The idea of a fresh start has a powerful grip on the human imagination. It pervades human culture. Indeed, it may be a human universal as discussed by Professor Donald Brown and by Professor Steven Pinker. A phenomenon the former defined as “those features of culture, society, language, behavior, and psyche for which there are no known exception”. We all know the appeal of beginning afresh with the slate wiped clean. Which of us has not at some time in our lives craved the opportunity have past errors discounted; embarrassments forgotten; transgressions forgiven? Who among has not longed for a tabula rasa on which to rewrite the story of our lives – and this time get it right.
Is the promise of a fresh start not part – at least – of the lure of religion? Is the notion of paradise not simply a metaphor for the fresh start? What is confession and absolution about if not a wiping clean of the slate in order that we can have another go at being worthy? What powers the compulsion to explore if not the possibility of finding a place where new beginnings are possible?
Our lives often seem to lurch from one fresh start to the next. Every morning is, in a small sense, a rebooting of our life. Each night we switch off. Each morning we switch back on again. Every day begins with the hope that it will be better than the day before. That we will be a better person. That this will be the day reality and aspiration draw closer together.
We arbitrarily define points in time when a fresh start is most feasible. The phrase “as from Monday” must be one of the most commonly spoken in any language. Or something similar. The seasons are marked as endings and beginnings. And, of course, we celebrate each new year as perhaps the most significant chance for renewal. The thought that the worst will soon be over sustains us through the last weeks of the year. We bundle together all the bad stuff and pack it into the old year so that it can be discarded at midnight on the last day readying us for a fresh start on the first day of the new year. Or “as from Monday”.
This idea of flushing away something unpleasant to begin afresh has rarely been as pronounced as at the change from 2020 to 2021. There is a powerful conviction shared, one suspects, by the larger part of humanity that 2020 represents a particular low point in our history. I’ve seen the word ‘epochal’ used in relation to the year just gone. And it cannot sensibly be denied that it was a year of massive disruption. Pretty much every person on the planet experienced upheaval uncommon in nature and scale. Few lives have remained untouched by the coronavirus pandemic. Directly or indirectly; in small ways or large, we have all been affected. Negatively, for the most part.
Nobody will mourn the passing of 2020. But how’s that fresh start looking now that the old year has been consigned to the medical waste incinerator of history and the new one has had a chance to bed in a little? Are we still hopeful? How much of the bad has been dispatched with the death of 2020 and how much still lingers? How much different is this year from last?
In these early days of the new year optimism and positivity remain very much in vogue. When asked for their predictions for the year ahead the custom is that people thought qualified to comment by virtue of the fact that they have a microphone held in front of their face and/or a camera pointed at it generally try to look on the bright side. The holiday spirit has to be maintained as long as possible. Or to put it another way, the death of hope must be deferred for as long as possible. The start remains fresh.
It will spoil soon enough.
The problem is that other than the calendar nothing much changes with the turn of the year. We imbue this point in time with huge significance that is meant to be symbolic but which tends to take on concreteness in some kind of proportion to the desperateness of the desire for change. The more fervent the wish for a happy, healthy and prosperous one the greater the faith in the mystical power of a new year to end the misery, sickness and hardship of the old. Has that ever actually happened? I sincerely doubt it.
We fool ourselves about such things. More and more often – or so it seems – with an ever greater measure of help from established power and its media machine. Occasionally despite some honest(ish) effort to manage expectations. Commonly, there’s a bit of each. Established power will strive to present reality in whatever way serves its purposes and various countervailing forces will attempt to convey their truth. Success in any case will depend largely on how ready we are to be fooled. If there is such a thing as an actual reality it invariably gets lost in the welter of expedient representations.
In 2021 it is inevitable that the bulk of the effort to manipulate perceptions will focus on three topics – Brexit, COVID and the constitution. In each instance we, the public, will be torn between two very different stories. Or that’s the simplification I’m going with. In fact, there will be lots of stories covering a spectrum between positive and negative; credible and fantastical; true and false. But if we take two points towards opposite ends of this spectrum you can fill in the rest for yourselves.
Brexit will be a triumph or a catastrophe, dependending on who is telling the story. The elusive reality is that it must be more catastrophical than triumphant because a lot of rather good stuff has been flushed down the toilet along with EU membership and the stuff we’re getting in its place looks a bit tawdry by comparison. And because dismissive as I am of mechanical models, I have to allow that there are parts of the functioning of the economy with owe more to Newtonian physics than organic chemistry. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Increase the friction in a system and there will be a price to pay in terms of the system’s performance. That’s just the way the universe works. There’s no such thing as magic. Brexit will be bad. Even for those who wanted it.
But 2021 will see a huge propaganda effort by the British state to have us believe the opposite. That’s what we have in the 21st century instead of magic. Why toil long hours over a hot crucible trying to turn base metal to gold when you can easily make people believe the base metal is gold? Given the success of the 40-year campaign to demonise the EU that led up to the 2016 referendum and England’s Leave vote, we have to suppose this effort will be effective. Leave voters will be disposed to believe the propaganda. They will be fed horror stories about what is happening in Europe and asked to compare it with a heavily touched-up portrayal of the ‘Great British Leap Forward’ which even if it isn’t all that was promised must be better than what’s going on ‘over there’.
The Scottish Government and the SNP will doubtless be in the vanguard of the effort to promote a very different narrative. But a narrative which is largely defined by that of the British government and the Mad Brexiteers. By which I mean it will tell an opposite story. It will recount successes in the EU and invite comparisons with the most egregious effects of Brexit. The fact that Scotland voted Remain will be mentioned. But rather than being the basis of the whole narrative it will be relegated to a sub-plot. The narrative template set by the British media must be adhered to while simply have the heroes and villains swap places. Telling a unique story would be the bold and imaginative thing to do. So it won’t be done. The issue will be framed by the British state. No attempt will be made to reframe it out of fear that the public won’t understand.
In relation to the pandemic the British government will proclaim its strategy for combating the disease highly effective no matter how loudly the statics yell “Lies!”. The Scottish Government, meanwhile, will be more concerned with managing expectations than manipulating perceptions. Thus we will have two narratives. One telling how the hardy Brits have shaken off COVID and things are getting ‘back to normal’, the other telling people to remain cautious as there are still some many unknowns and uncertainties. People will choose to believe one or the other depending on personal prejudice and almost entirely without reference to the facts and scientific evidence.
The constitutional issue too will see a continuation of the present narratives. We’ll have the happy-clappy, ‘never closer to independence’ tale from the likes of Alyn Smith and the more downbeat analysis from those who have spotted that there’s nothing to connect the opinion polls to the democratic process. Instead of the 2021 Holyrood election being used to answer some big questions those big questions will be deferred until after the election. They will then continue to be deferred – for reasons.
Basically, nothing will change. It’s only a matter of time before we start wishing this year ended as fervently as we wished for 2020 to be over. Nothing will change because nobody will do anything to make things change. There is no fresh start. Brexit won’t unhappen. The virus will act like a virus and not the villain in a B-movie. Scotland’s cause will await the bold decisive political leadership that has failed to materialise in any of the previous six years.
We all like the idea of a fresh start. We like it a lot more if there’s no effort involved. We are enthralled by the notion that the old can be ripped away and disposed of as easily as discarding a page on the calendar. We want the transformation. We want the new year to be different. We are less inclined to be the agents of the change we want. We spend the year saying “As from Monday…” until the time comes around to say “Well, maybe next year…”.
Definitely next year!