Allan Massie: 2015 promises some trying times

The threat from Islamic State casts a shadow over all our lives. Picture: NYT

The threat from Islamic State casts a shadow over all our lives. Picture: NYT

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NO matter how much Scotland has had to deal with this year, the next will see us face up to more thorny and far-reaching issues, writes Allan Massie.

In the days between Christmas and the New Year, columnists usually look back to the year we are leaving or forward to the one we are entering.

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But, for the moment at least, we may have had enough of the raking over the significance of the referendum, and, as for looking forward to the general election which is the big British political event of the New Year, you might as well base a forecast of the outcome on reading the tea-leaves as on the current state of the opinion polls. There is only one thing about it which seems to me certain: that whatever Government is formed will pursue much the same policies as the outgoing coalition with regard to the reduction of the current account deficit.

Austerity may be trimmed at the edges, but will continue. Some taxes will be raised and others cut, but both rises and reductions will be modest. Meanwhile the equally-modest economic recovery will continue – unless it is checked by external developments beyond the control of any British government.

There is however one significant difference between the Conservatives and Labour and this does matter because one of these parties will provide the Prime Minister, whether he is leading either a majority or minority government, or a Coalition. David Cameron has committed himself to renegotiating the terms of our membership of the EU, and on submitting the result of such renegotiation to the electorate in a referendum. Ed Miliband has made no such commitment.

Perhaps he should have done so, because pressure for an in-out referendum will probably increase the longer it is delayed. Miliband should have learned from the mistake made by his party in Scotland. When Wendy Alexander became leader – how long ago that seems! – she boldly challenged the SNP to “bring it on”, “it” being of course an independence referendum. She was quickly slapped down, and in the 2007-2011 Scottish Parliament the Unionist parties would have nothing to do with a referendum. This wasn’t of course the only reason why the SNP won a majority at Holyrood in 2011 – perhaps it wasn’t even one of the main reasons. Yet who can doubt that if Ms Alexander had had her way, independence would have been even more roundly rejected then than it was in September? There are times when it pays to be bold.

There are however more important things than the result of our election. Two questions dominated the past year: Vladimir Putin’s response to the revolution or, as he would have it, coup in Ukraine; and the continuing story of Islamist terrorism. Both will continue to hold centre stage in 2015.

The collapse of the oil price and the imposition of western sanctions have severely damaged the Russian economy. There’s no doubt about that. Authoritarian regimes can however withstand and survive a good deal of economic hardship and financial difficulties. Iran offers a good example – and a warning to optimists who suppose that Putin will be obliged to draw back from Ukraine and seek an accommodation with the West. For one thing, economic pressure tells more heavily on the Russian people than on the regime, and at present anyway they seem willing to endure it.

Indeed Putin is more popular now than he was a couple of years ago. He presents himself as the embattled defender of Russia’s interests against its enemies. Adventurism in the “Russian near-abroad” will serve as a distraction from economic difficulties. Posing as the protector of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in Ukraine and the Baltic States boosts his popularity and is almost risk-free since he knows that Nato will shrink from any effective military response. No Nato state will send a single soldier to “die for Donetsk”. Back in the early stages of the Cold War, the American Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, pursued the policy of brinkmanship. This meant that you probed the weak spots in your enemy’s position, even to the brink of war, but pulled back before stepping over the edge. Putin is a master of brinkmanship, and will continue to practise it.

The Islamic State (IS) presents two distinct problems. The first is military, checking its advance and defeating it in Syria and Iraq. The main responsibility for this rests with the States where it is engaged. If IS is to be destroyed as a military force, it must be done by the Iraqi, Kurdish and Syrian armies, supported by Western Intelligence, air-power and training units. The West will have to drop its demand that the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must step down and instead accept him as an ally. Reconstructing Syria will be possible only if IS is defeated.

Defeating IS in the field won’t end the threat of terrorist activity here. It might even make it worse because British would-be jihadis would be less likely to be attracted to the Middle East, more likely to seek martyrdom here. So we are going to have to live with terrorism for a long time. This is bad in itself, even though reason tells us that very few of us are ever likely to be victims of terrorist attacks, however horrifying these may be. Since 9/11 Islamist terrorism has been remarkably ineffective in the UK, western Europe and the USA.

This is no doubt a tribute to the efficiency of the security services and the police. But we have had to pay a price for this: the gradual erosion of long-established liberties and the creation of a surveillance state. Nobody can look for this to change. In defence of freedom, freedom is restricted. Things that we used to take for granted, like the absence of security checks at airports, or the ease with which you could walk into any bank and open an account without proof of identity, have been consigned to the past.

These are small things, perhaps, but the sum of many such small things means that we are as individuals and a society less free than we were a generation ago. This is not the victory the Islamists seek, but it is a victory for them all the same.

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