March 8, 2014
EUROPEFriday, January 3, 2014
The UK in 2013: past, present and future
For The Herald
Energy companies and European immigration look set to dominate the headlines this year
LONDON — When another year ends, the onus is on journalists and commentators to give the past 12 months a title, encapsulating the direction that the world has taken. For many, it would be hard to see beyond the message presented by former NSA analyst turned international fugitive Edward Snowden, whose actions in revealing the propensity of governments to use the internet to spy on citizens heralded the End of Privacy.
Others choose to look to the hope presented by figures such as Pope Francis, Timemagazine’s Man of the Year. The regeneration of the Catholic Church as a force for unity is long overdue, it would seem.
In the UK, the events of the past days have provided a difficult balance of realities, with juxtaposed Christmas messages from the Queen and Edward Snowden providing different reviews of 2013. These reviews themselves, focusing on broader themes such as family (from the Queen) and privacy in Snowden’s case, were set against the difficulties faced by hundreds in Britain who were left without power and often homeless by fierce weather conditions. Furthermore, the immediate future, with the expected influx of thousands of immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania from January 1, is far from certain.
The Queen’s Christmas message, broadcast annually by the BBC, contrasted with Channel 4’s alternative missive, presented in 2013 by Snowden himself. Both messages were relevant in terms of a look back over the preceding year, although their content was strikingly different.
In a year of a royal birth, it was perhaps unsurprising that the Queen focused on the importance of family. Her speech described the “new hope” that a baby brings to families, using Prince George as a conduit for reminding parents that their lives would never be the same again. The Queen also used the message to underline the importance of taking stock of events, stating, “We all need to get the balance right between action and reflection.”
ACTION AND REFLECTION
Action and reflection were also key parts of Snowden’s message, in which he declared the end of privacy. Comparing Orwell’s description of microphones and television monitors with the reality of “sensors in our pocket,” the former analyst also referred to new children, but in a sharply different context.
“A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all,” said Snowden, underlining that 2013 has been the year that a conversation began in the public sphere about how the Internet is used and regulated.
The two reviews were in sharp contrast to the reality with which many in the UK suffered during the Christmas period, as heavy storms produced flooding and power shortages for an estimated 50,000 homes. As the waters subsided, the spirit of solidarity that had seen those left homeless find warmth and shelter was replaced with anger against national bodies for a lack of warning and local governments for their lack of response.
Prime Minister David Cameron, visiting badly-hit Yalding in Kent on December 27, was heckled by an irate resident in the street who claimed the local council had not assisted her as they “were all on holiday.”
The ripples of anger saw politicians turn on the energy companies for failing to provide an adequate response. In an article on December 30, the Telegraph quoted MP Tim Yeo, chair of the energy select committee, who described the performance of the utility providers as “unacceptable” and promised to bring the heads in for a grilling in the new year.
Following on from the energy hikes announced in recent months, energy companies are once again an easy target for politicians and the public alike, but what was most concerning about the dramatic impact of the storms is the lack of preparation and the apparent disconnect between forecasters and reality.
Surely the UK, not famous for its good weather, should be better equipped to handle emergencies of this kind?
A DIFFERENT EMERGENCY
A different emergency is set to hit Britain in 2014, according to the predictions of MPs and the media alike: the arrival of thousands of immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania. The expiry of temporary restrictions on nationals from these two countries to work in the UK has generated debate over what the job market may look like in the immediate future, coupled with fears regarding the costs that this expected influx would have on the British economy, particularly in terms of benefits.
The response from the media has been predictable, spouting conservative fears of European immigrants tinged with darker shades of racism, with the Romany or travelling community once more targeted.
In the build-up to January 1, the date the entrance limits expired, the issue has taken on a political hue: Justice Secretary Chris Grayling was reported by The Guardian on December 31 to have accused the Liberal Democrat members of the coalition government of preventing tougher immigration controls, while 90 Conservative supporters called on the Prime Minister to implement emergency measures to restrict immigration.
Meanwhile, shadow immigration minister David Hanson stated on January 1 that the expected arrival of thousands of immigrants would jeopardize British workers, slamming the government for not having done enough to protect low-skilled UK nationals from competition from abroad.
The last 12 months have seen much change in the UK, and much more can be expected in 2014 — the last full year before a general election. By this time next year, it should be clear whether those in power can remain so, and whether Great Britain will still be a united kingdom. 2013 was a year in which the freedom of privacy was debunked and the freedom of the press in the UK came under serious scrutiny, but it also saw public debate on both issues. Here’s to more debate, and more scrutiny, in 2014.