickens were coming home - squawking and flapping - to roost. Alun Michael was forced out in Wales, and Ken Livingstone romped home in London. Mo was said to be disaffected, celebrity authors attacked the PM as "unmanly", the Westminster story-factory cranked out unsourced disputes and leaked Cabinet papers by the lorry-load. The ominous word was that the Government was "out of touch".

In the countryside, farm prices had collapsed, and the crisis in agriculture was evident even to the most sedentary city-dweller. Then, in September, Britain saw arguably the most remarkable political event since the miners' strike. The Government had long been aware that hikes in world oil prices were likely to make its fuel duties extremely unpopular - and indeed, had already abandoned the fuel escalator and begun to make concessions to the haulage industry. What neither the Government nor anyone else foresaw was that picketing of oil refineries, combined with panic buying, would, within days, bring the country to a standstill. The Government was shocked; its popularity plummeted. Mr Brown came up with some more money.

William Hague was ahead in the polls. The Government was branded a bunch of vainglorious, tax-levying Islington socialites, who cared more for gays and foreigners than for ordinary, decent, home-defending Britons. From Section 28 to petrol prices, war was declared against the Domosexuals. A convoy of armoured bandwagons seemed about to converge on Westminster. Even the pensioners, with their entirely misleading cry of "Wot, only 75 pee!" turned on Labour.

At the Labour Party conference, Mr Brown came up with some more money. And at the Tory party conference, Ann Widdecombe did what she'd been promising to do all along, and exploded spectacularly, covering the party faithful in her steaming political entrails. If ever there was a self-inflicted defeat, hers (and William Hague's) over getting tough on weed, was it. Within weeks, the gossip factory had turned to manufacturing Tory stories, in which Portillo-ites grappled unpleasantly with Widdecombe-ists for the soul of the party.

Aprÿs Ann le déluge. The heavens opened and entire flood-plain villages sank under several feet of water. More rain fell than in any autumn since 1727. Journalists vied with each other to get wet in the most spectacular way - a competition won hands down by the BBC's Ben Brown, who marked the move of the News to 10 o'clock by being filmed in ever-bigger waders in ever-deeper waters. Had the floods continued for one more week, his martyrdom was assured. Flood defences were found to be inadequate. Gordon Brown came up with more money.

The floods were a bloody good excuse for the privatised rail industry to fulfil its destiny - and stop running trains altogether. After crumbled rails were found to be responsible for the fatal Hatfield crash, restrictions of such draconian severity were imposed on train operations that Britain briefly ceased to have a rail service at all. The inevitable happened; Mr Brown came up with some more money.

By the time Damilola Taylor was murdered in Peckham, sparking a debate about police numbers, a pattern had emerged from the year. There would be an event of some kind, which would achieve totemic significance. William Hague would seize on it to lambast the Government from a populist perspective. However, the perception would grow that this was, if anything, a problem of long-term under-investment. Mr Brown would come up with more money. The voters (according to polls) would decide to give the Government more time to put things right. In mid-December, despite 12 months of snippiness, Labour enjoyed a double-digit lead.

President Chirac was snippy at the Nice summit. He wanted history and got a series of messy compromises, which ushered the former Communist bloc into the EU in the least spectacular manner possible. The trouble with history is that you don't always recognise it when you see it. Or presidents for that matter. Many of us are going to spend 2001 hoping to hell that we are wrong about George W Bush and his extended family of election-stealers. Otherwise, there really are only 20 Clintonian days to save the Middle East. And we can kiss goodbye to a belated climate agreement.

But even on Snippyworld, there had to be an occasional oasis of success or progress. The Olympics in Sydney were some of the best ever, a defeat for cynicism and a few victories even for Britain. Serbia overthrew Milosevic, without even feeling the need to murder him. And Dome-man, P-Y Gerbeau, turned inglorious disaster into entertaining failure, and showed the British what the millennial version of the stiff upper lip should look like. We should keep him; Gordon Brown should come up with more money.

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