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Foreign

Déjà vu

Author: Gabriel Hershman Date: Fri, Jan 06 2012 1 Comment, 4146 Views
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"We're doomed, we're doomed!". Finally, 40 years down the line, the prophesy of Dad's Army's private Frazer came true in 2011.

Almost every European country saw declining living standards and rising unemployment as well as forlorn faces among those "lucky enough" – as the constant refrain would have it – to have a job. Most anonymous poor sods received constant admonitions to "tighten our belts" – wait a minute, we've run out of extra notches! – while the super rich wept at having to ditch a yacht or two.

Just when we thought that Scandinavia was still a beacon of serenity amid the mess, a maniac went on a shooting spree in Norway and killed 77 people in total. Anders Behring Breivik, later diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, calmly picked off his victims one by one on the island of  Utøya. Sadly, he did not then turn the gun on himself.

Yet it was economic woes that dominated the news during 2011. The euro, indeed perhaps the very idea of the European Union itself, looked far from secure by the end of the year. Niggling doubts turned into near despair even among dedicated Europhiles when EC President Jose Manuel Barroso declared that Europe needed "deeper economic integration". This from a former Maoist who did the catering for the Iraq War!

Desperate for reassurance, the world turned to the only safe pair of hands left, the head of the IMF, the redoubtable Dominic Strauss Kahn. But his paws were, allegedly, otherwise engaged. The paws in question, it should be emphasised, were ultimately absolved of any wrongdoing.

No opposition
A year of economic crisis, riots, a royal wedding, an unpopular government but a singularly ineffective opposition. That was 2011 in the UK. Or was it 1981? For those with long memories the past year's events had an air of déjà vu.

Exactly 30 years before, Britain's deprived inner cities had erupted and the prime minister of the time – Margaret Thatcher – had presided over a recession that saw unemployment top three million and the departure of several key "wets" from her cabinet who declared that the government was "heading for the rocks".

For a while in 1981 – the era of Alan Beasdale's Boys from the Blackstuff – the situation seemed desperate. Toxteth and Brixton burned and people talked about "the social fabric of society collapsing". Thatcher's popularity was in its (pre-Falklands war) doldrums but Michael Foot's Labour party was hardly a credible alternative.

Fast forward 30 years and Cameron was battling against record youth unemployment and an even worse economy. But a singularly uncharismatic opponent, Ed Miliband, had failed – just like poor old Footie – to land a knockout punch.

A riotous wedding
In the summer of 1981, the royal wedding of Charles and Diana had brought London to a standstill. And 2011 did the same with the union of William and Kate. Polls showed that the royal family was less popular than 30 years ago but the naysayers just stayed at home and sulked bitter tears into their Guardian.

A few weeks later, riots erupted. It all started when a Tottenham resident was shot by police. Unrest then spread across the country as "hoodies" plundered and looted shops. Law-abiding citizens, TV camera crews and even the odd solitary policeman were ignored as Britain's "yoof" rampaged. When a few bobbies arrived on the scene they did what they were good at; they charged at the troublemakers and drove them to other high streets where they started looting all over again.

One Malaysian youth, recovering from a street mugging, was helped to his feet by "a good Samaritan" – only to be robbed again. This led Cameron to state, with classic British understatement, that "pockets of our society are clearly rather sick".

Later in the year, anti-capitalism protesters staged a sit-in outside London's St Paul's, carrying original banners that read "capitalism is a serious problem" and "capitalism is crisis". Perhaps they should have lived in Bulgaria pre-1989.

Whipping boy?
The British press, normally so deft, seemed lost for a playground victim during 2011. Was it Nick Clegg who had "betrayed his principles" by hitching the Liberal Democrat wagon to the Tories? Or Miliband for being too nasal and uninspiring and stabbing his brother in the back? Or Cameron himself for being too soppy and not wanting to belt "hoodies" harder?
In the end the press had its own comeuppance when the phone-tapping scandal terminated the News Of The World – the weekly scandal sheet drooled over by nose-picking, sex-starved voyeurs – and its distinguished "editor", the mysteriously and undeservedly elevated Rebekah Brooks. Never has a newspaper's closure been so unlamented.

Rupert Murdoch appeared at a special hearing to probe the scandal and delivered a masterful performance as a befuddled media tycoon totally oblivious of any impropriety within his empire. He scratched his forehead a lot and claimed – like Manuel in Fawlty Towers – to "know nothing". His hesitations were worthy of that wonderful thespian Michael Hordern at his best, just long enough for people to wonder if he was slightly past it. That, presumably, was the intention.

Less convincing was his son, James, whose spine would have snapped if his back had been any straighter. Murdoch senior's wife Wendi Deng – it has to be said – delighted audiences by delivering a kung fu defence of her husband when a cream pie found its target. Who needs The Expendables?

Cameron ended 2011 on a high when he hand-bagged (Thatcher-style) European partners and, best of all, a Frenchman at that, president Sarkozy. The press and public applauded. Nick Clegg pretended to throw a tantrum but it was just a sop to his party delivered with a friendly wink to Cameron that indicated he didn't really mean it.

The year ended with people fighting over post-Christmas bargains and a spate of shootings. One of the deceased was a young inner city youth who, we were told, had "a big personality", in other words – and as was subsequently revealed – a gang member.

Crisis in euro land
Portugal and Spain lurched from crisis to crisis during 2011. Portugal, we already divined, was doomed. This became apparent in 2010 when former prime minister Jose Socrates gave a smile so wide and so unctuous that it could only mean the end of civilisation as we knew it.

Lisbon was forced to seek a 78 billion euro bailout from the European Union and International Monetary Fund in the spring after its financing costs soared. No surprise at all to anyone familiar with its "volta ja" (back in a minute signs on shops) mentality and two-hour lunch breaks. Socrates, under whom Portugal's only policy was to keep public sector offices over-manned, was finally voted out of office and replaced by the slightly more business-friendly Pedro Coelho.

The year ended with the good news that Portugal – by now absolutely desperate to dispose of "the family silver" – as Harold Macmillan once chastised Thatcher for – had sold a major stake in its state-owned electricity company to a Chinese company for 2.7 billion euro.

Meanwhile, Spain, a country deemed too large to receive a bailout, teetered on the edge of default and saw startlingly high unemployment, topping 20 per cent.

Controls
By the end of 2011, the 17 members of the euro zone said they would sign a treaty negotiated by Sarkozy and German chancellor Angela Merkel to impose tighter fiscal stipulations over members. Provisions included imposing debt and deficit ceilings on each country.

Italy, in particular, was struggling. By the summer Italy was spending 16 per cent of its budget on interest payments, and foreigners held about 800 billion euro (1.4 trillion dollars) of Italy's debt, greater than that of Greece, Ireland, and Portugal combined.

Parliament passed a 54 billion euro austerity package in September, triggering a confidence vote in Silvio Berlusconi in parliament that he narrowly won. But Italy's debt crisis showed no sign of alleviating, however, and since, like Spain, the country was deemed too big for a bailout, the EU demanded more cuts. By now the fate of the country's flamboyant and controversial leader was sealed.

So it was that, after years of scandals, blunders and intrigues that would have ended the careers of most politicians 10 times over, Berlusconi resigned. Perhaps, truth be told, only the likes of Gaddafi and Chavez carved more ridiculous figures on the world stage.

But cheer up, Berlusconi, you now have more time to attend to your hairpiece.

    Profile previewsinibaldiThu, Jan 12 2012

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