With a Whimper

Polling Station SignIt was a marked contrast to the flashbulbs and glory of President Obama’s re-election; on November 15, I awoke at my usual time, 5:30 AM, fed the cats, made coffee, and took out the trash. Then I walked down to the community centre attached to the local Catholic primary school; the sun was not quite up, but nevertheless it was obvious that it would be a dark day. The clouds seemed to be sitting low, almost hugging the ground at point of the horizon. The lights in many of the houses across the east Bradford skyline were switched on; the city was slowly stirring to life, stretching, yawning, pouring out its cups of tea, turning on its hot showers and getting ready to go to work or school. My footsteps felt heavy; my shoulders had that slight ache that prevails before one’s joints have fully warmed up. At last I arrived at the alabaster brick entrance to the centre; a black and white “Polling Station” sign was stuck to the wall.

I was relieved. The Police and Crime Commissioner elections in England and Wales had been very poorly publicised in Bradford; I had not received a polling card indicating where to go and the hours the polling place would be open. I correctly guessed I should go to the same place where I’d voted in the local elections earlier in the year.

A cold wind whipped up behind me; as I possess an overly romantic imagination, I thought it felt like the year was drawing one of its last breaths. 2012 has had its attractions and intrigues, but now has overstayed its welcome: yes, I thought, we had moments of perfect beauty, like Mo Farah victoriously crossing the finish line and times of deep despair, like seeing Gaza set aflame and the bodies of dead children hustled out of the rubble created by Israeli bombs. Overall, the year now feels like it’s staggering on its feet, waiting to drop dead from exhaustion at the finish line.

The wind picked up again. I drew my coat more tightly around me and went into the brightly lit building.

The three people managing the polling station seemed surprised to see me. An elderly lady wearing a floral print blouse and thick glasses crossed my name off her list and handed over the ballot paper. This presented me with my surprise: though I consider myself relatively well informed, I had no idea that there was a first and second preference associated with the this vote. I made my choices and as per the stated procedure, showed the back of the ballot to the returning officer. He seemed altogether too bright, cheerful and neatly pressed for that early hour; after he smiled and nodded his approval, I then stuffed the paper into the ballot box.

As I made my way home, I realised that was the last big exercise of democracy for the year; however, I didn’t really care about the outcome. I’m sure the Commissioner’s role is somewhat important, but it’s difficult to escape the impression that it is a new layer of governance whose sole purpose is to absolve the national government of responsibility. If a crime wave breaks out in Bradford, who will get the blame, the new Commissioner for West Yorkshire or the Home Office? The cuts the latter makes will certainly hinder the former, but it will be the former which will be told that it’s their job to make do and indeed improve the situation. Far from achieving the Tories’ stated purpose of achieving greater accountability, it is likely to diffuse it. We, the public, have had little choice except to either eschew our democratic right to pick the Commissioners, or go along with a farcical process. I thought about spoiling my ballot as a protest: however, my respect for democracy wouldn’t allow me to do so. Most people didn’t even bother to vote. It was an unedifying spectacle, and an unsatisfying conclusion to the year’s politics.

Yes, there are by-elections in Rotherham, Middlesborough and Croydon North on November 29th and yes, there are negotiations regarding its impending “fiscal cliff” to be endured in the United States. But despite the hype ascribed to these events by the media, these are relatively minor happenings: there’s little doubt that the by-elections will yield Labour MPs to replace the Labour MPs who left office. It’s unlikely that the United States will fall off the “fiscal cliff”; all parties will prefer another helping of fudge to triggering a bruising resumption of the recession. I can already feel a punch of nausea at the thought of the publicity surrounding a counterfeit “grand bargain” which will leave the genuinely difficult decisions for another day.

Tony Blair Middle East EnvoyIt’s conceivable there will be other important developments: President Obama will need to appoint new cabinet members, some like current UN Ambassador Susan Rice (intended to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State) are controversial and worthy choices. Perhaps if the President wanted to end the year in a proactive way, he could travel to Gaza, Cairo and Jerusalem and try to prevent the situation getting worse. But perhaps the West feels its power to improve the situation is limited, an impression which is exacerbated by the foibles of its representative to the region, Tony Blair. Apart from the fact that his selection was about as apropos as putting Dr. Harold Shipman in charge of a geriatrics ward, the public would be right to ask what Blair’s eighty-plus visits to Jerusalem have achieved apart from earning him loyalty points from airlines and five star hotels. The Palestinians are still on the end of harsh and murderous treatment, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem face rocket fire: Netanyahu says that what he does is to improve Israel’s peace and security and does not get pulled up on his brutality, idiocy or hypocrisy. Indeed, he may be re-elected in January.

No, the year falters along with our wisdom: the local supermarket calls time on 2012 by indulging in bad marketing puns involving the word “Yule” in place of “You’ll”. People shuffle in and buy Cadbury Roses, coloured Christmas lights, and cheap wrapping paper to put around their purchases from Amazon. There are repeats on television. The hours of daylight diminish. Office workers stand on tiptoe waiting for the calendar to turn over to December and for company parties which will serve up cheap wine and canapés from Iceland which were better off left frozen. This activity masks the fact that fatigue is endemic: it feels like we all need a bit of rest and large helping of hope.

Yet, 2012 has had its highlights: it was an Olympic year for Britain, also one in which the Queen celebrated sixty years on the throne, a great if perplexing achievement given what an anachronism the monarchy has become. It was a year of significant debates in the United States, and a momentous choice between the future and the past was made: most were cheered by America’s decision to stick with modernity. But that’s it: what remains now are like stale leftovers, some offensively rotten, like the case of the woman who died in Ireland because she couldn’t have a medically necessary abortion. The Economist, perhaps feeling the pinch of a deficit of inspiration, decides to criticise France via one its patronising Special Reports: a task which is about as easy for a neo-liberal magazine as it is for the BBC to offend the Daily Mail. The Euro crisis drags on, but is now so dull and smothered in diplomatic treacle that no one wants to speak of it any longer, despite the fact that much of southern Europe is crippled by intermittent strikes and Athens frequently burns. Syria’s civil war drags on, occasionally provoking retaliation from its neighbours; Russia and China won’t allow the international community to act. Britain and America are mostly helpless, and moreover shown to be ineffectual in moderating the harsh winds that are blowing: in Eliot’s words, we end not with a bang, but a whimper. Where do we go from here?

Perhaps we will be lucky; crisis may give way to sense, Israel might halt its aggression, the European Central Bank could be given more freedom to act, austerity possibly will ease. However, this seems unlikely: 2013 may be like 2012 without the promise of any grandeur. Or perhaps there will be grandeur of a different kind: after all, the lack of turnout in the Police and Crime Commissioner election may have been the best kind of protest, the public’s revulsion at the assault on Gaza has been far more eloquent than any statement made by any chancellery. 2012 breathes its last; we will have a brief space to contemplate what clouds embrace the horizon, before we gather ourselves up and proceed towards it.

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