In many ways, 2016 could be viewed as the year that the silent majority took the world into their grasp and shook it. ‘We’re alive and kicking,’ said the voiceless and the unheard, as they used the medium of the ballot box to make their screams audible, leaving those in the media and the political establishment aghast, with the society they thought they knew turned in on them.
But no matter the extent to which the world is changing, there will always be notable individuals – politicians, celebrities, athletes and writers – whose thoughts and opinions can provide moments of reflection, rationalisation and understanding for our readers.
And it was with this in mind that Varsity endeavoured, throughout 2016, to harness the ideas of people, in interview, from across all areas of life, whether they were relishing in, steering clear of, or fighting against the waves of change that crashed into every echelon of society.
Indeed, while many Varsity interviewees throughout the year had plenty of thoughts on how to deal with or react to the seismic shifts in the political sphere, there were few who could have predicted them. As author Robert Harris explained in October, it was easy to be “endlessly intrigued by the results of [2016's] elections [because] they unfold like a real-life thriller.” But as far as Brexit was concerned, Labour’s Andy Burnham called the result in March: though he criticised the Leave campaign for being “wrapped up in a red, white and blue flag,” he proved remarkably prescient when he admitted: “I would bet that Brexit is going to win.”
And once it did, change was afoot. While Dr Gerard Lyons, co-founder of Economists for Brexit, told Christian Harvey in October that “we’ve got the big challenge of making Brexit work”, it became apparent that the challenges of the Referendum result would be more than economic. In a nation divided, spat out in the debris and rubble was the polarised language of ‘us versus them’, which was of concern to former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan MP when she spoke to Anna Jennings in December. “I think that the way that the language of politics is, you know people are battling, they’re taking each other on, it’s quite aggressive”, she noted, before imploring her fellow politicians to refrain from pandering “harsh language about immigrants or refugees”, and emphasising the need to appeal to a “mainstream majority”.
“This is the golden age of journalism”
But for some, it was the pandering to such a mainstream majority that was the problem. In December, shortly after Donald Trump shocked the world by winning the election to decide who would be the 45th President of the USA, shadow Chancellor John McDonnell MP told Daniel Gayne that it was clear people were “frustrated with ... seeing politicians that didn’t reflect their views; that didn’t listen to them.” This was an opinion shared by Larry Sanders, who seemed to capture the unspoken feeling of being attacked perceived by many when he assured Patrick Wernham in December that “old white guys are alright too”.
The idea that swathes of society were railing against decades of being ignored was further emphasised by comedian Andrew Lawrence in the context of televised comedy. He told Keir Baker in December that broadcasters needed to recognise that “things are changing” and that they could no longer afford to marginalise right-wing performers. Indeed, as the extent to which ‘liberal’ media sources in America had failed to understand the popularity of Trump’s views became increasingly apparent, Lawrence seemed onto something when he pointed out a chasm between his own views and what he sees as the “jaded left wing agitprop” of the BBC.
However, while such failures, alongside the growth of social media and ‘fake news’ websites, appear to have left the traditional media under threat, veteran newsreader Jon Snow was surprisingly positive in October: citing the success of Vice, The Huffington Post and The Guardian’s website, he argued that “this is the golden age of journalism”.
“As soon as the sport starts, the world comes together to watch the magic unfold”
Whether or not this is true, however, may depend not only on how the media responds to the emergence of the silent majority, but also on how it evolves to take into account the demands of new demographics. Rona Fairhead, Chair of the BBC Trust, told Elizabeth Howcroft in May that she was confident the BBC could “respond to technological changes, to media [and] consumption changes.” But it is clear that the BBC must do so with great care. In May, Rebecca Nicholson, Editor-in-Chief of Vice UK, warned that newspapers must take care not to succumb to the false idea that clickbait will lead to success: “talking down to you as a reader, [implying] that you don’t have the attention span for anything more than a cat GIF, is insulting.”
It must not be forgotten, however, that politics is not the only thing which captures the attention of the public, and in 2016, welcome relief from the political cacophony was to be found in the world of sport. Indeed, its ability to provide much-needed escapism was reinforced in September by BBC diving commentator Leon Taylor when he noted that, no matter the political context in which it was taking place, “as soon as the sport starts, the world comes together to watch the magic unfold.”
This was very much the case for Cantabrigians in December as the eyes of the Cambridge sporting community honed in on the fabled Twickenham turf for the Varsity rugby matches. CURUFC’s big-name professional Charlie Amesbury appeared prescient in November when he reminded Paul Hyland that “rugby has a lot of highs and lows”: while CURUFC left Cambridge fans across the country jubilant as they overcame their Oxford counterparts for the first time in seven years, CURUFCW captain Alice Middleton’s hopes of more Twickenham glory were dashed, as was her November prediction that “there’ll be tries, and I hope they’ll be Light Blue tries.”
“It doesn’t matter whether you come from the Left or the Right, we can all work together”
Where some Varsity interviewees viewed 2016’s seismic changes as concerning and dangerous, others saw opportunity. In November, Momentum founder Jon Lansman expressed his view that the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn and the current political climate represents “the best chance in [his] lifetime for radical transformation in British society”, so long as the Left was prepared to fight a “major battle” against the populist Right.
And in December, comedian Sandi Toksvig was keen to emphasise that the divisions in society would not jeopardise the fight against gendered oppression: in her view, “it doesn’t matter whether you come from the Left or the Right, we can all work together, we can always have a conversation and see how we can change things for the better.” Indeed, Anna Menin and Anna Jennings’s interview in the same month with Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, showed us that 2016 was not confined to a tendency for social conservatism. Bates explained that young people were reaching out and “translating” what they’ve learned online “into the real world”, trying to connect social justice discourse with that of ‘the mainstream’, and telling her that “there was never a women’s officer at this university before and now there is”.
Despite everything, one thing remains paradoxically clear: despite the huge political decisions made this year, what will happen to the UK in 2017 remains anybody’s guess. Universities Minister Jo Johnson MP explained to Keir Baker in March that Brexit was “a leap in the dark”, while Alan Johnson MP in November suggested that the language of “hard Brexit or soft Brexit” be replaced with “sensible Brexit or stupid Brexit”.
And while politics may be the be-all-and-end-all to some, to others, the idea of the great political events of 2016 being ground-breaking and life-changing seemed an exaggeration. For Alexandra Shulman, Editor-in-Chief of British Vogue, the impact of Brexit might only be a more nuanced future: she told Kitty Grady in November that her job will be “to find the interesting cultural things that will come out of it,” noting that Brexit “will be a fantastic well of inspiration [because] there’s nothing better for the arts than to have something to grind against.” Meanwhile, when Olivia Childs spoke to Cantabrigian band Lonely the Brave in June, they were unswerving in their predictions for their future, noting it held only one thing: “touring, touring, touring, touring, touring”.
For University of Cambridge students too, the status quo will persist as many hours of 2017 will be spent slaving away in the library before the dreaded exam term rolls around again. Hellish it may be, but our efforts do not go unappreciated: in January, renowned classicist Professor Mary Beard told Theo Demolder that, “if you’re at Cambridge, you’re damned lucky with the students.”
Nevertheless, as the year draws to a close, it is hard not to feel as though we are, again, about to take a ‘leap in the dark’. With this in mind, the Varsity Interviews team will be trying, in 2017 as in 2016, to talk to those people who might just be able to make sense of it all
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