Monday, 22 December 2014

The indecisive autumn

Back in September, we wrote that we were facing a decisive autumn. The Scottish independence referendum, the daily countdown to the looming General Election, the suspicion that the identity of the likely winner would be clearer soon and the fact that we'd then know whether there was likely to be a referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union all meant that it looked as if Britain was facing a critical breakpoint in its national life.

It didn't work out like that.

Scots rejected the idea of independence by a fairly decisive margin - more than ten percentage points - and yet it's the Scottish National Party that soars in the polls, not the victorious 'unionist' parties. Labour in particular is struggling to hold on to even a majority of its 41 Parliamentary seats in Scotland, and there is a chance (albeit only a chance as yet) of an SNP landslide that might wipe every other party off the Scottish electoral map. There are lots of reasons for this - the general anti-politics and anti-'Westminster' mood in the country, the honeymoon appeal of Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP's new leader, Labour's turmoil after being called a 'branch office' of the London party by its outgoing Scottish leader, the SNP's ability as a national party to face both leftwards (promising better state childcare) and rightwards (urging a corporation tax cut). But that doesn't matter for now. What does is that the surge of support for the Nationalists means that even if Scottish independence is not exactly back on the agenda, the idea is certainly hovering in the ether, waiting for a chance to rematerialise in more concrete form.
The tanking oil price and Scotland's ageing population means that the economic case for independence - the crucial window of opportunity the SNP and its new leader admits they failed to convince people about - is pretty much over and shut, at least in terms of the higher public spending for which 'yes' activists thirst, and probably in any scenario. That'll cause Scottish and UK politicians innumerable headaches in the years to come, for the SNP may well now stop short of calling for outright independence (completely fairly, given the referendum outcome) and start taking part in UK governments and Westminster Parliamentary votes on English-only matters, as Alex Salmond has suggested. It's an evolutionary step, but one that may inflame English national feeling in unpredictable ways. Anyway. Nothing about the relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK has been settled by a clear 'no'. Who would have thought it?

And as for the General Election, now just a bit over four months away, the SNP's remarkable polling breakthroughs have made its likely outcome even more messy. Labour might just, just - by a hair on its nose - be more likely to be the biggest party in the aftermath. Without the SNP challenge, that would now be quite likely. But no viable Parliament is likely to emerge from the rubble of the Big Three's fall in public esteem, and we may well be back at the polls within a year. That's certainly what the Conservatives think, and they're busy raising money for a second contest. Stop shuddering and covering your face with your hands with dread at the prospect. It won't be that bad.

All of which means that we might have a referendum on the UK's EU membership in 2017. Or (since only the Conservatives are committed to that prospect) we might not. And, given the volatile state of public opinion on the matter, we might then vote to leave, or we might not. Most polls show that the British would stay, they've moved recently in that direction - and in the still-possible event that Prime Minister David Cameron has led a successful renegotiation and recommended staying in, there's almost no doubt that we would. In fact, perhaps the worst possible thing that could happen to Britain-in-Europe is a weak Miliband administration menaced by UKIP in its northern electoral fastnesses, which then collapses and lets in a very Eurosceptical Conservative Party led by Theresa May or (please, please let us find a way to avoid this unthinkable prospect) Boris Johnson.

So we were wrong. Now, stop it with the intake of breath there. We know that you don't read that much here. But we thought that the Scottish independence referendum, the post-party conference polls and what they told us about a likely EU referendum would make everything clear by now.

One more, with feeling: they didn't. Everything's still just about as clear as mud. Scotland might become an independent state in the next few years. It's more likely that it won't, but you never know. If you know who's going to win the next General Election, we advise you to get down the bookmakers, because no-one else does. And Britain's membership of the EU? Your guess is good as ours. And really, as a historian, such uncertainty should have been obvious and predictable all along. Nothing falls in neat boxes, follows clear lines or proceeds in order. It's all mess, chaos, contingency - and a new set of challenges invited by the resolution of the last. Just another way in which the study of academic History can be brought to bear on the study of how public policy both does and might work.

And with that, well, that's nearly it for 2014. We'll be back tomorrow with a list of what to look out for in 2015, and then it's 'good-bye' for the holiday season. After an exhausting year of public policy chaos, in some ways the break can't come too soon.

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