Well, as years go, 2017 wasn’t the greatest. Globally, the world became a much more precarious place.
Donald Trump got his feet under the Oval Office desk and spent most of the year insulting people almost everywhere. Ramping up international tensions he rattled some pretty big sabres at North Korea. The year finished with Trump firmly taking sides in the Middle East conflict, much to chagrin of pretty much every diplomat in the rest of the world.
Meanwhile in the UK things went from bad to worse over Brexit. Theresa May called an election nobody wanted, managing to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. In a desperate move to hang on to her premiership she bought the DUP – a hitherto relatively unknown, extreme Protestant party in Northern Ireland – for a billion quid.
As the full horror of Brexit started to unfold, people began to see the consequences of the choice the UK made to leave the EU in June 2016. A whole lot of things that weren’t on the ballot paper – jobs disappearing, firms closing, prices rising – appeared on the horizon. With her authority diminished, May ended the year agreeing to pretty much everything the Brussels negotiators wanted. She also agreed to a transitional phase which in effect means abiding by the rules of the single European market – even if she can say in a legal sense the UK is no longer a member.
As right-wing Tory John Redwood observed, this will be a bit like being an EU colony – having to follow all of the rules but without having any say. Indeed, John, you should have been careful about what you wished for. The reality is now beginning to dawn on most people that hoping to get a better trading deal with the EU after leaving than you had when you were part of it is an illogical fantasy. We know for sure things will be worse – the only question is by how much?
All of this political mess, across the world and across the Continent, makes the future seem uncertain, scary even. This is one of the reasons why the debate on the future government of our own country has to wait till things become more settled.
But for those hoping for stability soon I’m afraid disappointment looms. I hope you had a restful break and have recharged your batteries for the challenges of the year ahead. You’re going to need them. Just as you think things can only get better – my guess is there’s worse to come.
For starters, the government is weak – May lost three Cabinet Secretaries in the last two months of 2017. Normally, that would be a crisis in itself. But none of these resignations was connected to Brexit, and Brexit is the daddy of all catastrophes, so Theresa can keep her eyelids unbatted.
As we go into the next phase of how to make Brexit work, the government will have to try to get agreement with itself before seeking agreement with the EU. The Prime Minster will either have to upset the DUP – by agreeing to special border relationships on the island of Ireland – or her hard-right Brexiteers by aligning with single-market rules throughout the UK. Talk about a rock and a hard place.
It’ll not be pretty. And, as discussions proceed with the EU, it will become apparent that the future will be worse than the past. Meanwhile many who keep our public services and hospitality industry going are getting the government’s message that they are alien workers, not fellow European citizens, and voting with their feet. As all of this unfolds surely demands for the UK to think again will increase. If it doesn’t, we need to be ready in Scotland to consider a different path.
Column written for the Edinburgh Evening News - Thursday 4th January 2018