1 The new politics is, in fact, the old politics
Nick Clegg will regret many things about 2010. One will be his decision to produce a Lib Dem election poster warning that the Tories would raise VAT. A few weeks later Clegg, installed as deputy prime minister, was backing coalition plans to – yes – raise VAT.
Then there was the pre-election pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees. Six months later Clegg was pushing a policy to triple them.
These shifts were damaging not just because they were old-fashioned U-turns but because they fatally undermined the party’s raison d’etre – its commitment to deliver a new, honest politics. A vote for the Lib Dems, Clegg had said, would be “a vote that counts”.
It was all part of his broader attempt to promote the merits of voting reform – the Lib Dems’ core policy. Fair votes through proportional representation would mean that everyone’s vote would matter and everyone’s voice would be heard.
Floating the idea of “new politics” and calling for an end to the duopoly of the “old parties” made Clegg more popular than Churchill for a while. But it is dangerous to take the moral high ground in politics.
A mid-December poll for the News of the World found 61% of respondents saying that they didn’t trust Clegg, compared to 24% in April. In a few months, he had gone from being one of the most trusted politicians to one of the least trusted.
To many, the “new politics” had begun to feel very much like old politics – if not rather worse, as angry protests hit the streets and chants rang out about promises broken. Toby Helm
2 Kanye West is pop’s top innovator
In 2009, Kanye West had the distinction of being called a “jackass” by the US president, after rudely interrupting an acceptance speech by his fellow performer Taylor Swift at an awards show.
The contrast with this year could scarcely be greater, with the rapper’s fifth album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, voted the best of 2010 by publications including Time magazine, Rolling Stone, Billboard and Spin, as well as by influential music website Pitchfork.
Dazzlingly inventive, the album lived up to the expectations that West himself had placed on it: breaking with conventional practice, he eschewed print interviews but turned up at the offices of Facebook and Twitter to rap early versions of his songs to staff there. West then tweeted his followers, hilariously, with his thoughts on everything from Persian rugs to the merits of Leonard Bernstein.
This week’s latest aphorism? “Black is the new black.” Caspar Llewellyn Smith
3 A finger bone made us rethink the Tree of Life
The discovery of a human finger bone and a tooth in the Denisova cave, in Siberia, sparked one of the year’s most unlikely scientific sensations. DNA found in the 30,000-year-old finger bone fragment was analysed at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and found to belong to a previously unknown species of human. “The [DNA] sequence is similar in some ways to humans, but still quite distinct,” said project leader Johannes Krause.
Crucially, the Denisova hominid was the first to be identified from its DNA alone, its structure indicating that modern humans and the unknown cave dweller shared a common ancestor a million years ago. By contrast, modern humans and Neanderthals – a separate species of human that became extinct 40,000 years ago – shared a common ancestor only 450,000 years ago.
The uncovering of the new species is particularly intriguing because it follows the discovery, in 2004, of Homo floresiensis – the Hobbit folk of Flores, in the East Indies. Members of the latter species of tiny cavemen were still living 13,000 years ago.
This means that in the very recent past there were at least four different human beings in existence: Neanderthals, Denisova hominids, Hobbit folk, and, of course, Homo sapiens. The notion that human evolution progressed in a simple, single line, from ape to human, is simply wrong. Our species has continued to experiment and create different forms throughout its existence – with Homo sapiens only recently emerging as the winner. Robin McKie
4 WikiLeaks suggests that secrets are no more
For a long time now, since digital media became the defining characteristic of our age, a revolution in information and secrecy has been predicted. WikiLeaks, and in particular the continuing exposure of US embassy cables, allows us for the first time to see the contours of that revolution – and some of the implications.
Chief among them seems to be the fact that even the best resourced and most confidential of organisations can no longer rely on a properly secure intelligence network. What once could be stamped “top secret” and locked away in a filing cabinet now becomes digitised and potentially accessible to any number of people with a keyboard and a broadband connection. Diplomats, politicians and business leaders around the world will no doubt overnight become more circumspect about expressing any for-your-eyes-only opinion.
The phrase “citizen journalism” often attaches itself to WikiLeaks, as if this was a new phenomenon, but journalism has always relied on leaks and tipoffs and secrets from the wider public. What the internet, and its communities of information gatherers, allows is for this to be done on a more epic and anonymous scale. In this new world, as Julian Assange has acknowledged by using trusted news organisations to reveal the secrets, the process of editing and sifting and contextualising stories becomes more crucial than ever.
If WikiLeaks represents one version of future transparency, recent events have also revealed how those with information to protect will begin to shape the argument against that transparency. Assange was originally scrupulous in trying to avoid his medium becoming the message: it was the information that was important, not the individual or organisation that brought it to the public domain. As the bizarre circus around Assange now proves, however, news generally refuses to be depersonalised. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the particular extradition case, there will always be interests that will move to undermine and destroy the messenger, even as they lose control of the message. Tim Adams
5 Billionaires can be highly generous
In May, America’s two wealthiest citizens, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, arranged three separate dinners with those who occupied the positions directly below them in the US rich list: Michael Bloomberg, George Soros, Oprah Winfrey and the rest.
One result was that Buffett and Gates went public in June with what they called the Giving Pledge, an appeal to the conscience of their fellow billionaires that now was the time to donate half their wealth to solving some of the world’s problems. So far, 40 have signed up. Buffett had set the ball rolling by pledging 99% of his $70bn (£45.5bn) fortune to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
You can see how the Giving Pledge is developing at givingpledge.org and read letters from, among others, Michael Bloomberg, Paul Allen, Ted Turner and George Lucas. Bloomberg writes: “The reality of great wealth is that you can’t spend it and you can’t take it with you. For decades, I’ve been committed to giving away the vast majority of my wealth to causes that I’m passionate about. And so I am enthusiastically taking the Giving Pledge, and nearly all of my net worth will be given away in the years ahead.”
Sceptics say charity and aid never transformed societies. Gates and Buffett, though, point to the fact that in a few short years of their targeted health policies they have eradicated polio from all but three countries; they now have their sights on malaria. You can only hope the Giving Pledge proves contagious. TA
6 Great fiction can still make a huge impact
It kicked off in August, when Time put Jonathan Franzen on its cover, the first time the honour had been bestowed on a living writer in a decade. Then the reviews appeared, uniformly ecstatic at first, proclaiming Freedom, Franzen’s long-awaited follow-up to The Corrections, a “work of total genius”, a “masterpiece of American fiction”, a rival even to Tolstoy. Not everyone was so bowled over: one leading US magazine described the book as a “576-page monument to insignificance”, while novelists Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult complained on Twitter about white male authors getting all the attention.
By the time Freedom reached Britain, in late September, its momentum was irresistible; not even the small matter of an error-strewn first print run could derail it. It all helped to turn Franzen into the most talked-about writer of 2010 – and Freedom the best, or most overrated, novel of the year, decade, or perhaps the century. William Skidelsky
7 German foreign policy is no longer about atonement
On 11 May, a headline in Bild, Germany‘s biggest tabloid newspaper, declared: “We are the schmucks of Europe yet again.” It was a tame lament, but the fit of national pique it expressed was momentous. The government had just provided emergency cash to rescue Greece from a budget crisis. Germans were unimpressed. Why, they asked, should their taxes pay for corrupt civil servants in Athens to retire early?
Chancellor Angela Merkel had little choice but to bail out the single currency – Germany had as much to lose as any member if it collapsed – but the debate revealed a change in self-image. Germany has traditionally seen integration with neighbours not only as a question of economic advantage but of moral urgency. It was a duty to atone for the sins of Nazism.
Time has weakened the taboo. Germany wants to behave like every other country, and not be embarrassed to promote its national interest. During the boom, it was well served by the euro. But broke members can quickly become a drag. Germany, meanwhile, feels a certain pious resentment for having run a budget surplus, staying sober at the financial party while everyone else got drunk. Now it’s closing time, the other euro members come pestering Berlin for lifts home.
Sorry, no money for petrol either. Merkel sits testily behind the wheel, but patience is running thin. In the future, Germany cannot be relied upon as Europe’s designated driver. Rafael Behr
8 Students are leading the way in social protest
In an interview with the Observer, Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students, described the level of youth activism in 2010 as “unprecedented”, or at least not seen since the 1960s.
It began with a march that saw 50,000 students, lecturers, schoolchildren, anarchists and more pour on to the streets of London in protest at the prospect of tuition fees being almost trebled to £9,000 a year. A peaceful march turned violent, with protesters breaking into the Conservative headquarters at Millbank. Soon recriminations were flying. But one thing was clear: the events of November tapped into a mood and triggered a youth movement that would keep going, a great force unleashed by a response to a policy about fees that came alongside the largest cuts to public services in a generation. From then on, the students kept on coming, from organised marches in Westminster to impromptu rallies elsewhere.
Some events were dominated by anarchists and the far left, but often it was the students leading the way, unmasked and angry as they waved their placards and hollered that their dreams were being destroyed. There was even a return of the student occupation, with lecture theatres taken over across the country. The passion of the young, it seems, had not gone away – it was just waiting to be reignited. Anushka Asthana
9 Bond vigilantes are new masters of the universe
Forget helpless politicians and on-the-spot bankers, the winners of 2010 have been asset managers who invest the billions in our pension and insurance pots in the bond market. Firms such as Pimco or BlackRock run funds 10 times bigger than the economies of Ireland, Portugal or Greece. If they start selling those bonds, the borrowing costs of those countries rise.
The “vigilantes”, however, are not evil speculators or millionaire investors, but professionals in London, Frankfurt and Zurich who want their money back. They press countries to slash ballooning deficits as they fear that after the spending extravaganza seen in Britain, Spain, Greece and Ireland over the past decade, these sovereign nations may not be able to pay them back.
The prime ministers of Britain, Spain and Greece had to succumb to the new masters as the year progressed, even if that caused riots on the streets. Elena Moya
10 Many of us live in the squeezed middle
A couple with a combined salary of, say, £50,000 a year, are in the top fifth of British earners. But suppose they bought a house at the top of the boom with a whopping mortgage. Throw in bills, petrol, credit card debts, children, and the family doesn’t feel very rich.
People earning much less – the majority – have been pushed by the recession to live on narrow margins indeed. Many were kept afloat in the boom by low interest rates, low inflation and easy access to credit. Their insecurity in a chilly economic climate emerged this year as perhaps the most important force shaping British politics.
“We must understand,” Ed Miliband wrote, “why, despite all that was achieved over the last decade, so many people who work hard and want to get on came to feel squeezed.”
As political rhetoric “the squeezed middle” is a felicitous phrase, but the concept is baggy. The political class that touts its empathy has no real experience of meagre wages and unemployment. Media portrayals of what is “middle class” often depict an elite tier, which persuades itself it is “average” by enviously eyeing the opulence of footballers and bankers.
Meanwhile, VAT goes up at the start of next year. Inflation is rising and with it the prospect of higher interest rates and mortgage arrears. Ever more people will be caught in the middle. RB
11 The iPad promises to transform publishing
With all the hyperbole and bunting of a quasi-religious experience, Apple unleashed its touchscreen tablet computer on the world in April 2010. After the hollow promise of digital revenues on the web, news, magazine and book publishers embraced the iPad from the start, reassured by Apple’s locked-down payment system and a covetable device pitched firmly at a small but wealthy demographic.
Apps, they discovered, might only dress content up in a different way, but with some clever customisation consumers perceive enough value to pay for it. After giving away content for years in the name of audience building, and then charging pennies for tentative iPhone apps, publishers found they could charge anything up to £4.99 for iPad apps, resulting in digital, at last, paying something like the same as print.
Even Rupert Murdoch made no attempt to disguise his enthusiasm for what he described as a “game-changing device”. News Corp has reportedly been working with Apple on The Daily, a dedicated iPad newspaper to be launched in January – complete with video and 3D content.
But publishers are unwise to rely too heavily on the iPad for salvation. An expensive and niche device, it can only supplement rather than replace the desktop screen. Publishers still need to find a way to make the internet pay – and on a platform that doesn’t involve handing a 30% cut to Apple with every sale. Jemima Kiss
12 Super salmon could help feed the world
Inevitably, it was dubbed the “Frankenfish” following September’s announcement that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was holding final consultations prior to permitting the sale of genetically engineered fish. The fish, the GM Atlantic salmon, grows twice as fast as its wild cousin, its genes having been augmented with DNA from the Pacific Chinook salmon and an ocean pout (Zoarces americanus) in order to boost its growth. Final approval to allow sale of the GM salmon is now expected early next year. Its creator, the Massachusetts company AquaBounty Technologies, says it has done everything possible to show farmed GM salmon is safe, while a coalition of greens has attacked the proposed sale as a threat to humans and the environment. RMcK
13 Deepwater drilling is a complex business
On 20 April, a surge in pressure sent oil spurting up a drill pipe below BP‘s Deepwater Horizon oil rig, 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico. The pressure dislodged a column of sludge intended to keep the oil underground, causing an explosion that killed 11 workers and injured 17.
The disaster caused an underwater rupture that left oil gushing into the ocean for almost three months. Just how much oil polluted the water is still fiercely debated – the US government says it was 5m barrels’ worth. BP, which has to pay a fine of at least $1,100 per barrel spilled, insists the true figure was 20% to 50% lower. Either way, it was an enormous quantity, scarring delicate wetland wildernesses and suspending the livelihoods of thousands along America’s coast.
The spill prompted the Obama administration to impose an embargo on deepwater drilling as engineers struggled to understand how several failsafe mechanisms had failed – including a sophisticated blowout preventer intended to slam shut the pipe.
Initially, BP alone was blamed by the White House. More recently, investigators have suggested Britain’s biggest company shared responsibility with two US subcontractors – Transocean, which owned the rig, and Halliburton, accused of botching a cement job intended to seal the well.
For BP and the rest of the oil industry, the consequences of a human and environmental tragedy will reverberate for years to come. Andrew Clark
14 Facebook seeks to outgoogle Google
Many people may now be feeling that they have underestimated Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s fresh-faced founder and chief executive. “Until a year ago, he thought this might be the next Google, but he wasn’t sure,” a friend of his told the FT in December. “Now he’s sure. The fear is gone.”
The subject of David Fincher’s film The Social Network this year, Zuckerberg now strikes terror into the hearts of his commercial rivals. Google clearly views Apple and Facebook, rather than Microsoft, as the enemy – certainly in terms of the advertising that generates 97% of Google’s revenues, $22.89bn (£14.87bn) for 2009.
Social media is the one key area where Google has largely failed, and Facebook has proved there is money to be made. More worrying for Google, Facebook is also having some success in convincing consumers that the best way to navigate the web is through the opinions and recommendations of a network of friends and contacts.
Facebook is rapidly translating that behaviour into advertising revenue, delivering personalised, cost-effective targeting. Estimates put Facebook’s revenues at $2bn for 2010.
The last straw for Google may prove to be a draining away of talent. Facebook is fast siphoning off the best engineers. With around a tenth of Google’s 23,300 employees, Facebook is smaller, lighter and crucially faster. And with Facebook “almost guaranteed” to reach a billion users, according to Zuckerberg, Google will have to get used to sharing the limelight. JK
15 Kinect allows us all to play
For 40 years we’ve struggled with the intricacies of the video-game joypad, all those analogue sticks, buttons and triggers – then Microsoft makes it all absolutely redundant. Launched on 10 November, the Kinect system for the Xbox 360 console employs an infrared emitter and a webcam to track player movements, converting them into on-screen action. You can leap, dance, sing and smile at this thing, and it registers it all.
With Kinect, gaming is all about breaking down the barrier between you and your TV. In the future, we’ll get games where we become virtual actors, talking to on-screen characters. But for now, the sheer delight of moving your arms and seeing an on-screen character mimic the motion is enough. It could be that advanced motion control is to games what the introduction of sound was to movies: a major gear shift. Certainly we learned what the Wii hinted at – that everyone can play. Keith Stuart
16 China is chasing the US for global supremacy
Two years ago, with the global financial system on the brink of meltdown, the world’s leading powers managed to co-ordinate their response at summits of the G20 group of nations. In 2010, that co-operative spirit died. The main reason was an epic rivalry between China and the US – the G2. In August, China edged past Japan to take second place behind the US in the league of large economies, with gross domestic product of around $1.3 trillion.
But the new superpower’s growth relies on pumping cheap exports into consumer markets abroad. Battered by recession, US manufacturers see subsidised Chinese exports as tools of economic aggression. In November, a G20 summit resulted in a tepid agreement by all nations to try to “resist protectionist measures”. That was code for an uneasy truce between Washington and Beijing – but neither is in any doubt that the race for supremacy is now on. RB
17 3D film and TV are here to stay
Christopher Nolan, the innovative film director, says he finds 3D “alienating”, seeming to hope it’s a passing fad. But the technology isn’t going anywhere – it’s making far too much money for that. Let’s pluck, from 20-odd 3D films released this year, March’s Clash of the Titans. Hurriedly converted to 3D in the wake of James Cameron’s Avatar, it was a confirmed mess – but took more than £300m worldwide. Alice In Wonderland, another rush job, another stinker, earned £8.3m in its opening weekend in the UK, breaking records.
The novelty of 3D was a factor; and Nolan’s right, this will dim. But the technology just about guarantees the industry extra loot via a 3D surcharge on every ticket. Nobody seems quite sure what this covers – the funny glasses are paid for separately – but we’ve paid up, hoiking UK takings up by 8% from 2009.
It has all helped 3D to spread beyond the multiplex. Sky has won approving noise from football fans for its 3D match coverage, screened in 2,000 British pubs. Around 100,000 of us have bought 3D-equipped televisions this year, and by next summer Sky expects around that number of subscribers to its 3D channel, pushed hard this Christmas with screenings of a David Attenborough nature show, as well as the film that started the fuss, Avatar. Cameron is not a fan of 3D’s new ubiquity – he thinks most 3D films “kind of suck”. Tom Lamont
18 Bankers still like, and get, their bonuses
Big bonuses will be paid out again for 2010. Wall Street was forecast to pay out the second-highest level of bonuses on record, by the state comptroller of New York, Thomas DiNapoli, while in the City of London a healthy bonus season was also expected.
In a world where public spending is being axed, jobs cut almost every day and wages being frozen, financiers continue to party on. Their lives have changed a bit. New European rules mean that no more than 20% of bonuses might be given in cash, with the rest in shares and spread out for a few years.
The Irish government halted the Christmas plans for bankers at Allied Irish Banks. Embattled Irish finance minister Brian Lenihan refused to hand over bailout cash to AIB if the bank went ahead with €40m (£34m) of bonus payments to 2,400 staff. So something did change – in Ireland at least. Jill Treanor
19 Craig Venter created artifical life (or not)
Earth’s dwindling number of species got an unexpected boost in May when scientists announced they had created the first synthetic life form. The $40m project was led by Craig Venter, the US geneticist, and involved creating an organism that at its core had an entirely synthetic genome constructed from laboratory chemicals. “It’s a living species now, part of our planet’s inventory of life,” said Venter, who claims such bacteria could one day be used to make biofuels, soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and even make vaccines.
However, the British biologist and Nobel prizewinner Sir John Sulston said the result was “clever and pretty” but not artificial life. “This is just an attempt to monopolise, through the patenting system, essentially all the tools for genomic manipulation,” Sulston said. “These tools should be in the public domain. Monopolistic control of this kind would be bad for science, bad for consumers and bad for business, because it removes the element of competition.” RMcK
20 American politics is almost broken
The founding fathers of the US were anxious to limit the power of government – hence the famous checks and balances in the constitution. In fact, the US is so checked and balanced it is a small miracle that government happens at all – which, if you think government is the source of all evil, means the constitution is doing its job. What made the US system work in the last resort was the power of reason and loyalty to a common set of core values. Both have disappeared.
Today’s US government is almost completely gridlocked – and astonishingly vulnerable to vested interests. President Obama and Congress cannot get to grips with the scale of the budget deficit, nor the need to contain the threat of a new financial crisis. Corporations write the law. The public realm is hollowed out, and most public institutions, from education to the transport infrastructure, are decaying – there seems little hope of turning the tide.
Reason is close to impossible with the Tea party. And adherence to common values is disintegrating. The American centre is crumbling, and with it economic, social and political power. Will Hutton