2022: Earthquakes & Volcanoes
in his editorial from the December print edition of Byline Times Peter Jukes says the tumultuous events of the last year may have been shocking, but not a complete surprise
The first major war in Europe since 1945. The death of Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest serving head of state. And no less than three prime ministers, one of them with the shortest occupancy of Downing Street in history. Who could have seen 2022 coming?
Some of us could. Readers of Byline Times over the past few years will have been shocked but not surprised by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the constitutional malaise in British governance, and the corruption and factional collapse of the Conservative Party. These momentous events were a long time in the making – and though no one could have predicted their timing and impact, they were not unexpected.
At our editorial meetings, when we discuss how breaking news connects to the larger stories that shape our lives, I often use an analogy from geomorphology. Though catastrophic and uncontrollable, volcanoes and earthquakes aren’t random events, but driven by plate tectonics, the shifting continents and oceans floating on a bed of moving magma that constantly grind together or pull apart. If you know where these subterranean forces are in collision, you can predict it will be an earthquake zone. If a volcano erupts out of the blue, this is evidence of a previously undocumented fracture in the Earth’s crust. We treat our current affairs coverage a bit like this.
Sometimes, we can look ahead and see that the clash between populism and globalisation, for instance, will produce regular destabilising tremors. Or if there’s a new eruption somewhere, say over women’s reproductive rights in the US or Africa or over free speech and disinformation on social media platforms, we can look deeper and find the roots of these new conflicts and what is driving them – perhaps dark money, tech monopoly or fears of civilisational change.
In 2022, many of these momentous events were on well-known fault-lines.
The Tragic Brexit Trap
Domestically, most of the turmoil of the past year has been the result of Britain’s hard exit from the European Union at the beginning of 2020 – the effects of which have been hidden from view, partly by the lockdowns of the pandemic and partly with the collusion of the British Brexit press. Warnings about the dire economic consequences for a trading nation of turning away from our largest trading partners were often called ‘Project Fear’ but now they are such an abject daily reality that even the Telegraph can’t ignore them.
The short, brutal and catastrophic ‘go for growth’ policies of Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng were a direct result of the impossible legacy left by Boris Johnson and his Vote Leave Government. Truss’ successor, Rishi Sunak, has little choice but to mount a slow-motion version of decline, with more cuts to services as the pound declines, and the restraints to trade caused by a hard Brexit mean we cannot compensate for the cheaper sterling with increased exports.
Mixed in with the economic chaos is continued social and cultural conflict. As Hardeep Matharu points out in this edition, in discussion with two figures either side of the Brexit debate, and Jon Bloomfield and David Edgar expand with a look at the persistence of ‘national-populism’, there is a ‘Brexit trap’ that goes beyond trade and industry to a vision of what kind of nation or nations we are, and in what kind of world.
These more immaterial matters are hard discussions to have in any circumstances, but harder still when forums for such exchange – newspapers, broadcasters, social media, even institutions like academia and the National Trust – are themselves involved in the tumult and often owned and controlled by vested interests. Byline Times has covered all of these – the hedge fund owners behind GB News, the ‘Covid bungs’ Boris Johnson handed to billionaire newspaper owners, the continued subverting of the BBC. Our political culture – or what we call our political-media class – is part of the problem.
In times of social and economic upheaval, it used to be claimed that the twin pillars of ‘altar’ and ‘throne’ – religion and monarchy – provided some kind of political and cultural continuity. It’s true that, unlike the ‘succession’ problems of oligarchs and dictators, there was a solemn inevitability about the accession of Charles III. But, just as early summaries of the 2021 Census indicate that the UK is a nation of unbelievers, the continued uproar around the Harry and Meghan documentary on Netflix suggests the House of Windsor is unlikely to be universally worshipped or revered. In any case, is inherited wealth and status really going to provide a sense of cohesion to a country when people are freezing and going hungry through a cost of living crisis made worse by bad governance? Or does the pomp and circumstance cloud and exacerbate the growing sense of inequality and discontent?
Money and Ideology
We are not alone. The spectres we struggle with haunt other countries, such as the US, which is still struggling to come to terms with its own constitutional tumult since the attempted insurrection of 6 January 2021. Across the world, from Turkey to India, China to Brazil, the rise of nationalist-populism and the threat of autocratic rule replays the same core themes of patriarchal power, demonisation of others, and centralisation of control – as if one ‘strong man’ (or occasionally ‘strong woman’) can provide the sense of permanence and belonging once enshrined in religion or inherited wealth.
But we must always follow the money. Much of the ideology is opportunistic.
Three years ago, Byline Times first reported on the dominance of hedge fund donors to the Conservative Party and Vote Leave, and the conflict of interest that arises with the politicians whose market-moving decisions can make their donors millions. That conflict of interest is now common currency, as is the scandal of the ‘VIP lane’ for Coronavirus contracts during the pandemic. We investigated the first PPE contract in April 2020 and, by the end of last year, calculated that over £3 billion of Coronavirus contracts were awarded to Conservative Party affiliates – many of whom went on to donate more money to the Tories out of their inflated profits.
This kind of greed is the underlying theme of my poem in this edition, loosely based on a speech by the former Russian Ambassador to London, Alexander Yakovenko, and inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid. Illustrated by Martin Rowson, it argues that the main route for Putin’s ‘hybrid war’ against the UK was financial and suggests that “dark money… was our Trojan horse”.
When it comes to corruption in Londongrad or Moscow, can kleptocracy – the systemisation of corruption into a form of government – actually crystallise into an ideology in itself?
It’s hard to know what comes first – Putin’s greed, or his cruelty. Is the Russian President’s genocidal programme of wiping Ukraine off the map just a distraction from the growing inequality in Russia, as he and his oligarch class cream-off the natural resource wealth of the country in their yachts and palaces? Or was the wealth and corruption just a by-product of an authoritarian mindset, as the Russian security state coalesced with the criminal underground, to loot and pillage, over the past 15 years of covert assassinations, hacking operations and funding of far-right parties? Perhaps it will take the fall of Vladimir Putin and the restoration of full democracy and civil rights in Russia before we ever know.
But one thing we do know now. Autocrats and dictators can start wars, but they can’t finish them. Putin is even more trapped by his invasion of Ukraine than Britain is by Brexit. Having planned to decapitate the Zelensky Government in three days in February, loss has followed loss for what was once called the ‘world’s second army’. Ukrainan victories at the Battle of Kyiv, then the Battle of Kharkiv, and in October in the Battle of Kherson, mean that the Kremlin has failed in all its strategic objectives in a way no one – not even Putin’s severest critic – could have anticipated.
Not all surprises are bad ones. The resilience and bravery of Ukrainians have changed the world perhaps more profoundly than anything else this last year. Against all the odds, they not only managed to repel a brutal invader, they kept their humanity when confronted with mass deportations, murder, rape and torture.
Shortly after Joe Biden entered the White House, China’s Xi Xinping is reported to have told the US President that autocracies are much better at handling crises than democracies and that the future lies with them. But Ukraine proves something else. In the end, genuine pluralism can stand up to menacing populism. It can, with the help of other democracies, find much greater reserves of bravery, resilience and resourcefulness than any kleptocracy. In the end, though people may be driven into conflict by coercion or bribery, only compassion and self belief will get them through it.
And with that, all of us here at Byline Times would like to wish our readers a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. A heartfelt thank you for your stellar support this past year. Whatever comes in 2023, we’ll get through it – together.