What a year 2016 has been. You may think that I am referring to the horrors of Brexit, of Syria, of Trump’s election. Well, I could be. But I could also be referring to the publication of Trading Futures, to the purchase of a new house, to gentle days spent in the company of old friends. In fact, I am referring to all these things.
We perch somewhere on a wobbly line between optimism and pessimism. Where do I perch? I used to reply to that question by saying that I am simply a realist, but – if I survey what is now most of the life I will live – I am not sure that this has always been the case. Nor would I want it to be. We all need a dose of fantasy.
If experience teaches anything, it is that good and bad permanently co-exist. At some times, one of the two might seem to predominate, but the other still waits in the wings. In which case, there is no choice to be made between optimism and pessimism: both will prove to be well-founded. We just don’t know on what issues, or when. Take 2007, in my case. I wrote my first novel, The Breaking of Eggs. I met my wife. Both my parents died. What can one say?
For most of my life, I have perhaps been an optimist in the long term and a pessimist in the short term. I have seldom had great confidence that the immediate future will work out as planned, but always a belief that everything will turn out well in the end. I think I have had much the same attitude to the world at large as to my own life. The problem is that the long term, like Gatsby’s green light, year by year recedes before us, while the present is always here.
Since the issue troubles me, I asked my wife whether I was an optimist or a pessimist. She didn’t think I was either, but definitely not a pessimist. More of a pragmatist, she said. That’s all right. I’ll take that. Cup 51% full.
I fear that I am becoming more of a pessimist as I get older. This is a common phenomenon, which I had always hoped to avoid. But one feels what one feels, and there is no avoiding that, although one can try not to infect others. On a personal level, this should not be surprising. There is a finite length of time between now and death. A length of time in which to do all the things we’d like to do. A length of time that gets shorter each year. If one considers the matter, it is also a shorter length of time in which things can go wrong. The fact that it never occurs to me to think of it in that way could be construed as either optimism or pessimism.
As far as the world is concerned, it is hard to feel a great deal of optimism for 2017 and beyond. Brexit has turned into a nightmare. A group of people who never believed it would happen are now forced to confront a choice made by people with no responsibility for making it happen, and thus no interest in whether the choice was practical in the first place. A simple yes/no question. Really?
Then there is Syria. As Teresa Zhukovska put it in The Breaking of Eggs: ‘There are no limits to what any human being may do in certain circumstances. I don’t mean there are few limits. I mean that there are no limits whatsoever. None at all.’ Syria has illustrated the point daily throughout 2016 and, despite the developments of the last few days, it would take the wildest of optimists to believe that the conflict is now over.
Across the Atlantic, the mild relief that Donald Trump appears to have abandoned some of his most extreme and implausible proposals should not obscure the fact that much that is unpalatable remains. Some parts will affect few people outside America. Other parts will affect both Britain and the world at large. Leaving aside the substantial issues of Trump’s attitude to President Putin and to NATO, we have to face the prospect of the world’s largest economy embracing protectionism.
‘I am not an economist,’ Willie Whitelaw once remarked, ‘and I thank the good Lord for that.’ Nor am I, so I cannot say why every economy that has practised free trade of which I am aware has prospered, whereas any that has practised protectionism has not. But I believe that to be the case. I know that Britain’s abandonment of protectionism in the late 18th century was a precondition for the success of the industrial revolution. I can imagine few things worse than a protectionist America, especially when it is more urgent than ever for Britain to trade freely with the world.
Worse still, I can imagine that if Trump slashes corporation tax, and that if – as seems likely – much of the $2-3 trillion of US corporate profits currently stashed offshore is repatriated, then the tax paid on those profits will finance countless infrastructure projects and countless new jobs. What’s wrong with that, you may ask? Nothing. But, in four years’ time, Trump will hail it as a vindication of protectionist policies, when it will be nothing of the sort.
It will take years before the effects of turning free trade into protectionism become apparent. By then, it will be too late to reverse much of the damage. And it will take just as long to turn the wheel back again. There is a welter of prospective fears from a Trump presidency, but this is perhaps the greatest, if not the most immediately apparent.
So: Brexit, Trump, Syria… and let’s not forget the French elections. Since Brexit couldn’t possibly happen, and a Trump presidency couldn’t possibly happen, obviously a Marine Le Pen victory can’t possibly happen. Let’s not go there. I don’t think it will happen.
Happy New Year? What’s with the question mark? Hey, let’s be positive. Happy New Year. Definitely. Over there is a fantastic, really fantastic, I mean you can’t guess how fantastic a mound of sand in which to bury our heads. And it’s going to be beautiful, I promise you.