The new year is full of influential political developments
The 2010s may have just departed, but already there are now political ventures to look towards. While 2020 is only just upon us, political events are taking place, within the UK and overseas, that will significantly impact the world for decades to come. The Christmas season allowed some reflection and unwinding. That is now over - there are a whole host of changes on the horizon very shortly that will shape the UK’s future, both economically, and how we view ourselves in a globalised world.
1) Leaving the European Union
It is all but certain that the UK will depart the EU on the 31st January, leaving the legal, political and economic institutions we have been members of for over four decades. Brexit will be done. Except, it won’t be. The Withdrawal Agreement ensures a transition period, meaning the UK will follow EU rules until the end of 2020 without any say. During this time, the government will be negotiating a free trade agreement with the European Union, with Boris Johnson refusing to extend the transition process beyond this year. Given the depth of our relationship with the EU, it is highly unlikely that a full agreement will be ready to be ratified and put into international law by this time next year. The Prime Minister may enjoy an 80 seat majority, but, if he is unable to reach an agreement, leaving the European Union without any deal whatsoever may once again be reality. All this will happen while the government tries to arrange trading with the rest of the world, not least America and the Commonwealth. Britain will leave the EU in name, but, in reality, that remains to be seen.
2) Labour Leadership election
2020 will bring, yes, another Labour leadership election. It was inevitable that, after a disastrous general election performance, giving Labour their worst result since 1935, Jeremy Corbyn would step down. He had no option. After losing two elections, he had no mandate to govern or continue leading Labour when his leadership had been so clearly rejected. A period of reflection is supposedly taking place before the main contest commences in the new year, with Labour trying to understand what cost them so many seats in the north and Midlands. At time of writing, only Clive Lewis and Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry have announced their intention to run. However, a whole host of figures from all wings of the party, including Rebecca Long-Bailey, Jess Phillips and perhaps Yvette Cooper are expected to join the race. Electorally, Labour needs to work out how it can win back seats it had held for decades but lost last month like Don Valley as well as seats in the south of England it held in the Blair years. Ideologically, Labour needs to decide what it stands for, who it seeks to represent and whether it deserves to continue as the main movement of the left in the UK.
3) Liberal Democrat leadership election
What a year it has been for the Liberal Democrats. They started 2019 devoid of purpose and looking as though they could never recover from their punishment in the 2015 election, losing 47 seats as a result of the coalition years. This was followed by leader, Vince Cable, leading the Liberal Democrats to second place in the 2019 European elections as they became the unashamed party of remaining in the European Union. Followed by leader Jo Swinson, there was speculation of the Liberal Democrats gaining 100 seats in last month’s election, especially in the South West and Scotland. Instead, they ended up with 11 seats, one fewer than 2017. None of the defectors from Change UK held their seats, indeed, no original members of Change UK remain in Parliament. The most damaging part was leader Jo Swinson losing her seat of East Dunbartonshire and thus relinquishing the leadership. Figures such as Ed Davey, Layla Moran and newly elected Daisy Cooper have been tipped to stand as leader. Like Labour, the Liberal Democrats need to decide what their vision and purpose is. Since June 2016 they have been defined by Brexit. Now that we are leaving, what is their new policy agenda?
4) The Future of Healthcare
Repeatedly, healthcare is the most important issue to voters. Boris Johnson was able to capitalise on this with voters who were socially conservative but economically favoured an interventionist state. This has been evident with Johnson announcing that his £34 billion extra into the NHS per year will be enshrined in law, mandating his government to invest. This is no bad thing. Extra investment is desirable and required. However, how will the money be spent? One of the many annoying things about political discussions relating to health is the permanent focus on the amount of money, rather than what the money will go towards. Simply throwing money at a system that won’t work isn’t a sustainable answer for the future. The government must provide greater transparency on how it is spent. 2020 should also be a year of properly discussing social care, an issue that has received far too little attention. The government has pledged to invest an extra billion in social care. But this is nowhere near enough. We have an ageing population that must be told uncomfortable truths about spending more money - their money - to fund long term healthcare. In an age of short termism, I doubt very much however that this will come to pass.
5) Climate change: Action or Avoidance?
2019 was the year of climate change protests. Whether through Extinction Rebellion taking to the streets of London and - bizarrely - the Tube network or Greta Thunberg attacking world leaders for their inaction, the climate has come to the forefront of the worldwide political agenda. The UK government has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050 with innovative technology to mitigate the negative effects of climate change. While the Conservatives enjoy a large majority, this issue is not going away. Pollution knows no borders. Indeed, there is something inherently conservative about wishing to preserve the landscape and protect the natural world from harm. While I believe some of Extinction Rebellion’s rhetoric has been Biblical alarmism, there is no doubt they have helped to raise the profile of a serious issue. Whether through the actions of the young or future protests, there is no sign of climate change and the importance of environmental protection falling off the political agenda any time soon.
6) Disunited Kingdom
The last few years have raised so many questions about the future of the United Kingdom. One of them may come to pass this year in the form of a second referendum on Scottish independence. Following the Scottish National Party’s increase in Westminster seats at the 2019 election from 35 to 48, Nicola Sturgeon has used this as a mandate, along with the UK’s imminent departure from the EU, to hold a second referendum. Independence is at the heart of the SNP’s ideology so, in my view, they would seek another referendum whatever the circumstances. Regardless of whether there is another mandate, this raises a fascinating and damaging constitutional question.
Boris Johnson, who must grant another referendum in order for it to be legal, has rejected claims for a new vote and says he would turn down the SNP’s request. It is unclear what happens then. I highly doubt the SNP would give up, meaning the UK could face the same conflict as Catalonia and Spain. Of course, Northern Ireland could soon be facing a border poll, with a greater number of Northern Irish MPs supporting a united Ireland now in Westminster. Given the amount of attention caused by the Irish border during the Brexit negotiations, I doubt very much we have heard the last of those seeking to break apart the UK. As a unionist, I find this extremely concerning. However, in the not too distant future, it is a realistic possibility that this country will be named the United Kingdom of England and Wales.
7) Any Other Business
The UK, as outlined, faces huge questions about its political direction: both domestically and internationally. However, it is far from unique in its amount of political turmoil. This November, Americans will decide whether they want another four years of President Trump or a Democrat to take over. This is mere speculation, but I believe he will be re-elected. He has done little to alienate his supporters and the Democrats don’t appear to be providing an inspiring, realistic candidate who can win over voters who were unwilling to back Hillary Clinton in 2016. Given incumbent presidents are usually re-elected (Reagan, Clinton, Bush, Obama), I believe 2020 will bring continuity in the White House. Across Europe, instability is the norm, especially as Angela Merkel, very much the dignified figurehead of the continent, comes to the end of her many years as German Chancellor. China continues to play a significant role in world affairs since the liberalisation of their economy, with the UK, especially under David Cameron, seeking a closer relationship between the UK and China.
Time passes, a new decade begins, politics and international relations continues to shock and surprise.