Monday, 28 January 2013

Let me invite you to the nightmare of 2025

Let's peer into the future for a moment. It's quite possible it will look like this... An independent Scotland. A rump England-Wales-Northern Ireland confederation, with domestic politics all settled within those three countries, and very few budgetary transfers between them. That strange, ragged entity won't be a member of the European Union - though Scotland will, probably on worse terms than it is today.

That's where the last week's politics are taking us. You will note, of course, that every single one of those end-points is totally the opposite of the Liberal Democrats' passionately-held views, but that's a story for another day. The Prime Minister's speech on Europe (above) was an attempt to move a huge unexploded bomb - that marked 'Europe', which has threatened to destroy the Conservative Party for nearly three decades now. But it makes it rather more likely that more pro-European Scots will vote to leave a United Kingdom that may exit the European Union. The last few months had seen the Scottish National Party on the back foot, forced to accept that they will have to apply for re-admission to the European Union. Now they might be bundled out of it anyway, by their English cousins. So there's less to lose: and unionists have one less weapon to use. It's an unforgiveable oversight and blunder by a so-called Unionist Prime Minister. It might benefit his party in the medium term, permanently in charge of an England and with enough votes at Westminster to pass 'English votes for English laws'. But at what cost to their identity, and their very being as a 'British' party in the long run?

It's yet another of those reckless gambles that the Prime Minister excels at - and which have got him out of tight corners before. One day, his luck will run out. What if there is no renegotiation, and his own previous veto means that the new Euro architecture that we so desperately need is settled outside the remit of existing EU treaties? What we will he have his referendum on then? Will he just say, 'sorry, there hasn't been a new settlement, so there's nothing to vote on'? On the other hand, what will he do if he gets a lot of what he wants - some concessions on domestic legislation, on the City of London, trade agreements, the supremacy of British law (though I doubt he'll get anywhere on those last two)? Will he recommend a 'yes' vote, and leave himself isolated from almost all Conservative MPs? This column finds it hard to believe that any British Prime Minister will threaten to lock his country out of this biggest trading bloc in the world, while simultaneously losing influence in Washington. Harold Wilson wouldn't do it; James Callaghan wouldn't do it; Margaret Thatcher wouldn't have countenanced it. Hardly a list of Euro-enthusiasts, is it?

Meanwhile, if he does recommend a 'yes' vote (as his speech said he might), Mr Cameron will be in danger of destroying his party. That's exactly what Sir Robert Peel did over the Corn Laws in the 1840s. The clock is now ticking on the most momentous choice of all: Mr Cameron may have discomfited Labour, UKIP and the Lib Dems all at once, but the price may have been to place a date and a time on his eventual removal from office.

All of this leaves the United Kingdom in rather more peril than it was in December. Scottish independence is now a few notches closer (though still not all that likely), and Britain's place in the European Union is now at risk. All for a few points in the opinion polls. It is a nightmarish vision: a poorer, nastier, more insular, increasingly boarded-up rump of three countries thrown together by history, all bobbing about in the North Atlantic, with dimmer prospects and fewer allies.

That's it for the Ghost of Politics Future. But remember: this nightmare scenario isn't inevitable. We can all still change it. In the deepest possible sense, it's up to us.

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