Summary: The 2020s will see – Scotland become independent; a border poll in Ireland; the future of the planet hinging on the next US general election and decisive EU action; and England getting blue passports
New decades are as good an excuse as any for a time of reflection and rumination on what the coming years may bring. Unfortunately, even after what was for many a disastrous 2019, the signs of hope are few on the ground.
Australia is on fire. This is a mere portent of what global warming will bring, particularly now that Donald Trump has sought to tear up the already insufficient Paris Agreement on climate change.
Even if the world soon takes sufficient action to stave off the civilisation-ending threat of global warming the consequences in the global south are still likely to be catastrophic, creating impoverishment as delicate ecosystems are upended. This, in turn, will drive increased migration and render migrants open to new vulnerabilities, not least the threats of trafficking and enslavement. We already see this, perhaps a harbinger of worse to come, in the situation of Nigerian and other migrants whose efforts to reach Europe lead them only to abuse and exploitation in the slave markets of Libya.
We see this also on the southern border of the US where Trump’s family separation policies regarding migrants have led to considerable trauma and abuse of affected children. While they remain separated from their families and in a system with such a poor culture of child protection this certainly increases future risks of trafficking for those children.
Elsewhere, Trump continues to spread death: To distract from his pending impeachment for criminal acts, he began this new decade with a criminal act of war on Iran. He followed this up with threats of further war crimes, which, he claimed, were meant to prevent war. He may even have believed that. But the consequences are likely to be renewed conflagration in a region which was already looking dangerous following Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds and his trashing of the Iran nuclear deal.
The legendary war correspondent Martha Gelhorn once asserted that stupidity can be criminal. Trump is a human embodiment of that insight. Trump understands the Middle East in the way that he understands climate change and that is about equivalent to a chimp’s understanding of astrophysics.
Nevertheless lack of understanding has never been regarded by the morbidly stupid as a barrier to action. We are likely to be treated to new displays of that truth as English fantasies of Empire 2.0 collide with the realities of contemporary politics, not least the nature of trade negotiations with the world’s most powerful markets, specifically the EU, the US, India and China.
Many far-Right British politicians speak of a post-Brexit US trade deal as if it will be some massive favour done to the UK by their ideological cousins currently occupying the White House. They overlook the role of Congress in ratification of trade deals, and indeed the fact that US national interest will inevitably play a role in the terms of any deal agreed.
Thus has it always been. Even at moments of existential crisis, such as during the Second World War when, as Max Hastings points out in his biography of Churchill, “American policy throughout the war emphasised the importance of strengthening its trading position vis-à-vis Britain…The embattled British began to receive direct aid, through Lend-Lease, only when the last of their gold and foreign assets had been surrendered… Lend-Lease came with ruthless conditions constraining British overseas trade, so stringent that London had to plead with Washington for minimal concession enabling them to pay for Argentine meat, vital to feeding Britain’s people.”
The UK will be an abject supplicant in all future trade talks. Neither its national interest nor its ideological alignment will matter much to their opposing trade negotiators who will be operating on mandates to maximise the benefits for their own countries.
This is a likely price of Brexit. But Brexit has never been about British prosperity. Rather it represents a dangerous turning away from liberal democracy in the UK to something altogether more authoritarian.
This has always been implicit in Brexit, which is, after all, the repudiation of the body of international law that represents EU membership. But that is just the beginning. Brexit opens the gateway not just to deregulation in relation to human and employment rights and environmental standards, but also to the possibility of removing the constraints of liberalism on government, including the basic principles of democracy and rule of law that are prerequisites for EU membership.
So where does that leave us? What logical progression is likely to follow from the upsurge of the far-Right across the North Atlantic?
One of the most likely upshots is a renewed push for Scottish independence. Remember that a decisive argument against Scottish independence in 2014 was continued membership of the EU. Such is the contempt with which Scotland has been treated in the Brexit process that the prospect of Scotland as an independent nation with its own seat at the EU Council of Minsters is likely to prove irresistible when the next referendum is called. Whether that happens peacefully or whether Boris Johnson tries to repress the demand for an independence referendum remains to be seen.
In the aftermath of Scottish independence the call for a border poll in Ireland is likely to also become irresistible. The outcome of such a poll is unpredictable. But it is possible that with a sufficiently generous constitutional offer, including Irish re-entry to the Commonwealth, sufficient Unionists could be persuaded that their future is brighter being welcomed into a reunited Ireland in the EU, rather continue to be regarded as an embarrassment to the rump UK, already a vassal to the US.
The role of England in this coming decade remains to be seen. In the past the UK, on occasion at least, has been an important advocate for effective humanitarian response across the world, often leveraging its position in the EU to maximise its international relevance. But this, sadly, appears to be passing: Outside the UK nobody really noticed when Boris Johnson refused to interrupt his Caribbean holidays to lead the UK’s response following the assassination of Suleimani. The UK is becoming less and less relevant in international affairs. Following Brexit and the breakup of the UK, England is likely to become increasingly irrelevant.
For the rest of the world, it seems likely the Vladimir Putin’s assault on liberal democracy will continue. Donald Trump is clearly counting on that delivering him the 2020 election. After that Trump would probably lose interest in the Middle East again, at least for a while. However the consequences of his 2020 actions could well reverberate in bloodshed across the region that would inevitably spill onto European streets.
But there is some hope. I’ve no strong opinion on current candidates for the Democratic nomination in the US, but it is heartening that one, Bernie Sanders, has introduced into the Democratic primaries ideas for peace in the Middle East based not just on the need for security but also on the ideals of justice, not least for Palestinians. Democrats’ proposals for a Green New Deal could also lead to a transformation of the world’s largest economy into something that is ecologically sustainable. In short the outcome of the next US general election will be decisive for the future of the planet.
And the EU still matters. It brings with it the potential for considerable collective action on the environment, social justice, and human rights standards in international trade. It still represents the most successful peace project in human history, one that has made war between the member states “not just unthinkable but materially impossible.” Perhaps someday, if we don’t destroy the planet, this will become a model for peace in the Middle East?