There was a moment when the year turned. It was sometime after the admission from the private company G4S that it could not supply the contracted number of security workers for the London Olympics and before the arrival of smiling squaddies in fatigues at the checkpoints.
Sometime after the fevered apologies for showing the wrong Korean flag at the football and before the wondrous evening when Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah won gold. Sometime after Britain’s “dream team” of cyclists faced up to defeat in the road race, and Bradley Wiggins, already the first British winner of the Tour de France, rode to victory in the time trial.
It was the moment when the rain stopped – briefly – the sun came out, and a sceptical country turned its back on the ingrained nostalgia and disappointment of years and embraced the quirky, slightly ironic, but joyously inclusive, national idea, exemplified in Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony. And with that shared experience seemed to come reconciliation with a more modest, down-home sort of success.
It was then that the celebrations for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee started to look by way of a prelude. Glorious spectacles from yesteryear rolled across our screens. The Thames was crowded with craft, big and small, for a river pageant that had to be appreciated through sheeting rain and a BBC commentary of alarming condescension. The Duke of Edinburgh fell ill, but the Queen used her balcony call to convey a message of solid continuity: just herself, her son, his wife, the two grandsons and the Duchess of Cambridge. With a royal baby on the way by the year’s end and the Queen more popular than at any time in her long reign, this cornerstone of the establishment appeared to have closed the debilitating cracks that opened up after Princess Diana’s death.
Institutions with reputations tarnished
If a marginally modernised monarchy looked more secure than for at least a generation, the same could not be said of several other pillars of national life, as long-standing assumptions were called into question one by one. The reputation of Parliament had already been besmirched by the expenses scandal of 2009. But in 2012, we saw the police (thanks to the new report on the Hillsborough disaster), the intelligence services (through the review of the Finucane case in Northern Ireland and compensation paid to alleged victims of rendition), the BBC (through its simplistic Jubilee coverage and its uncertain response to the posthumous unmasking of Jimmy Savile as a sex predator), sections of the press (thanks to phone hacking and the revelations at the Leveson Inquiry) and – last, but not least – the Church of England (in its inability to overcome its division over women bishops) all, in their own particular way, exhibiting a failure to meet public expectations or face up to the realities of today’s world.
Farewell to boastful insularity
For a country so often seen as locked in the past, however, a clutch of shattered illusions may be no bad thing. Boasting of being best when you are not reflects only insularity. And something similar could be said of the way the country acclimatised to economic austerity. An element of bleakness almost seemed to suit Britain – or so it seemed – more than the showy, and selective, prosperity that preceded it. Could it be that Britons generally are more at home with making do and mending, keeping calm and carrying on, while appreciating genuine success when they see it? If this presages a more generous, tolerant and less celebrity-obsessed society, something may be starting to go right. And the census results, towards the end of the year, which showed a markedly more mixed and open society than before, seemed to provide the statistical confirmation.
Britain is still in Europe, despite everything
This is not to underestimate the real hardship that the financial crisis and the stubborn lack of growth in the economy have brought to many, and which persisted, largely unrelieved, through the year. Nor the dangers that lurk in the rise of a party such as Ukip, which draws its support not just from those opposed to the country’s membership of the European Union, but from those of a broader Little Britain mentality that is completely inimical to the globalised world of today. At the end of 2012, however, Britain’s relationship with Europe does not look quite as fraught or as hostile as it looked at the end of 2011, or as fragile as renewed talk of a referendum might suggest.
Quietly, and with the discretion that overtures towards Brussels, alas, require of any British prime minister these days, David Cameron managed largely to reverse the rush to isolation which had seemed inevitable when he wielded his veto at the EU summit the previous December. An EU budget deal is on the cards; banking arrangements have been agreed that will ensure the City of London is not left out in the cold. A new entente may be brewing with Angela Merkel – who faces re-election next year. And, thanks to some adroit manoeuvring by the head of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, as well as everyone’s fears of something worse, the euro survived. The sense of foreboding, even panic, that attended any mention of the common currency a year ago has faded – and was anyway as much about psychology as politics or economics.
This may also be why a unifying trend that could be observed in the elections and leadership changes of 2012 around the world was the quest for stability. With signs of a more confident China and the Arab Spring showing a darker side – continued unrest in Egypt, outbreaks of fighting in Libya, a civil war in Syria, and a brief flare-up between Israel and Gaza – those who had the chance to choose opted for more of the same.
Voters around the world opted for stability
President Obama was given a second term after an election whose campaign might or might not have been skewed by the late intervention of Hurricane Sandy. Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in Russia, as the winter’s protests lost momentum. China’s 10-yearly leadership change proceeded as planned, with only the brief hiccup of the still mysterious Bo Xilai affair. Even French voters, who ostensibly chose change in electing a Socialist President, could be seen as looking for someone more familiar and safer than the volatile Nicolas Sarkozy. Here in Britain, a similar sense of trepidation on the part of voters may have given the Coalition a quieter 12 months than it might have expected, despite the “omnishambles” and the U-turns that followed George Osborne’s Budget.
This time last year, The Independent looked ahead to 2012 as a year when “the pageantry might not hide the unease”. The pageantry that marked the Jubilee was as spectacular as always, albeit doused, like much of the year, by a surfeit of rain. But the unease that so defined 2011 – when the feel-good splendour of the royal wedding seemed a mere diversion from the summer riots, the student protests, the popular indignation against bankers and the general gloom – was banished by an Olympic summer that showed the country to itself in a different light: a country with blemishes to be sure, but a country that can get things done in style, welcome the world and enjoy its company. It generated a confidence that must not be allowed to go to waste.