Liberalism is a lonely cause at the end of this year of dashed expectations

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The Independent Online

Whether or not this was the first year of the third millennium or the last year of the second, it started with high expectations and grand ambitions and ended with snow. It began with a mixture of hubris and bathos at the Dome, and, from the moment the river of fire failed to ignite, it became obvious that a simple round number could not carry the significance with which it was invested.

Whether or not this was the first year of the third millennium or the last year of the second, it started with high expectations and grand ambitions and ended with snow. It began with a mixture of hubris and bathos at the Dome, and, from the moment the river of fire failed to ignite, it became obvious that a simple round number could not carry the significance with which it was invested.

New Labour's curious strain of millennarianism finally met the cold light of day, and Jerusalem turned out not to have been builded here after all. Which is not to say progress has not been made. But the pious resolutions for a better world endorsed by the Prime Minister, the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury in the bizarre public ceremony at the Dome were meaningless even as they were uttered. The real impetus for date-driven renewal came from elsewhere, such as the Jubilee 2000 campaign to write off the debts of the poorest nations - although, to their credit, the political leaders of the rich world did respond.

The Dome was a fitting symbol for the year: it could never have lived up to its hyperlative advance billing. It stands as a visible monument to people's unease with New Labour, a grand structure enclosing a spiritual and cultural vacuum. Visitors found themselves surrounded by pieties about community, togetherness and the questing human spirit - but each was interrupted by a message from its sponsor, a commercial special interest seeking to clothe the pursuit of profit in something nobler.

This was the year when New Labour came unspun, when the insecurities that prompted it to double claim, overclaim and oversell produced a baffled paralysis at the heart of government when the citizens finally saw through the emperor's clothes. Mr Blair showed every sign of panic, from the moment the Women's Institute saw the whites of his eyes, as he cast around desperately for populist, "tough" measures on crime and disorder - the sort of thing that, when he was shadow Home Secretary back in 1993, had taken him to the leadership of his party, but a drug that did not seem to work any more.

Yet he took the punches and stayed standing. The loss of London to the "disastrous" Ken Livingstone. The threat to the future of Rover. The railway system a patchwork quilt of speed restrictions. Above all, the fuel protest in September, a sudden eruption of incoherent anti-politician anger which, had it taken hold, could have finished off his government. His response was not pretty and it was not principled, but he got through it. The medley of interests lined up against him turned out to be too disparate to hold together, and William Hague fumbled his chance to drive his advantage home - or perhaps it was simply not possible.

This has not been Mr Hague's finest year. Michael Portillo's re-entry to the front line as shadow Chancellor has done nothing either to clarify the basic Tory message or to make the Opposition's numbers add up. Ann Widdecombe, even before her stupidity on cannabis, has been an embarrassment. But Mr Hague's poisonous populism, attempting to stoke the subliminally linked issues of race and crime, has been the weakest link of all.

The tolerant centre From the point of view of this newspaper, liberal on social issues as well as on economics, pro-European and generally optimistic about the possibilities for moral and material progress, this has been a year of during which the forward march has been more or less halted.

The Prime Minister's defensiveness on Europe allowed the prospect of Britain joining the euro to roll gently beyond the "early in the next parliament" formula. On crime and asylum he also allowed the cause of civil liberties and the idea of toleration to roll backwards. In his Touchstone Issues memo, damagingly leaked in the summer, he seemed too willing to give ground to the worst instincts of the British people on race and crime, rather than to try to build on the instincts of the tolerant centre which are just as much a part of the British character.

This was a pity - to put it at its lowest - because one of Mr Blair's greatest claims to his office was that he seemed to have found a genuinely fresh approach to a set of policies that had been trapped in a sterile debate between woolly-minded liberals and equally woolly-minded authoritarians. Not only had Mr Blair found a language that seemed to reconcile the personal responsibility of criminals with the collective responsibility of society to tackle the causes of crime, but he even seemed to have found some practical policies, too.

At the start of this year, however, it had become clear that it was the rhetoric rather than the policies that mattered to this Government, with a concern for civil liberties - derided by the Home Secretary as woolly liberalism - coming a poor third.

Meanwhile, the courts have managed - quite sensibly - to find ways round Jack Straw's "three strikes and you're jailed" rule for persistent burglars. As for the causes of crime, much good work has been done with the wind of economic boom in the Government's sails. Despite the death of Damilola Taylor, the 10-year-old who bled to death after being stabbed on the North Peckham estate in south London, conditions in sink housing areas are getting slowly better, albeit from a miserably low base.

As for the contribution made by the judicial system, however, it is striking that the one "early pledge" that the Government seems in gravest danger of failing to fulfil is that to halve the time between arrest and sentencing for persistent young offenders. That delay in bringing "yobs" to justice was rightly identified as contributing to a culture in which crimes were disconnected from a sense of responsibility for them.

By the end of the year, the government machine had responded to the Prime Minister's plea for "tough" ideas with which he personally could be associated, such as his press secretary's silly plan to get police officers to march drunken cone-throwers to cash machines to extract on-the-spot fines. The Home Office has five crime-related Bills in the pre-election legislative programme, with nothing about the causes of crime in any of them. Instead, the Government is pressing ahead with the plan to restrict the right to trial by jury - a baffling policy even by the lights of reactionary populism, as there are no votes in attacking what even conservatives think of as their ancient birthright.

From being assaulted by Labour as woolly at the start of the year, liberals ended it being accused by the Conservatives of belonging to an elite responsible for "decades" of thinking about crime that has "brought our criminal justice system to its knees" - or so said Mr Hague earlier this month. This makes even less sense than the Blair-Straw evasions and dishonesties. The Tory leader condemned the "last 40 years" of liberal attitudes, yet his party was in power for 26 of those years.

Liberalism sometimes seems a lonely cause. As the election approaches, The Independent is likely to be critical of both main parties for pandering to what they wrongly judge to be the illiberal instincts of the electorate. During the year, however, we were encouraged by Charles Kennedy's start as leader of the Liberal Democrats, who fought and won the Romsey by-election as an explicit repudiation of the Tory attempt to exploit illiberal attitudes on race and crime.

In any case, with liberalism comes optimism, and the belief that the value of tolerance will prevail in the end.

Race and prejudice One of the issues that has most troubled this newspaper over the year has been the stubbornness of racial prejudice. Mr Hague's opportunist attempt to exploit the mounting backlog of asylum claims - which the government of which he was a member bequeathed to the present one - is distasteful. A more compelling reason why he should abandon it, however, is that it has failed to lift his poll ratings, despite the assumptions of his metropolitan élite about the instincts of middle Britain.

This is the reason, too, why this newspaper took up the cases of Errol and Jason McGowan, the two men found hanged in Telford. So far, a new investigation has found no evidence of foul play, but our complaint was that the police initially were too dismissive of the families' fears that these were racially motivated murders. It was criticism of a similar apparent indifference to the death of a black man that lay at the heart of the Macpherson report two years ago into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and to which Mr Hague unwisely returned this month. Macpherson's phrase "institutional racism" was unhelpfully imprecise, but the police have responded constructively to the many lessons of the case, as the re-examination of the Telford deaths showed. And the Telford families obtained an apology from the police more quickly than the Lawrences did.

The idea, however, that Macpherson required the police to turn a blind eye to crime committed by black people is offensive and wrong: we also criticised the police for seeming to ignore crime at the Notting Hill carnival.

One mighty step forward towards the ideal of equal liberty for all did take place in Britain this year, and that was the Human Rights Act, which made the rights of the European Convention enforceable in British courts from October. The consequences of this cannot be foreseen, except in the welcome sense that it will force governments and courts to take the principle of fundamental, equal rights seriously, and will help people to assert them.

Piecemeal human rights Progress towards that ideal internationally - the theory made practicable by the end of the Cold War - has been a series of more stuttering steps, not necessarily always in the forwards direction. Jack Straw sent General Augusto Pinochet back to Chile on medical grounds that were not tested in court, and the latest news is that the murder charge has been thrown out by the Chilean courts. But the very toing and froing of the old dictator's legal fortunes over the past two years has helped to reinforce the principle that tyrants and torturers may be held to account for serious crimes, "crimes against humanity", wherever in the world they do their shopping. The net has not closed on Slobodan Milosevic yet, but it may well.

Elsewhere, this Government's pretensions to a human-rights-based foreign policy have been piecemeal, failing to live up to the clarity of the Kosovo campaign. Tony Blair visited Vladimir Putin before he was even elected President of Russia and while he fought that election on the ticket of repression in Chechnya. But in Sierra Leone Mr Blair fought a limited war - and one that he should have been more open about - to defend those to whom Britain owes a post-colonial obligation from the limb-chopping attentions of the Revolutionary United Front.

In Northern Ireland, Mr Blair's achievement was more clear-cut - the Good Friday Agreement was finally implemented, and the majority Unionist party now shares devolved power with Sinn Fein. Of course, the settlement is a little frayed around the edges. Although, once again, the central unresolved issue is the failure of the republicans to deliver the actual decommissioning of IRA weapons, many of the surrounding difficulties have taken on the pragmatic character of disputes that can be mediated by dialogue rather than violence.

Great expectations This newspaper is also liberal on economics: it opposed the anti-capitalist demonstrations in Washington and Prague, which are becoming a travelling anti-circus following the International Monetary Fund and the Group of Eight around the globe. Neither protectionism nor state control is the way forward: free global markets have as much to contribute to the solutions as to the problems.

The dislocations caused by market forces are always painful, however. No one welcomed what sounded like the death throes of volume car manufacturing in Britain - at Longbridge, Dagenham, Luton and even Sunderland. But the role of the state should be to protect people from the adverse effects of change, not to prevent change. On the contrary, the Government should promote flexibility in a dynamic market economy: this one was too slow to force BT to open up its network to the internet, which could drive the next phase of economic progress and in which Britain is still a few years behind the US and Scandinavia.

Nevertheless, what might be termed the Clinton-Major boom continued to steam forward. Even when the new-technology bubble burst, economic growth carried on regardless. The Independent is not complacent about the year ahead but only observes that markets are just as likely to be too pessimistic as too optimistic about the prospects.

There are more fundamental problems created by materialism and free trade than can be addressed by the simplistic slogans of the anti-capitalists: the greatest among them is the challenge of maintaining a sustainable ecosystem. From the fate of the humble sparrow to the slow encroach of global warming - even as the snow lies about us - the clarion call to action grows louder.

That was one of the most confused and backward-looking aspects of September's fuel price protest: everyone who considers the matter for more than a few moments knows that humanity must reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. Yet our alter egos who "need" to get from A to B today are incensed by the prices at the pumps.

Beyond the measurement of gross domestic product, then, this has been a year of great expectations disappointed. In the end, even the Dome made it to the end of the year, going out with neither a bang nor a whimper but an older, wiser marketing exercise which undersold it and ensured that its last few days are sold out before it is turned into a business park. If aspirations for the coming year are expressed in less overblown language, perhaps 2001 stands a chance of surprising us with what can be achieved.