Review of the year: Leading article

A year of untimely ends, unforeseen beginnings - and unfinished business
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For politics and personalities, it was a year of untimely ends and unforeseen beginnings. The deaths of Robin Cook and Mo Mowlam left Tony Blair without two of his sharpest critics, and the weaker for it. David Cameron burst upon the national scene, as the New Tory to an ageing New Labour. Prince Charles finally married the woman he had loved all along, but the ceremony was delayed by the funeral of the Pope - a decision that prompted observations about a global hierarchy of celebrity and the waning influence of the Reformation.

But 2005 opened with the grim aftermath of the Asian tsunami, a disaster that left no Indian Ocean country unscathed and united first and third worlds in loss. It brought us epic scenes of devastation, heart-warming accounts of heroism across cultural and wealth barriers and an unprecedented outpouring of generosity from individuals that shamed state governments into action. So much money was contributed that the charity Medecins sans Frontieres took the unusual - and controversial - step of asking donors to stop sending contributions.

The tsunami conjured up in spectacular fashion a vision of the catastrophe that could engulf the globe if there is no concerted action to tackle global warming. The point was driven home by this year's hurricane season, one of the fiercest, longest and most costly on record, which culminated in Katrina. The floods that devastated New Orleans offered an ugly counterpoint to the generosity so prevalent in the wake of the tsunami, exposing the rotten underside of the United States. The city of jazz and piquant cuisine is being rebuilt, but its poor, mainly black, residents have not been encouraged to return.

Scarcely had the last of the foetid water drained from New Orleans than Kashmir was rocked by an earthquake that left 87,000 people dead and 3 million without shelter in one of the poorest and least accessible regions of the world. Help was slow to arrive, even granted the considerable logistical difficulties; the giving was grudging. As winter returned to the northern hemisphere, it seemed that the rich world could only bear so much compassion.

In the last month of the year, however, there was one chink of light. Amid all the evidence that the climate is becoming ever more volatile, glaciers are melting and polar bears and penguins are losing the habitat that sustains them, the United States suddenly abandoned its stubborn rejectionism towards climate change. It agreed to join informal talks about combating global warming that could lead to a second Kyoto treaty when the first expires in seven years' time.

This about-turn saved the Montreal talks. Whether it is a strong or a weak Washington that has agreed to engage with the rest of the world is a separate question. This was the year when finally - alas, too late to prevent his re-election - George Bush's Teflon started to wear off. Katrina jolted awake the somnolent American public. As the US death toll in Iraq passed 2,000 and the war passed its 1,000 day, the mainstream media and the US Congress started to probe the genesis of the invasion and everything that had ensued. Cindy Sheehan, a bereaved mother, camped outside the Bush ranch in Texas over the summer. Scandal washed up against the White House, claiming a clutch of resignations. Democrats started winning elections again.

Iraq was a running sore for every foreign government that was involved; the "coalition" dwindled. Iraqis themselves defied enormous physical risks to vote in a series of elections - for a transitional government, for a constitution, for a national parliament - without seeing much return for their pains in the form of improved security, cleaner water or reliable power. The promised gush of oil revenues still failed to transpire.

Ambushes and suicide bombings multiplied, spreading to the British sector around Basra for the first time. Iraqis bore the brunt of the casualties. With public pressure mounting for a timetable for withdrawal, the US and Britain insisted they would stay until the job was done, even as they tried to hasten the hand-over of security responsibilities to Iraqis.

There was better and worse news on the democracy front elsewhere. Ukraine's "orange revolution" was accomplished in January with the inauguration of Viktor Yushchenko, amid much patriotic rejoicing. Within six months, however, the euphoria had worn off; the President had split with his prime minister, Ukraine's la Pasionaria, Julia Tymoshenko, the economy was stagnant and Ukraine's ambition to join the European Union in rapid order was on hold. The central Asian state of Kyrgyzstan ousted its Soviet-era leader, in a mostly peaceful revolt more reminiscent of a coup. Neighbouring Uzbekistan ruthlessly suppressed a local revolt, in Andizhan, by force, justifying all the criticism of the regime there voiced by Britain's former ambassador, Craig Murray.

There were stirrings in the Middle East, but nothing like the democratic revolution across the region of George Bush's one-time vision. The assassination of a former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in Lebanon triggered mass anti-Syrian demonstrations that precipitated the sudden, and peaceful, end of Syria's 29-year military presence in the country. The Palestinians held an election to legitimise Mahmoud Abbas as successor to the late Yasser Arafat. And in August, Ariel Sharon honoured his promise to withdraw from Gaza, then broke his ties with Likud, intending to pursue centrist politics from a new platform.

China, still officially a one-party state that censors the Internet, suppressed a rash of workers' and peasants' revolts with varying degrees of force, but judiciously out of the media or public eye. Its vast trade surplus with the United States brought pressure for it to revalue its currency. Its voracious appetite for oil and gas helped buoy the international commodities markets, and the fumbled purchase of the Rover car company by first one, then another, Chinese company suggested that China wanted not just to sell, but to invest, overseas. Expectations, and fears, were fuelled that, after so many false dawns, China might really be on the rise.

Here in Britain, despite Iraq, Tony Blair led Labour to its third consecutive election victory, and into the record books. Largely because of Iraq, though, Labour's majority was cut by almost two-thirds. Neither opposition party, however, was able to capitalise fully on Labour's unpopularity. The Liberal Democrats, despite a good showing, failed to achieve the breakthrough they had hoped for. Charles Kennedy appeared both humanised, and distracted, by new fatherhood. A disappointed Michael Howard did the decent thing and resigned as Conservative leader the day after the election.

The election was decisive, but it left residual discontent. Questions about the soundness of postal voting and, still more, about the distorting effect of a first-past-the post system that gave Labour 60 per cent of the seats for only 40 per cent of the vote, prompted calls - led by this newspaper - for an urgent review of the electoral system. All the democratic checks and balances in place in Germany, however, did not prevent Chancellor Schroeder defying the fixed timetable to call an early election; nor did they prevent a six week deadlock while the two main parties fought for the right to form a government. Angela Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, became Germany's first female chancellor at the head of a "grand" coalition.

Overall, 2005 was a bad year for Europe, and for "old Europe" in particular. "No" votes in France and the Netherlands, cast for disparate domestic reasons, effectively killed the concept of a European constitution, needlessly panicked pro-Europeans and cheered those hostile to Europe in Britain. The German election stalemate, followed by riots on housing estates across France, did nothing to burnish the reputation of the European social model.

Not that the much-vaunted "British model", as recommended by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, was faring especially well. The long drawn-out Tory leadership contest left the party weak in opposition at the very time when the newly elected Government often appeared rudderless and vulnerable.

Several of the Prime Minister's favoured projects ran into the sand. Reform of the health service, benefits and state pensions were on hold. Education reform was in trouble. The public sector wage bill ballooned without much improvement in services to show for the expense. An end-of-era aura surrounded Mr Blair, even as clouds gathered over Gordon Brown's reputation for sound husbandry of public finances.

David Cameron's sweeping victory, his youthful energy and his glitzy debut at the head of the Conservative Party all augured well for the emergence of a modernised party that would offer a more effective opposition.

The shock of the bombings and attempted bombings in July was compounded by the realisation that the attackers were not foreign infiltrators, but home-grown. And while Britons generally responded with admirable calm and fortitude, jittery police shot an innocent man dead on the Tube, and the Government toughened its terrorism bill with a string of repressive measures, including 90-day detention without charge. A fluctuating coalition of Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, dissenting Labour MPs, the House of Lords and the Law Lords has so far some kept the most illiberal measures at bay.

But this fight is far from over. It will last well into 2006, and beyond. And its outcome will say much about the country, and the world, we want to live in.