Hang on to your hats. 2017 may be a bumpy ride
As 2016 slides away it is hard not to marvel at just how much has changed. A year ago we looked destined to keep our place on the EU rollercoaster as it plunged towards greater and greater integration. Now the talk is all of Brexit and whether the EU can hold together at all. At the start of the year we were governed by the chillaxed Etonian David Cameron, a man whose quickness on the soundbite doubtless reflected his experiences in marketing. Now it is almost impossible to get a statement out of the Prime Minister, a middle class woman who takes every opportunity to keep her cards close to her chest. Then the talk was of austerity, to reduce public debt more quickly. Now it is of measures to reinforce growth. Outside Europe it is little better. Then it seemed that the US would be choosing between highly experienced presidential candidates. Maybe a Clinton: maybe a Bush. Now it is to be the very unpredictable Donald Trump.
Too much has changed too fast for anyone to have any real idea what will happen next. Rather than guessing at the future, therefore, perhaps we should celebrate the changes by looking at some of the positioning.
Let's start with Mrs May's cabinet. Leading on the Brexit side are three leave campaigners: David Davis, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox. None of them has the weight of Philip Hammond and Greg Clark, so why has Mrs May put them there? Is it because she feels that they are best placed to deliver the Brexit agenda or are they a human shield? Does Mrs May believe that the country will have to make concessions which will contradict the rhetoric of the Leave campaign, and that before she can do so safely the leaders of that campaign must either be discredited or admit that she is right? If so, is it working? Mr Davis has already begun to soften with his suggestion that we might continue to pay for access to the EU marketplace and his opposition to a transitional agreement is looking increasingly threadbare. Boris is losing his gloss. Will there come a moment when she can bow to the inevitable and gain public support for a soft Brexit deal?
Then let's look at another piece of positioning, the reluctance of the Prime Minister to spell out her plans. If she is waiting for the three Brexiteers to either moderate their stand or to fail, this makes obvious sense. She needs to hold back until the public mood moves and then she can go in with her masterplan. That is only one explanation, however, and there is another, equally cogent. There are two parties to the Brexit discussions and one of them is evolving fast. How can Mrs May set her strategy until she has an idea of the form which the EU will take in 2019? Will France and Germany be the kernel of a new superstate comprising northern members of the union? Will France have pulled out? What about the German elections and the Dutch? In neither country does the pro-EU consensus look particularly safe. Suppose the EU changes form. Would we wish we were staying in it after all? There are obvious reasons for keeping options open.
If you read Clausewitz or the biographies of great military figures you will know that the deciding factor in a campaign is often the instinct of the commander. That does not mean guesswork. An instinctive commander draws on both training and talent, knowing what must be done and doing it, often without knowing quite how the decision was reached. Apply that to politics and success of the negotiations with the EU is likely to depend on Mrs May and the cabinet making the right instinctive decisions. The freer she is to do this, the more likely the calls are to be right. No wonder that there is a reluctance to commit any earlier than is strictly necessary.
Then what about the rail strikes, a bizarre story in which bogus concerns over safety have brought Aslef and the RMT out on strike? At first sight it seemed that they were merely trying to protect the jobs of their membership. After all, a train where no guard is needed to close the doors threatens to reduce the number of employees, something which would be a legitimate concern for any union. And yet, according to recent press reports, there may be more to it than that and the unions concerned may be trying to bring down the government. It is all very 1979 but with rail drivers rather than miners on the front line. Will the members continue to support the unions as their position is exposed? It will be interesting to see. Distrust of leadership may not be confined to election results.
Now step overseas and see how Mr Trump is positioning himself. There has been a lot written about how his instincts are more liberal than you might think from his campaign, and that may be true. Nonetheless the one concrete thing we have is his choice of Secretary of State and other heads of department and that is not particularly reassuring. Perhaps his wish to be friends with Putin is an imaginative leap. Perhaps it is a mistake. One way or the other, however, he is an inexperienced president and one would like to see some experienced people in a position to give him support.
There is not necessarily anything wrong with living through a time of change. It is uncomfortable, of course, but there is the opportunity to contribute to a new vision. After the war that was a softening of social attitudes and the introduction of the welfare state. In 1979 there was a reaction against the inefficiencies of state control, and the liberalisation of markets. This time the various upheavals seem disparate, the common factor being the various publics' distrust of the leadership provided by their political elites. It is in such soil that new movements and leaders grow and no doubt we will see plenty of them in the coming year. It is up to us all, bloggers, journalists and readers, to play a part in the debate and to do our best to ensure that the changes are in the right direction and help move us all forwards to a brighter future. That is the challenge for 2017.
First published in the Shaw Sheet