If you thought 2018 was tumultuous, well, you ain’t seen nothing yet, writes Bill Jamieson
2018? Good Riddance to Bad Rubbish will be the summation of most. We yearn for a year of change.
But most predict that little is likely to change for the foreseeable future – more Brexit hassles and convulsions, Theresa May exhortations, Conservative Party splits, breathless punditry from College Green – and yet more John Bercow. Has there ever been such a hapless government where the Speaker has made things even worse? Can we really, honestly, take much more?
So this morning we can look out to good news... and bad. The bad news is that Brexit and its interminable, unresolved divisions is set to dominate news bulletins well into 2019. The good news is that we are likely to see the onset of a Great Disintegration - across the UK, the EU and the wider world.
Whether the catalyst at home is a referendum or general election matters less than that a catalysis is at hand. The old order, if such it can be called, cannot hold. The year 2019 will go down as one of momentous convulsion. Old alignments collapse and give way to the new.
Disorderly it will certainly be. From a historical perspective it may be perceived as swift and sudden. But living through it as events unfold through 2019 and beyond, we are more likely to find them anything but swift and the pace frustrating.
The Great Disintegration is set to take several forms. The most pressing and immediate is a break-up or splintering of the UK Conservative Party after all the divisions of the past two and half years.
Now forecasts of a Conservative Party rupturing have been multiple and few have come true. It has been one of the UK’s most enduring institutions, with an astonishing capacity for adaptation. Its core attitudes can often seem utterly outdated. But in outlook, idea and leadership it can suddenly skip decades and cast itself anew. This is the party that survived the Corn Law ruptures and the convulsions of the Joseph Chamberlain Liberal-Unionist ascendancy.
But the divisions over Europe did not begin in 2016. This is an issue that has split the party for more than 40 years. Such is the gulf now, between the likes of Anna Soubry and her Remain supporters on the one hand and Jacob Rees-Mogg and the Brexiteers on the other that it is hard to see how they can fight on the same side in a general election.
No less problematic for the party is the weariness – if not open contempt - now evident among its grass roots supporters. Many have now joined that smouldering cauldron labelled (for now) ‘None of the Above’. This could well see a fracturing of the party and the emergence of a new Centre Right grouping that could capture hundreds of constituency associations.
Stormy divisions are just as likely to erupt within Labour as the party struggles to find a coherent policy over Brexit that can unite Leavers and Remainers. Adopting a soft ‘Norway minus’ model retaining open borders and Single Market membership could see supporters in its traditional heartlands deserting in droves.
Amidst this, politics in Scotland has come to seem a model of calm and moderation. Holyrood has not descended into vituperative argument. Yet not even the monolithic, highly disciplined SNP is immune from schism.
In areas such as health policy and the economy, divisions are evident and there is unease that the latest tax increases for higher earners, particularly when seen in the context of the SNP’s general direction of tax travel - could prove a voter and business turn-off. When a political movement ceases to appeal to the aspirational and becomes little more than a grievance grinding machine, it will lose claim
to be a genuinely national party and instead become a breeding ground for division.
Then we come to the European Union itself, until recently widely seen as a monolithic, progressive, liberal union driven by that mission of ‘ever closer union’.
Amid our self-obsession over Brexit divisions at home, little attention has been paid to deepening political and economic fissures across the continent. Already, ‘ever closer union’ and the free unrestricted movement of people across borders have to all intents and purposes been abandoned in the face of domestic political tensions in Italy, France and Germany as it enters an uncertain post-Merkel era. These will deepen in 2019.
Some EU member states have already elected openly nationalist governments that are defying Brussels in one form or another, while France’s EU champion Emmanuel Macron has been forced to abandon fuel tax rises and public spending cuts in the face of angry riots on the streets of Paris.
Two forces are now set to deepen fissures. One is economic slowdown in Germany where GDP has already contracted and where major export sectors such as the auto industry are increasingly apprehensive over the prospect of a ‘no deal’ Brexit. The other is a fear of reform, or inability to undertake it in a propitious manner. Indeed, there is a concern that reform will break the EU. And while reform is delayed, pressures from populist or nationalist governments is likely to intensify.
It is to the economic engines of Germany and France that the continent looks for progress. But Germany’s export machine is in trouble. The latest reading of the index of manufacturing sentiment for exporters has tumbled, largely on concerns over a hard Brexit. More than 750,000 jobs in Germany depend on exports to the UK, with just-in-time production and supply chains at risk. A report by the IW Institute in Cologne warned that a hard Brexit could slash German exports to the UK by 75 per cent.
Whether through nationalist governments breaking away or the unexpected consequences of overdue reform, that apparent monolithic stability of the EU should not be counted on. The ‘Great Disintegration’ here and across Europe may take time to unravel and some may proclaim that it will be nowhere near as convulsive as predicted. Here I would counsel caution: for the longer the delay, the greater the likelihood that the force, when it does finally arrive, will be all-sweeping.