From settling Brexit to challenging Donald Trump, the coming year will be a pivotal one for politicians, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis.
In the first three months alone, this year carries huge significance for the future of the UK – but beyond Westminster, political leaders across the Western world could also do with a bit of introspection by way of first-foot.
Here are a few New Year’s resolutions that those facing big decisions in 2019 might want to consider.
Nicola Sturgeon: Deliver home truths about indyref2
On independence, her critics would say Nicola Sturgeon has been the First Minister who cried wolf. She called for a second referendum on Scotland’s future, then backed down in the face of popular uncertainty. But to use a different cliché, indyref2 was the dog that didn’t bark in 2018.
Sturgeon can’t be blamed for the UK Government’s failure to settle the outcome of Brexit in time for the SNP leader to offer clarity on a second Scottish independence referendum – but that won’t hold for long in 2019. She will eventually have to show her hand.
When that moment comes, it will offer her the opportunity to deliver some home truths to her own supporters: that there isn’t time or means to keep Scotland in the EU if the UK leaves, and that true shape of the relationship between Brussels and London may not be known until close to the next Scottish election in 2021.
The Government in Edinburgh insists it has a mandate for a new independence referendum from this Scottish Parliament. But if the Sturgeon believes the public will back leaving the UK over the final Brexit deal, why wouldn’t she put that to the public in 2021 and prove it?
Another hold-up might not be the message independence activists want to hear, but it may be the only way to convince the majority of Scots that the question needs to be asked again.
The UK Government: Get back to delivering the milk
It’s been a busy two-and-a-half years for the Blitz spirit, invoked at every opportunity by Brexit campaigners. It should mean automatic disqualification from public debate to suggest that the privations of wartime Britain are something to aspire to for the future, rather than a lesson from the past.
Nonetheless, helped along by a handful of recent blockbuster Hollywood depictions, Winston Churchill has been repeatedly dragged into debate on Brexit by both sides; either in support of the myth that Britain has always ‘stood alone’ in Europe, or that European unity was a Churchillian idea. In our present situation, I personally find the most useful quote attributed to Churchill his reflection that: “Democracy means when there’s a knock at the door at 3am, it’s probably the milkman.”
The comment is obviously referring to examples of brutal oppression by the undemocratic governments of his time, but it also reflects the truth that democracy, when it functions, is in part the triumph of small freedoms and practicalities over the big, dangerous idea.
Events have moved at such a pace that it’s been impossible to stop and ask where we are. But however you feel about Brexit, it’s clear that a government of a wealthy country forced to nationalise shipping capacity to guarantee supplies of food and medicine, not because of a natural disaster but a political event taking place in just three months’ time, isn’t a responsible government, but one that has already failed.
It serves the interests of a narrow and extreme segment of opinion to raise the stakes and turn every issue facing the West into a test of national virility. It allows representative democracies to be hijacked by debates about honouring ‘national sovereignty’ and ‘the will of the people’, as if those weren’t deeply conflicted and debatable concepts.
Churchill should be invoked not just to remind us of our finest hour, but of just how banal democracy is supposed to be, when it works well.
EU leaders: Tackle anti-immigration agenda head-on
Europe has challenges beyond Brexit to face in 2019, and the continent will have to find its way without the certainty of Angela Merkel’s leadership.
She offered the strongest, most consistent defence of European values in response to the wave of refugees from conflicts across the Middle East and Africa. Someone else will need to step into her shoes and ensure the anti-immigration narrative doesn’t metastasise into a yellow-vested popular movement that could disrupt upcoming national and EU Parliament elections.
US Democrats: Remember who your enemy is
It seems crazy that, with the US Presidential election still almost two years away, 2019 will be decisive in whittling down the field of candidates seeking to oust Donald Trump from the White House.
The Democrats would do well to ensure that the process doesn’t turn into a bloodletting.
The signs aren’t good, with backers of 2016 left-wing challenger Bernie Sanders and 2018 breakthrough candidate Beto O’Rourke tearing chunks out of each other on social media.
Yes, the party needs to refresh its identity to try win back the voters that helped deliver Trump the presidency.
But Democrats also need their whole coalition to back the candidate they eventually settle on – something they didn’t achieve in 2016.
So much of the political narrative across the West relies on the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Perhaps more than in any US vote in history, the eyes of the world will be on the Democratic Party. They need to get it right.