Photo: Rob Bruce
I read somewhere that the character of a century is revealed half way through the second decade: - 1914 outbreak of WW1 and we know the rest, Versailles leading inexorably to the rise of Hitler; 1815 the Congress of Vienna brings a negotiated end to the Napoleonic wars and a decision to end the slave trade; 1713 Treaty of Utrecht establishes the Peace of Utrecht; 1618, beginning of the 30 Years War; 1517, Martin Luther nails his 95 theses to the door of a German church and the Reformation rolls out.
When the history books come to be written about 2016, the Syrian conflict will be prominent - how the hope of the the Arab spring of 2011 turned into the misery of Aleppo. The millions of refugees, the sinking boats, the displaced people. The fact that the Western democracies exhausted by what the people perceived to be pointless interventions in Iraq and Libya chose to stand by. Red lines over Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people were not enforced. The British Prime Minister David Cameron chose to put the suggestion of military intervention to a vote in Parliament which he lost and then was able to hold the Labour Party responsible for the decision to do nothing.
Into the vacuum that was left stepped an increasingly assertive Russia, intervening to prop up Assad’s brutal regime against a rebellion it characterised as Islamic terrorism. Over the course of the war the moderate voices among the rebels had grown quieter, lacking any meaningful help and attacked on all sides. Assad’s brutality, using starvation as a weapon of war, bunker-busting bombs, attacks on hospitals increased. Voices on the British left were raised in support of Russia’s position, that they were the liberators of Aleppo from the Islamic State. (The best account of the war I have found is here on Wikipedia.)
Russia was also accused of undermining democracy in the US by intervening in the election campaign of 2016, hacking into masses of personal emails which it handed to journalists and bloggers using a fake persona, and letting them dig for dirt. Donald Trump appeared to be the Kremlin’s preferred candidate, but the real target may have been democracy itself.
A strange thing happened - one day a lot of sites in the US went dark. It transpired that ordinary gadgets linked to the internet, such as baby alarms and CCTV cameras had been turned into robot hackers. “These probes take the form of precisely calibrated attacks designed to determine exactly how well the companies can defend themselves, and what would be required to take them down. We don’t know who is doing this, but it feels like a large nation-state. China and Russia would be my first guesses.” The New York Times quoted security expert Bruce Schneier.
What would happen if the internet went down for a few days? I wondered and remembered Y2K, the big scare that never happened in 2000. I contemplated making a box of internet-free supplies: cash, cans, a wind-up shortwave radio.
Increasing global tension ignited also renewed concern over nuclear war. - my main hope for 2017 is that this threat is averted.
2016 was of course the year of the Brexit vote - this may also feature in the history books; it’s a threat and a challenge to the European Union forged in the aftermath of the bloody conflicts of the 20th century. From a British point of view, this may be the result of an abrogation of responsibility by political leaders who said too little too late in defence of the EU and now blame stupid voters for failing to see through the lies of the 'Leave' campaign. Inevitably, the Brexit vote has also deepened the divisions between England and Scotland, where every area voted to 'Remain'.
Blogging mostly about things that touched my own experience, I have not written directly about the tragic war in Syria or the flows of migrants. I did write about Brexit, about the growing divergence between Scotland and England, about Boston after the Trump victory and also about things of more local interest, such as the reaction of my neighbours in Leith in Edinburgh to the pitch invasion at the Scottish cup final.
In the latter part of 2016, I spent time in Boston where my husband Rob is working. Blogging has been a great way of getting to know the city.
During the year, I wrote about many things: of cabbages and kings, as the Walrus says in the Lewis Carroll poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter”. The readership has grown - from hundreds to thousands for some blogs and it broke through five figures for the first time.
Thanks and Happy New Year to all of you readers, and thanks to Rob Bruce for some fine photographs.
Below are the ten most-read.
This was the piece I wrote the day after the Brexit vote, praising Nicola Sturgeon’s reaction.
A lament for the prospect of England voting to leave the EU written on a visit to Berlin, just before the Brexit vote.
An account of a journey from London to Edinburgh and the aftermath of the Brexit vote