'Wae's me for the Zeitgeist' is a line from Hugh McDiarmid's epic poem 'A Drunk Man looks at the Thistle'. It is part of a passage bemoaning all the rubbish that is said and written about Robert Burns. I learned it off by heart to recite at a school Burns Supper over 50 years ago.
'Wae's me for the Zeitgeist' could equally be our verdict on 2016. I really am struggling with the spirit of the age. The dominant role models seem to be Putin, Trump and Farage. The memorable events include the SNP conning the voters yet again; the dreadful murder of Jo Cox and then Brexit. We are expected to shrug our shoulders and put it all down to an anti establishment epidemic. In the U.K. We have seen Jeremy Corbyn re-elected Labour Leader convincingly yet no sign that the enthusiasm of the new members is replicated by the electorate. In the US, Bernie Sanders played a similar role - neither men good speakers or what you would call charismatic, yet capturing something of the 'the spirit of the age'. However, the population at large didn't seem to 'feel the bern' and when asked to choose between a pale male, foul mouthed, ignorant business man and the first ever female Presidential candidate from one of the main parties, they opted for Trump.
Political ructions, of course, went far beyond the US. Several western nations have been faltering in achieving that post-crisis recovery. New anti-establishment parties have emerged in several countries and, as in the UK, people have voted for dramatic change. Workers in developed economies have yet to feel the benefit from a recovery or rising globalisation.
Germany’s economy has largely outperformed the wider eurozone in recent years. Its unemployment rate is low and youth unemployment is the lowest in EU. Yet wage growth has been relatively modest, and savings have suffered as the European Central Bank set negative interest rates. That has exacerbated German grievances that the EU benefits poorer countries more than their own. The populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party founded in 2013, has shifted to the right and enjoyed gains in regional elections by playing on fears over immigration and Merkel’s policy on refugees.
June’s Brexit vote in the U.K. was seen as being as much about frustration with the establishment as a decision to leave the EU. The Government tells us that employment is up and growth is getting stronger - people just don't feel it to be the case. Employment is insecure and employers seem to rely on low wages rather than investing to grow. A recent TUC study found Britain suffered a bigger fall in real wages since the financial crisis than any other advanced country apart from Greece.
In France, Socialist Hollande has been condemned for his failure to sort out the economy and is already 'pain grillé' while Marine Le Pen and her National Front Party has seen support grow with anti-globalisation and anti-euro feeling. Building on the fears of immigration and terrorism, she is likely to reach the run-off in next year’s presidential elections.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has resigned after failing to win a referendum on economic reform. Economic growth has been consistently disappointing in Italy and a succession of coalition governments has failed to push through reforms to help adapt the economy to a changing world. Similar to the Brexit vote in the UK, the referendum was seen as a way for Italians to voice their general discontent with the establishment and the Italian economy. The forthcoming election offers opportunity for gains by comedian Beppe Grillo’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the populist rightwing Northern League.
In an otherwise dire year, my high spots, with the exception of Sadiq Khan's election as Mayor of London, appear very minor and all sport related - the Olympics, Andy Murray and Hibs winning the Scottish Cup after 114 years. I'm not even all that into sport, and gave up properly supporting Hibs 40 years ago, so that just confirms how bad a year it's been. In spite of everything, I remain an optimist and a believer in human progress - just not at the moment - maybe not again in my lifetime. US Vice President, Joe Biden, recently compared 2016 with 1968. He spoke of the set backs of that earlier year etched in his memory - the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and shortly after, Robert Kennedy. I too remember the Zeitgeist of 1968. As a student at Edinburgh University I felt caught up in the student protest movement. We demonstrated against the Vietnam war and supported the Prague spring. We watched with anticipation the May uprising in Paris with students joining workers on the streets. We also witnessed the backlash and political repression that followed for daring to rebel against the military and bureaucratic elites of the day. Joe Biden reminded people that "1968 was really a bad year. Really a bad year. And America didn't break. America didn't break."
Well 2016 has been really a bad year; really a bad year. Let's just hope the world doesn't break in 2017.