A Few Words of the Year
Swine Flu: The common name for the A(H1N1) virus. | Lesser Spotted Kate: Press nickname for Kate Middleton, based upon her (relatively) low profile. | Plural Cities: Areas with no ethnic majority. | Flipping: Where MPs switch the homes they nominate as their secondary residence to claim expenses for more than one property. | Together For Ever: A suicide pact between a couple. | Budgetary Infinity: Describing the ‘feeling of audacity’ among US politicians during the banking collapse, David Brooks noted in The New York Times: ‘Zeros have lost their meanings. The amount of consideration once devoted to a proposal costing $3 billion is now devoted to a proposal costing $300 billion. Americans have entered the age of budgetary infinity.’ | Manscaping: male grooming. | Negotiation Fatigue: Lassitude induced by the repeated failure of Middle East talks. | Pope Invisible: Critical assessment of Benedict XVI’s insular papacy. | Buffling: business waffling. | Simples!: Catchphrase of Aleksandr Orlov from CompareTheMeerkat.com. | PM for PM: The suggestion that Peter Mandelson might renounce his peerage and become Prime Minister. Also Kindly Pussycat: ‘I don’t really see myself as a big beast’, Mandelson told The Guardian, ‘more as a kindly pussycat’. (Ed Miliband called him a ‘Benign Uncle’.) [see below]. | Kettling: police strategy of crowd control through containment. | Skips: Expats who flee Dubai because of unemployment or debt.
Schott’s Annual Astrometer
Schematic of Notable World Events
Person of the Year
Gordon Brown’s October 2008 decision to return his ‘nemesis’ Peter Mandelson to the Cabinet stunned British politics. But even then no one imagined the role ‘Mandy’ would play in securing Brown’s reign, or the grip on power he would establish.
At 10pm on 4/6/09, as the polls closed for the local and Euro elections, James Purnell became the latest and most significant minister to quit and call on Brown to go. According to reports, had Mandelson not been in No. 10 at the time and able to persuade key Cabinet Blairites to keep the faith, Brown might not have lasted the week.
Mandy’s reward came in the next day’s reshuffle which established him as the de facto deputy PM, and vindicated his much-mocked 2001 claim to be ‘a fighter not a quitter’. William Hague observed, ‘His title now adds up to, The Right Hon. the Baron Mandelson of Foy in the county of Herefordshire and Hartlepool in the county of Durham, First Secretary of State, Lord President of the Privy Council and Secretary of State for Business, Innovation, and Skills. It would be no surprise to wake up in the morning and find that he had become an archbishop.’
Mandelson was born in 1953. A youthful dalliance with Communism ended at St Catherine’s, Oxford, and in 1979 he was elected to Lambeth’s Labour council. In 1982, he became a TV producer, only to return to politics in 1985 as Neil Kinnock’s director of communications. In 1992, he became MP for Hartlepool and formed a triumvirate with two young MPs – Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.
The process by which Blair bested Brown after John Smith’s death in 1994 lies at the ineffable core of New Labour. Yet Mandelson’s rejection of Gordon in favour of Tony led to the former’s enmity and the latter’s loyalty – evinced in Mandelson’s appointment as Minister Without Portfolio (in charge of the Millennium Dome) in Blair’s first Cabinet. In July 1998, Mandelson was made Trade Secretary, but quit in December when it emerged he had taken a £373,000 home loan from a colleague.
In October 1999, he returned to the Cabinet as N Ireland Sec., but in January 2001 resigned over (denied) claims that he had intervened in a passport application by one of the Hinduja brothers. (He was later cleared of any impropriety.) In 2004, Blair backed Mandelson to become EU Trade Cmsnr – a post he held until his rapprochement with Brown.
In 2009, Mandelson parlayed his political re-rehabilitation into real power. He currently attends 35 of the 43 Cabinet committees (as Blair’s deputy, John Prescott attended 17), and by taking the fight to the Tories he has injected confidence into Brown’s lacklustre reign. In an August Guardian profile, Mandelson exuded un-abashed glee at being back in the game, protesting that New Labour’s ‘hit man’ was now ‘a kindly pussycat’
Summer headlines mooting ‘PM for PM’ were patently whimsical, but they were encouraged by a sense that anything is possible with ‘the prince of darkness’ – who remains one of the most compelling figures of the Blairite age and, in the Economist’s words, ‘the Great High Giver of Good Copy’.
If, as seems likely, Brown loses the 2010 general election, or quits before, then Mandelson will have been New Labour’s midwife and mortician – and, against all the odds, will himself have survived.
Object of the Year
Twitter is a social networking site that simply asks: ‘What are you doing?’ Once registered, users can respond to this question via computer or text message, and their answers (‘tweets’) are immediately visible either to a selected group or to the universe online. The only restriction (profanity is permitted) is that tweets can be no longer than 140 characters. Users can ‘follow’ the tweets of others and gain followers for their own tweets.
Launched in 2006, Twitter now boasts c.35m users but, because the service is free, the company admits ‘we spend more money than we make’.
The tweeting of tweets was an inescapable part of 2009. In January, Twitter users posted the first images of the Hudson River plane crash. In February, Lance Armstrong tweeted for help to recover a stolen bicycle, and Stephen Fry tweeted that he was stuck in a lift (‘arse, poo and widdle’). In March, Google’s CEO called Twitter ‘a poor man’s email system’, but in April rumours flew that Google was looking to buy it.
In May, a US astronaut sent the first ever tweets from space, and China blocked Twitter, and other sites, in the days before the anniversary of Tiananmen Square. In June, eyewitness tweets describing post-election protests and violence in Iran circumvented censorship and galvanised local and world opinion.
In July, Buckingham Palace said that news of the Royal family would henceforth be tweeted, and David Cameron apologised for saying on live radio, ‘the trouble with Twitter, the instantness of it, too many twits might make a twat’. In August, Sara Williams, the wife of Twitter’s CEO, tweeted throughout giving birth; and Gordon Brown joined millions in tweeting his support for the NHS. In September, it was reported that Twitter was ‘worth’ $1bn.
Twitter’s appeal lies in its limitation. Restricting posts to 140 characters can test a writer’s pith and poise; more significantly, it guarantees the reader a bitesize read. As the flood of data becomes unnavigable, Twitter’s assurance of brevity is more than just charming, it can come as a relief. (The founders of the Webby Awards came to the same conclusion when they limited winners’ speeches to five words.)
Yet, the overwhelming morass of tweets are quotidian and banal (40% are ‘gibberish’, according to an August survey). And Twitter’s much-vaunted role in ‘citizen journalism’ is as prone to error and abuse as any other unverified reporting (as evinced by the contradictory tweets during the 2008 Mumbai attack). In their breathless reporting of tweets, the media seem to forget that the bad guys can Twitter too.
Recent research found that 10% of Twitter users accounted for 90% of all tweets, and that the average user tweets just once. Clearly, many join Twitter only to follow stars such as Ashton Kutcher (>3·1m followers) and Britney Spears (>2·7m), and it may be that Twitter’s fate is to become another vehicle for marketing celebrity.
Twitter has many of the features of a fad: it exploded out of nowhere, was embraced by the fashionable, and serves, for most people, no useful function. At its best, Twitter is a novel mode of communication, spun to recognise that some people love the sound of their own voice, others like to eavesdrop on the famous, and everyone’s attention span is rapidly contracting.
Substance of the Year
Water (two hydrogen atoms bonded to an atom of oxygen: H2O) is one of the most ubiquitous substances: it covers 70% of the Earth’s surface, comprises 65% of the human body, and is essential to all forms of life.
For some time, reports have warned of an imminent ‘water crisis’ – but only in recent years has this threat been taken seriously at a policy level. At the World Water Forum in March 2009, government representatives signed the Istanbul Water Consensus, pledging to ‘shift water security higher in national and international policy priorities’, while the UN Under-Secretary-General stressed the urgent need to make water security a priority at the December 2009 climate change talks in Copenhagen.
The total quantity of water on Earth remains constant at 1·4bn km3. However, water demand increased six-fold during the C20th as a consequence of population growth, industrialisation, and urbanisation. Climate change has also threatened water security – drying up supplies in some areas while deluging others in ‘extreme water events’. The UN estimates that 700m people currently live in ‘water stressed’ countries; by 2025, this number could reach 3bn.
The increased burden on water resources is evident around the world: in China, the three rivers that supply half the country’s water (the Hai, Huai, and Huang) are being depleted at twice their rate of replenishment; in America, seven states have been haggling over the rights to the dwindling Colorado River; in Mexico City, buildings are sinking as aquifers below the capital become over-exploited; in Australia, the Murray-Darling Basin is in the midst of a seven-year drought; and along the Nile, diversions for irrigation mean that this mighty river no longer reaches the sea.
The tension between finite supply and insatiable demand has led many to predict ‘water wars’. Famously, in 1995, the World Bank’s Ismail Serageldin warned: ‘Many of the wars of the c20th were about oil, but wars of the c21st will be over water’. That said, a 2001 study of 1,831 international water-related events since 1948 found only 37 examples of violent conflict (30 involved Israel). And co-operation will be key to managing future water scarcity, whether via trade or through technological fixes such as desalination or wastewater recycling.
It is tempting for ‘first worlders’ to see water shortages as a foreign problem; images of Africans carrying well-water spring easily to mind. But few of us are aware of how much water we use – in the UK, 150 litres a day each, just for household washing and drinking. Fewer still would be able to survive for longer than a day or so if the taps ran dry.