What was the defining image of 2017? Theresa May, standing grim-faced outside No. 10 the day after the General Election? Young revellers cheering Jeremy Corbyn at the Glastonbury music festival? The blackened ruins of Grenfell Tower, or the horror at the Manchester Arena?
My choice would be rather less specific. When I look back on a year of remarkably grim and gloomy headlines, the image that swims into my mind is that of an overgrown toddler hunched over a keyboard, its face contorted with outrage.
And no, I’m not just talking about Donald Trump, with his lamentable penchant for sending inflammatory tweets in the early hours of the morning. I’m talking about the ugly new face of Britain, a nation that in the past 12 months has seemed in danger of losing touch with sanity, perspective and rational judgment.
Historians will surely remember this as the year that delivered one of the biggest political surprises in modern history, with Mrs May losing her Commons majority as her great election gamble backfired.
There were the Labour election activists who carved Nazi swastikas into Conservative Party posters and urinated on opposing candidates’ office doors
They will be struck, too, by the stunning transformation in Jeremy Corbyn’s image, which saw him converted from deluded loser to potential Prime Minister in a matter of weeks.
For me, though, what defined Britain in 2017 more than anything else was a growing sense of hysteria.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines hysteria as ‘exaggerated or uncontrollable emotion or excitement’. And I think those words perfectly capture the increasingly self-righteous, strident and intolerant tone of our public life.
You see it in the hard-Left demagogues who sought to exploit the tragedy of Grenfell Tower for political gain — among them, unforgivably, the leaders of the Labour Party.
You see it in the self-styled intellectuals who cannot forgive their working-class compatriots for daring to vote Leave in the Brexit referendum.
You see it in the student radicals who want to demolish statues of men who made names for themselves hundreds of years ago.
You see it in the ‘transgender’ activists who think you are a fascist if you believe men and women are biologically different.
You see it in the scores of keyboard warriors who believe brushing a woman’s knee with your hand is tantamount to rape; you see it in the self-appointed censors who think cracking an ironic joke about Harvey Weinstein should mean banishment from polite society.
To find examples, in fact, you need only open a newspaper from any day in the past year.
There were the Labour election activists who carved swastikas into Conservative Party posters and urinated on opposing candidates’ office doors.
There were the students who demanded that Liverpool University tear down William Gladstone’s name from their hall of residence — because of his father’s links with the slave trade in the early 19th century — and replace it with that of the achingly Left-wing newsreader Jon Snow.
There were the Twitter commentators who smeared the Democratic Unionist Party — the most popular party in Northern Ireland, as well as a key component of the peace process — as a group of knuckle-dragging fascists.
There were the prophets of doom who warned that Brexit meant economic Armageddon, even as the latest job figures showed that Britain is doing much better than anyone had predicted.
Indeed, wherever you looked, the story was much the same. From the endless hand-wringing about the Brexit negotiations to the tortuous details of the latest sexual harassment scandal, the tone was invariably one of hysterical outrage, fuelled by the echo chambers of social media. Oddly enough, the story that really captured the bigoted spirit of the year did not concern either Mrs May or Mr Corbyn, the dominant political personalities of the age. It concerned their now largely forgotten rival, the Lib Dem leader Tim Farron. Remember him?
In the ideological cocoons of Facebook and Twitter, the same lazy prejudices — the horrors of capitalism, the evil of patriotism, the joys of immigration, even the vital importance of transgender toilets — are unceasingly repeated.
To question them is to identify yourself as a racist, a fascist or an enemy of progress.
As a devout Christian, Mr Farron once described gay sex as a ‘sin’ and disapproves of abortion — views that only a generation ago were seen as entirely mainstream. Yet they were enough to see him driven out of the Lib Dem leadership.
As he put it, he was ‘the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in — in which case we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society’.
I can’t honestly say that I miss Mr Farron. Yet no story of the year better reflected the spirit of liberal intolerance that has now become so widespread.
Seeping out of our universities, the culture of Left-wing outrage is now in real danger of polluting our public life, stifling debate and silencing dissent.
In the ideological cocoons of Facebook and Twitter, the same lazy prejudices — the horrors of capitalism, the evil of patriotism, the joys of immigration, even the vital importance of transgender toilets — are unceasingly repeated. To question them is to identify yourself as a racist, a fascist or an enemy of progress.
Indeed, this was not just the year of Mrs May’s trials and Mr Corbyn’s resurrection. It was also the year that saw student unions banning newspapers they dislike, such as the Daily Mail and The Sun, while Labour activists even took pictures of themselves burning front pages that criticised their beloved Jeremy Corbyn.
Banning and burning: two words that we associate not with modern, tolerant Britain, but with the Nazi rallies of the Thirties. But this, unfortunately, was the new tone of public life in 2017.
There is an argument, of course, that none of this is entirely new. After all, the online witch-hunts against people who question the prevailing politically correct orthodoxy are strikingly reminiscent of campaigns over the centuries against religious heretics and political dissenters.
Even the mob mentality that has infected our national politics, as in the reactions to the Grenfell fire and the Westminster sexual harassment scandal, is hardly unprecedented. Such rabble-rousing has long played a part in our political history, from the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 to the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780.
What is new, though, is the impact of the internet, which is dissolving our common national culture into a collection of atomised, hate-filled bubbles.
As the General Election revealed, millions of youngsters now get their news from Facebook and Twitter, which have become ‘echo chambers’ reverberating to the sound of the same relentless Left-wing pieties.
Even worse, many now get their views of the world from hard-Left websites such as The Skwawkbox, which claimed — entirely falsely — that the Press had been gagged by the Government from reporting the truth about the number of people killed in the Grenfell fire.
You could hardly find a better example of ‘fake news’. Unfortunately, it worked. Not only did thousands of youngsters share it online, but the effect was to ratchet up a wider sense of injustice and outrage, which is precisely what the hard Left wants. Indeed, every day provides more examples. Almost every morning opens with the BBC reporting that the Brexit talks are close to disaster.
There is the increasingly strident rejection of our national history, with activists targeting much-loved statues of our patriotic heroes — even Nelson, for goodness’ sake — as well as decrying anyone who dares to see some good in our colonial past
The NHS is said to be in a state of constant crisis; the economy is claimed to be on the brink of the abyss; even the Government’s social mobility tsar, Alan Milburn, flounced out with some melodramatic words about Britain plunging into an age of ‘social division’.
You would hardly guess from all this that Britain is one of the richest, safest and most contented countries in the world.
Believe it or not, we have actually risen four places in the United Nations’ index of world happiness since 2016, finishing ahead of France, Italy, Spain and a host of other EU members.
Don’t believe it? Well, what about another survey by the Office for National Statistics, which found that our levels of ‘life satisfaction, wellbeing and happiness’ are now higher than ever before?
So much, then, for the ‘Brexit blues’ about which the BBC and The Guardian newspaper never tire of telling us.
And here comes an even bigger heresy. For all the confected hysteria about social inequality, the plain fact is that most people in Britain have never had it so good.
Yes, of course, our society has its problems. But we live longer, safer, more comfortable lives than any generation before us.
If you showed someone from 1947, 1907, 1847 or 1807 what ordinary life is like today, their eyes would almost pop out with disbelief and envy.
The deadliest threat to our prosperity, happiness and national unity is not Brexit, Trump, Vladimir Putin or terrorism. It is the corrosive culture of hysterical outrage, nurtured by the hard Left, amplified by social media and increasingly entrenched at our universities.
The symptoms are easy to spot. There is the obsessive sense of victimhood, with young people encouraged to see themselves as martyrs at the hands of their unfeeling elders.
There is the increasingly strident rejection of our national history, with activists targeting much-loved statues of our patriotic heroes — even Nelson, for goodness’ sake — as well as decrying anyone who dares to see some good in our colonial past, as happened with the vilification of Oxford professor Nigel Biggar in recent days.
Perhaps above all, there is the growing contempt for free speech and dissenting opinion, with Left-wing activists casting themselves as grand inquisitors, policing the national Press, social media and even everyday conversations for deviations from the party line.
For me, one of the most glaring examples came in October, when the Conservative minister Michael Gove remarked that appearing on the Radio 4’s Today programme was ‘a bit like going into Harvey Weinstein’s bedroom. You just pray that you emerge with your dignity intact’.
Indeed, this was not just the year of Mrs May’s trials and Mr Corbyn’s resurrection. It was also the year that saw student unions banning newspapers they dislike, such as the Daily Mail and The Sun, while Labour activists even took pictures of themselves burning front pages that criticised their beloved Jeremy Corbyn
Judging by the reaction, you might have thought Mr Gove had come out as a member of the Ku Klux Klan. He was, of course, forced to apologise. That moment, like the defenestration of poor Tim Farron, perfectly captures the spirit of our public life this year.
The unconvincing apology, offered up by the hapless offender to a howling mob of critics, has become one of the great rituals of our national life.
Almost no institution, no public figure, has escaped the search for scapegoats and heretics. Once we led the world in making things; we now lead the world in making apologies.
Even the British Museum has been at it. In September, one of its curators observed that they tried to keep labels on exhibits simple: ‘We aim to be understandable by 16-year-olds. Sometimes Asian names can be confusing, so we have to be careful about using too many.’
As a furious backlash began online, the museum attempted to clarify its point, adding: ‘We are limited by the length of labels. Dynasties and gods have different names in various Asian languages. We want to focus on the stories.’
But in the age of hysteria, that was not enough, and soon enough, with depressing predictability, rather than defending its corner, it caved in and announced: ‘We would like to apologise for any offence caused.’
Where will all this end? It’s impossible to say, though I know the kind of Britain many of the young Left-wing agitators — who seem to make the most noise — want to see.
They long for the triumphant accession of a Corbyn government, swept to power by the votes of millions of people determined to erase every last vestige of tradition, and bent on a spending and borrowing spree that would — according to almost all reputable economists — drive Britain to the abyss of bankruptcy.
But as so often, a bit of perspective is in order. Mr Corbyn didn’t win the last election. He lost it. He said the Brexit negotiations would collapse. They haven’t.
He said he would be Prime Minister by Christmas. He isn’t. And he said Mrs May was finished. She’s still there, though — battered, but battling on.
And when you look back on a year of shocks and disasters, it’s easy to forget that for most people, life simply went on. Most people aren’t activists or demonstrators. They don’t want to detonate the statues of our ancestors any more than they want to re-run the Brexit referendum.
They find the students’ antics laughable, consider Mr Corbyn implausible and feel a grudging sympathy with the beleaguered Mrs May.
And if they were forced to vote in yet another General Election, I have a sneaking suspicion that the Corbynistas’ hysterical hubris might well come back to haunt them.
What no one can deny, however, is that not since the Eighties, when Margaret Thatcher took on the trade unions and their allies, have the political stakes been higher, the passions more intense or the battle lines more starkly drawn.
So where does the future of our country really lie? With the keyboard warriors and the strident activists, the self-appointed censors and the hard-Left demagogues? Or with the quiet, decent, tolerant majority?
In the next 12 months, we may well find out.