2011 in review: The year politics reached out

During the good times, politics happens on TV. This year, politics happened on the streets.

By Ian Dunt

This was my personal political moment of the year. I was watching 24-hour news at home during the London riots, scanning Twitter on the laptop. The rioting had hopped between Clapham and Hackney, two areas which are not exactly joined at the hip. The fact it could spread so suddenly was madness, the first proof of what the New Scientist would term a 'non-localised riot'.

Then someone on Twitter described a moped being set on fire in my area. I asked where and they mentioned a street whose name I recognised. I searched for it on Google maps and saw it zoom in on an avenue right next to my house. And right then, I smelt the smoke from outside. So that's when politics reached out and touched me.

My night was relatively uneventful. I took a walk around my area, where little bits of violence were breaking out, but nothing as major as what was happening elsewhere. Nevertheless, it felt different. I had covered quite a few riots this year alone, but this wasn't the same. For a start, it was everywhere. Secondly, everywhere included outside my home. Finally: It had no aim, and that made it slippery and terrifying. I like to consider myself pretty confident when covering these things, but I was nervous when I shut my door behind me. Walking along a wide, pleasant avenue a little later, I looked up and saw a silhouette in nearly every window, staring silently down at me. Apart from that, the street was empty. It was chilling.

To millions around the world, a similar process took place, although with more violence and gravity. The Arab spring destabilised an entire region. From the streets of Egypt, to the warzone of Libya and the oppression of Syria, the old forces shuddered. Sometimes they were toppled, often to be replaced by something which approximated them more than we might wish. Sometimes they hung on, for now at least.

In Europe, austerity created violence and anger. The tuition fees riots in London were replaced by angry groups of anarchists confounding the police during the 'day of action' against cuts. Meanwhile, UK Uncut occupied Fortnum and Masons, resulting in harsh sentences for the largely good-natured and harmless activists. In Madrid's Puerta del Sol, tens of thousands of Spanish youths defied illiberal edicts to protest against their government. On the streets of Athens, riots and protests became an intrinsic part of the city's sweltering, dusty life. It is in no way inconceivable to imagine a revolution in a significant Mediterranean country in 2012.

Across the Atlantic, US students showed some of the radicalism of their 60s forbearers. The Occupy Wall Street movement, a much-derided campaign whose angry reaction to the financial sector resonates with many non-radicals, spread out globally. In London it found its focal point by St Paul's Cathedral, triggering a fascinating period of chaotic reflection for the Church, as it pondered, in a way that involved more resignations than usual, what its role is in this uniquely unsettled time.

By the end of the year, as startling and unpredicted protests rang out from Moscow, Time magazine made the protester its person of the year.

But it wasn't just street protests which touched people. It was also, predictably, money. From the day we caught site of Danny Alexander's documents in his ministerial car, forecasting half a million public sector job losses, we knew Britain was in for a tough ride. Announcements on the news can now be about your job – private or public sector. When workers strike, as public sector employees did this autumn, it closed schools and passport offices. The same horrible cycle was repeated across the world.

International politics, from G20 meetings to EU summits, have never prompted much attention from the public. Slowly, that started to change this year. People realised the stakes. By the time of the last Brussels summit, when David Cameron vetoed Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy's plans, people were paying full attention. There was a realisation that all it takes is one day of total financial chaos for everything to change. One day when the money doesn't come out the cash machine. These nervous predictions of apocalyptic doom are as hollow as any other prediction from the economists, who are notoriously bad at making them. But the fact they are mentioned at all is a demonstration of how close the political is now to the personal.

This feeling of volatility and barely-suppressed chaos was connected, in some quarters, with what was perceived to be a quickening of events, a tempo to political change which hadn't been there before.

The government experienced crisis after crisis, from the forestry sell-off to the NHS 'listening' panic to Liam Fox's mortal Werritty scandal. Political news events came thick and fast. It's tempting to ascribe it to the difficulty of government during chaotic times, but it's more likely a result of coalition politics and the decision to try to implement an over-reaching policy portfolio without the electoral mandate to substantiate it.

Similar points were raised during the phone-hacking scandal, which raged with a ferocity which overwhelmed many political journalists. In truth, this speed was the result of there being three bodies hit by the scandal – the Metropolitan police, News International and Downing Street. Each was responding to the others independently, creating the impression of havoc. It was carnage, and, while we're on the subject of threes, it completed the trinity of disenchantment with the British state, like some real-life version of the season structure of the Wire. First came the financial crisis for capitalism, then expenses for the political system and finally phone-hacking for the media.

It was significant, and its implications, via the Leveson inquiry, could be far-reaching. But it was not what we will remember when we look back on 2011. Instead, we will remember it as the first year the politics started to reach out to millions of normal people, particularly in the west. In the developing world, buffeted by natural and social phenomenon, they are more used to the modesty of the gap between your life and that of your fellow countrymen.

To many British people, politics is a hobby, an interest, like sports or movies. They talk about it in the pub, they jokes about it at dinner parties. They're fooling themselves. Only in the best of times can we afford to maintain such a detached attitude. Just when you feel relaxed, politics will reach out from the TV and touch you. You'll rarely enjoy the experience. The best thing you can wish for 2012 is that it gets back on the TV and stays there.