A year that was the best of times… and worst of times: From jubilation over a new British tennis star to the grief of a lonely monarch in mourning, 2021 has been an epic rollercoaster of joy and sorrow, writes DOMINIC SANDBROOK
How will we remember 2021? It began in darkness: the streets deserted, the shopfronts shuttered, the classrooms silent and cold.
Just four days into the new year, Boris Johnson ordered a third lockdown to cope with the new Alpha variant of Covid. Addressing the nation on TV, he promised this would be the ‘last phase of the struggle’. ‘Not only is the end in sight,’ he said, ‘we know exactly how we will get there.’
Twelve months on, those words have a blackly ironic ring. Tragically, a further 70,000 Britons have died after testing positive, while the worldwide death toll has reached at least 5 million.
And although Boris this week resisted the scientists’ siren calls for more restrictions, and the data suggests Omicron is considerably milder than Covid’s previous incarnations, we are still entering the new year with the end of the saga frustratingly elusive.
In many ways, then, you can tell the story of 2021 as a dark and dreary tale. Yet there was more to life than the drumbeat of infections. It was a year of light as well as shade, with plenty of scientific advances and inspirational triumphs to leaven the gloom.
For me, the year’s most resonant image was that photo of the Queen at his funeral, a small, stooped figure in black, isolated from her family by Covid restrictions, alone with her grief and her memories
When the year began, we had just embarked on the most remarkable public health crusade in our history, with Margaret Keenan, 90, receiving the world’s first Covid vaccine on December 8, 2020. That was the first of a staggering 132 million jabs given by the NHS to date, which means almost three-quarters of the population is fully vaccinated.
And although naysayers in the media love to tell us what Britain can’t do, perhaps we should remind ourselves about the herculean achievement of the spring, when we led the world in vaccinations while Europe dithered and squabbled.
We should remember, too, that Britain has coped with the economic shock far better than most expected. Eighteen months ago, I wrote that we might see levels of unemployment to match the endless dole queues of the mid-1980s.
But I’m glad to report that, so far, I have been proved wrong. The current jobless rate is 4 per cent, and retailers and restaurateurs are crying out for young workers. That’s not ideal, of course — but it’s not the worst problem in the world.
Even the death toll, dreadful as it is, has been nowhere near the apocalyptic scenarios outlined by some of the Government’s advisers.
That’s testament to the miracle of the vaccines, the hard work of NHS staff and the good sense of so many ordinary people, who wearily obeyed the rules even as their supposed betters flagrantly disregarded them.
Light and shade, then. And that’s been the picture in other areas, too. Just think of the summer’s great sporting saga: England’s thrilling run to the final of the European Football Championship, led by their courteous, old-fashioned and enormously impressive coach, Gareth Southgate.
Emma Raducanu: First came a sensational Wimbledon debut, then disappointment as she was overcome by breathing difficulties. Then the rollercoaster took another twist as she became the first qualifier ever to reach the U.S. Open final
For a time, as the Wembley crowds roared their heroes to victory over their continental adversaries, many of us pushed the pandemic to the back of our minds. The sun was shining, the Germans were beaten and the flag of St George flew proudly once again.
Then back came the shadows. Another crushing shoot-out disappointment, appalling scenes of lawlessness and overcrowding at the Wembley turnstiles and, perhaps most depressingly, a wave of racist abuse aimed at the players who missed the crucial penalties.
A few weeks later came an even more dazzling sporting story: the spectacular rise of Bromley’s Emma Raducanu, the tennis teenager who captured the hearts of the nation.
First came a sensational Wimbledon debut, then disappointment as she was overcome by breathing difficulties. Then the rollercoaster took another twist as she became the first qualifier ever to reach the U.S. Open final. More than 9 million Britons cheered as she took the title, and it was no surprise to see her crowned BBC Sports Personality of the Year.
No advertising agency could have invented a better embodiment of 21st-century Britishness than this polite, charming teenager. And how refreshing to see so many embracing this child of Romanian and Chinese parents, a riposte to the woke activists always whining about how racist we all are.
All of this brings me to that other inevitable face of 2021 — another former Middle England favourite, whose rollercoaster ride now seems perilously close to the final plunge into political darkness.
In the U.S., the year began with Donald Trump bitterly contesting the result of the 2020 presidential election, falsely claiming that even Republican-controlled states had rigged the vote in favour of his Democratic rival Joe Biden
Only a fool would write off Boris Johnson. But after a nightmarish December, the Prime Minister ends the year with seven out of ten people telling YouGov that he is making a mess of the premiership.
At the PDC World Darts Championship before Christmas, the crowd rose in a chant of ‘Stand up if you hate Boris Johnson’. One fan even held a picture of wine and cheese and the slogan ‘This is a business meeting’, in a reference to the interminable revelations about Downing Street’s alleged lockdown-busting parties.
If nothing else, it’s a compelling lesson in how quickly political fortunes can change.
As recently as May it seemed the Prime Minister could do no wrong, basking in the glow of the vaccine rollout and leading the Tories to a crushing victory in the Hartlepool by-election.
But since then, almost every month has brought new disasters — catastrophic by-elections in true-blue Chesham and North Shropshire, the shameless attempt to block the suspension of former MP Owen Paterson, ongoing revelations about Tory donations to pay for redecorating the Downing Street flat, Matt Hancock and Lord Frost resigning… the list goes on.
Once political fortunes begin to fall, it is very hard to reverse the slide. Every trivial gaffe is added to the charge sheet.
So when, for example, the Prime Minister lost his way in a speech to the CBI and embarked on a bizarre digression about Peppa Pig World, it only confirmed the impression of shambolic incompetence.
Mr Johnson has dug his way out of similar holes before. He is a formidable campaigner. And among his supporters, he retains considerable credit for securing a Brexit deal, banishing the nightmare of a Corbyn government and presiding over the fastest vaccine rollout in Europe.
But can he really reinvent himself once again? Can he lose the bluster, the dissembling, the air of slapdash indecision, and assert himself as a leader of seriousness and integrity? If 2022 brings the third Tory leadership contest in six years, I won’t be at all surprised.
When the year began, we had just embarked on the most remarkable public health crusade in our history, with Margaret Keenan, 90, receiving the world’s first Covid vaccine on December 8, 2020. That was the first of a staggering 132 million jabs given by the NHS to date, which means almost three-quarters of the population is fully vaccinated
In some ways, though, Boris’s ordeal is part of a wider story. For most Western democracies, it has been a year of dither, disunity and near-terminal discord.
In the U.S., the year began with Donald Trump bitterly contesting the result of the 2020 presidential election, falsely claiming that even Republican-controlled states had rigged the vote in favour of his Democratic rival Joe Biden.
At first, this latest twist in the Trump soap opera seemed merely ludicrous. But then events took a sinister turn, as the outgoing president incited a mob to lay siege to the U.S. Capitol.
In scenes of scarcely believable violence and anarchy, five people were killed and more than 140 police officers injured. At one point the rioters occupied the Senate chamber itself, one of the sacred halls of U.S. democracy.
The unrest was quelled and Mr Trump made an ungracious exit a few days later. But what followed was a wretched disappointment.
Not even the most charitable observer could describe Mr Biden’s first year as a success. To put it bluntly, he is simply far too old for such a high-pressured office, doddering and dallying his way through speeches and public events.
Britain’s government is incapable even of controlling our own borders, with more than 27,000 people attempting to cross the Channel on rickety boats in the past 12 months
The humiliating fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban in August, with the horrendous scenes of chaos and bloodshed at Kabul airport, will blight the conscience of the West for decades.
It’s true that the seeds of disaster were sown at least a decade ago — not least by the messianic hubris of our own Tony Blair. Even so, could there be a more horribly compelling symbol of Western incompetence, weakness and loss of conviction? What makes Mr Biden’s fragility all the more alarming is that no other Western politician seems capable of assuming the mantle of leadership.
At the beginning of December, Angela Merkel formally stepped down as Chancellor of Germany, replaced by the untested and unimpressive Olaf Scholz.
The EU’s Ursula von der Leyen has all the gravitas of an inept supply teacher trying to quell a raucous class. And France’s Emmanuel Macron seems more interested in posturing than serious politics — never better evidenced than in the spring, when he deliberately spread misinformation about the AstraZeneca vaccine, motivated by sheer pique that Brexit Britain had beaten his own scientists to it.
With such flimsy leadership, it’s no wonder the West has proved conspicuously unable to rise to the challenges of the hour.
Indeed, Britain’s government is incapable even of controlling our own borders, with more than 27,000 people attempting to cross the Channel on rickety boats in the past 12 months.
The disaster on November 24, in which 27 migrants died when their dinghy sank in rough seas, was a reminder of the human cost of the people-smuggling racket. Yet still they came, in their thousands, virtually unchecked by the French authorities.
While democracies floundered, the autocrats of the East appeared stronger than ever. From China’s crackdown in Hong Kong to the suppression of protest in Belarus, 2021 was a good year to be a bully.
It was also a year of grotesque self-indulgence, from the preening self-pity of the Harry and Meghan show to the gruesome footage of the unlamented health secretary Mr Hancock breaking his own Covid rules along with his wedding vows. If there were an award for Creep of the Year, he would surely be a prohibitive favourite.
But it was a year, too, to remember those who have given so much to serve the public. The NHS doctors and nurses who have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic. The Liverpool taxi driver David Perry, who locked a terrorist bomber inside his car to prevent him blowing up the city’s Women’s Hospital in November.
Or the Tory MP Sir David Amess, killed by an Islamic extremist at his constituency surgery in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex — a dedicated and dec-ent parliamentarian, who lost his life in the line of democratic duty.
Above all, it was the year Britain bade farewell to Prince Philip, 99, long a symbol of honour, responsibility and service to our country.
For me, the year’s most resonant image was that photo of the Queen at his funeral, a small, stooped figure in black, isolated from her family by Covid restrictions, alone with her grief and her memories.
No picture better captures the mood of the past two years, when so many have felt besieged by the endless drumbeat of depressing news.
But the Queen kept going, and so should we. So let us hope the new year brings better news. And here’s to a brighter, sunnier and, above all, healthier 2022.
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