2016: The Year of the UK as a Disunited Kingdom in an Unstable World

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Mail, December 27th 2015

‘The future ain’t what it used to be’ – said American baseball player Yogi Berra.

This year saw unpredictability, shocks and upsets. There was the election of a majority Conservative Government which no polls predicted. There was the tartan tsunami which saw the SNP sweep nearly all before it.

There was the rise and victory of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, while across the world a whole range of populists, from Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders to Marine Le Pen, waged constant war on their political establishments.

This means that the most confident prediction for the New Year is that the unforeseen will happen. To take some frivolous examples, if Leicester City can sit at the top of the English Premiership, and Aberdeen can run Celtic close in the Scottish Premier, maybe anything can happen?

2016 will see several key milestones and events: the Scottish Parliament elections, the London Mayoral contest, the European in/out referendum if Cameron has his way, and the US Presidential Election.

Ireland will mark the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising which gave birth to Irish independence, and herald a debate about what progress has and hasn’t been made. Some of this will have relevance to Scotland – such as the legacy and continued influence of British culture.

The US commemorates the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7th and its involvement in World War Two which was the birth of the US as the world’s foremost superpower. In March, Twitter celebrates its tenth birthday. For some it has liberated and connected the world, for others it has brought abuse and harassment, but changed our lives it undoubtedly has.

Scotland’s election will produce a SNP victory and probably a second overall majority. This week’s TNS poll put the SNP on 58% and 54% in constituency and regional vote, Labour flatlining on 21% and 20% respectively, and no evidence of the much hyped Tory revival.

What kind of mandate does Nicola Sturgeon want? What is her, and her party’s, vision of a future Scotland? How does a party nine years in power not become complacent? Can the SNP use their ‘Big Tent’ appeal to have the confidence to begin a more honest conversation about the hard choices we face with savage public spending cuts?

Is it possible to begin assessing the cost of subsidising more well-off middle class voters – through free care for the elderly, no tuition fees for students, the council tax freeze and more? Can politicians note that the universalist principle can only run so far when money is too tight to mention and be spread everywhere?

Public services disproportionately support the middle classes – whether education, health or rail subsidies. Similarly, Scotland is a land of many different cultures, economies and life experiences. The difference in Gross Value Added (GVA) per head even within the North East is staggering – the highest anywhere is in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire (£37,460), nearly twice as high as Dundee and Angus (£19,398).

The Scottish election will be fought against the backdrop of the impending Euro exit vote that, if Cameron has his way in renegotiations, will take place in 2016 in either June or September. This will seem to many Scots like a poor repeat of a golden oldie: taking from the worst, not the best of the indyref. Some of the tactics, alliances and words will even be the same.

Parts of the Tory Party will co-operate with Labour and this time the SNP. Phrases such as ‘better together’ and ‘the best of both worlds’ will be repeated ad nauseum. There will be another ‘Project Fear’ about the spectre of a Britain outside the EU and the threat it poses to jobs and investment.

The most probable outcome of the referendum is that the UK decides to remain in the EU, but that the vote is close, and potentially, closer than the Scottish referendum. It is possible to imagine an exit vote – and in politics perceptions count.

The Euro campaign will underline the disunited kingdom that is the UK. There will be a higher English exit vote. Parts of England will produce majorities to leave. Scotland and Wales will vote to stay. And rather like the Scottish independence vote, if the UK stays, it will solve and settle very little, and the debate will go on. Maybe the Euro debate will be the first neverendum.

The UK is not going to wake up and decide it is a part of the European project. Scotland isn’t going to see itself in the same place as parts of England. While all this goes on, Europe itself will be hit by the multiple storms of the mass flow of human misery – in the form of refugees from nearby war zones, along with economic and democratic tensions.

The EU is not the main concern of most voters – only 1% see it as their biggest concern in a recent IpsosMORI poll. That instead is defence, foreign affairs and terrorism at 25%, and immigration on 25%.

The precarious UK economic revival much trumpeted by Cameron and Osborne will continue. Living standards have only just recovered to where they were pre-crash sitting 1% per head above their level eight years ago in real terms. Productivity per employee is 16% below pre-crash, and if that sounds abstract, it amounts to £5,000 per year for every man, woman and child in the UK.

Despite public spending cuts, the UK political classes have recovered their appetite for foreign military adventure. Cameron has been desperate ever since he lost the 2013 Syria vote to overturn it. He regarded this as essential to his and the UK’s international status and being seen as the US’s most reliable ally.

The recent Syria vote was the fourth military debate in the Commons with Cameron as Prime Minister – Libya in 2011 and Iraq in 2014 the others. It is clear there will be future ones. Already within weeks of the Syria vote, the UK went back into Afghanistan and there is talk of sending 1,000 troops into Libya.

Never mind the current controversies about a Cecil Rhodes statue at Oxford University, the idea of Empire is alive and kicking in the establishment, government and military. This year the historian Dominic Sandbrook described the triumphs of British culture globally as ‘an empire of the mind’, but there is a much more problematic legacy from Empire: the UK’s continual role as a global military force in a junior capacity to the US.

This brings us to a continual and powerful influence on the future – namely the past. As the UK has become more unequal and divided, it has increasingly emphasised the power of imagination and achievements in the past – from the continual references to the two World Wars to the endless TV shows on how great it was to live in the sixties.

The Corbyn phenonmenon can be seen in this light. It is a rejection of Labour’s recent past and a yearning to rewrite Thatcher’s and Blair’s Britain. However it is a miserablist account that tries to present the 1980s as all about Thatcher jingoism, Scargill and the miners being destroyed, and complete penury for the working classes. It didn’t work as a message then, so why would anyone think it would work second time around?

As the New Year beckons there is still a collective belief and hope in the SNP’s politics. They have a shared mission and purpose. One of the big challenges in 2016 and beyond will be how this can adapt, humanise and allow for uncertainty in these hard times.

Those polls which put the SNP on 50% plus also show that 35% are impressed with the SNP’s record in government. The Nationalists need a different credo and mindset – one which doesn’t as so much politics does treat voters as stupid or children, but as adults, who have a grasp of the enormous problems and threats politicians have to grapple with.

In these testing times, the political forces which can understand uncertainty, fear and worry, yet retain a belief in hope and possibility, will make the future. As this year ends the SNP look best placed to be able to adapt to these times, but even they cannot afford to be complacent, and have to radically alter their message, style and politics.

That is what success brings: the expectation and demand of evolving and renewing oneself, otherwise any party goes the way of all before it. All empires and political dominances pass: from the British to American Empires, to Labour and even Nationalist Scotland. The question is what do you do with power when you have it?