Tuesday, 23 December 2014

A historian looks at 2015

So in this last blog of 2014, it's time to look forward and speculate about what 2015 might bring us. And the answer? Massive instability. We've got used to this a little, from the oil price through the chaos associated with the Euro to the collapse of Syria. But it's likely to speed up again in the year to come, especially in Britain. Let's look at a few straws in the wind:

A chaotic UK General Election. Now we're supposed to be qualified to tell you what's going to happen here. But we can't. Right now, things look very close in terms of seats between Labour and the Conservatives. Both are wallowing so low in public esteem that it looks as if they could both lose the election with around 280-290 seats. But the story isn't as simple as the straightforward decline of 'two-party politics' (if there ever was such a thing). It's true that the links of party - of union, social club, town, branch, sports team - are less powerful than they were. But actually, the 2015 results are likely to see a small uptick in the combined numbers of the Conservatives and Labour, due to the near-demise of the Liberal Democrats. And our present impasse owes as much to the unpopularity of all three party leaders (above) (Latest figures: -11% for David Cameron, -28% for Ed Miliband and -48% for Nick Clegg) as it does to long-term social and intellectual changes. Consider this, too: it's not so much that the parties are disintegrating, but that they're pulling up the drawbridges on their fortresses. Labour is very weak in the South of England; the Conservatives are almost non-existent north of Birmingham. It's the Conservatives' uncertain 2010 advance into the North of England that is most likely to be reversed this May: this will make things worse. Our politics is regionalising: the United Kingdom Independence Party may well win seats in the East of England where they are strong, the Scottish National Party will probably win between 25 and 35 seats in Scotland, the Liberal Democrats might cling on where they face the Conservatives in the South and West of England and the rural North. It's that which makes this one so close to call. For now, file under 'don't know', with a slight lean towards a weak and unstable Conservative plurality given Labour's implosion in Scotland. Which brings us to...

Further calls for Scottish independence. Last week we said that Jim Murphy, Labour's new leader in Scotland, was probably the most important political figure in the UK. If he could do something - anything - to reverse Labour's catastrophic slide in the polls there, then Labour might well win the UK General Election. If he can't, they won't. It's that simple. And the early results are not encouraging for Mr Murphy. Both specific polls, detailed questions about his leadership and the cross-breaks from UK-wide polls show very little movement towards Labour at all, albeit at a time when the SNP's numbers have stopped going up. Polls also show that a second referendum would be a lot closer than the first. Now Canadian experience in Quebec tells us that you have to start a long way out in front if you're 'yes' and you want to win such a contest, so the UK is probably safe for a while yet. And there a lot of uncertain 'No' voters out there who might or might not vote on an anti-SNP ticket in May. But that's a very, very thin straw to clutch at if you oppose the separatists. If the SNP were to win a majority of the seats in Scotland in May (quite likely right now), and then to have an overall majority at Holyrood after 2016, they might well call for a second referendum in 2017 or 2018. Whether they get one will depend on the constellation of forces at Westminster - and Scottish public opinion - at the time.

European populists on the march. The UK isn't the only place to harbour the rise of new parties. Podemos is riding high in Spain, where two-party politics is similarly on the slide. Syriza is doing well in Greece, if perhaps a little less well than a couple of months ago. Sinn Fein in Ireland is held back by scandal and a whole truckload of historical baggage, but is still convincing a fifth of the Irish Republic's citizens to say that they'd vote for the party, and might be able to force its way into government before long. And what they all have in common is simple: the appeal of the 'outsider', the insurgent, the radically new, the eschatological desire for a 'new dawn' or a 'fresh start'. UKIP and the SNP have the same advantage, of course - one reason why they're doing so well. And they also have neatly-tailored answers to the very complex challenges of austerity. Either they deny the existence of our massive debt challenge and threaten to repudiate joint liabilities (the SNP), or they blame it all on 'Europe', 'foreigners' and 'immigrants' (UKIP). Either approach represents a silly post-truth politics, and Europe's insurgent far Left would also find themselves in a more complex world than they think were they ever to default, devalue and try to reflate. But we'll leave those dilemmas for another day.

So there we have it. A chaotic election. A geographically splintered politics. A continuing debate over the very existence of the UK. Mounting success and popularity at the populist edges of European politics, threatening continued austerity and perhaps the Euro itself.

And that's it from 2014. 2015 is likely to be a year of unparalleled confusion in the British political scene. You know what? We can't wait.

Until then, Happy New Year!