21 December 2018

If you thought 2018 was trouble, just wait until 2019


One day, we may look back on 2018 and consider it a dangerous year that, for all its troubles, was merely the appetiser for deeper, greater troubles ahead. Judged by that standard, perhaps it will seem a happier time than it does right now; a final flash of light before darker times take over.

If that sounds melodramatic, consider some of the warning signs. The bull run global markets have enjoyed for most of the last decade is, everyone seems to agree, about to come to an end. Quite when and by how much remains a matter of doubt but the autumnal jitters evident in stock markets around the world are a sign of a financial system blinking amber. The economic cycle cannot be ended but, equally, fevers in one corner of the planet cannot be easily contained there either. Contagion spreads. And while central banks were able to respond to the 2008 crash with, amongst other measures, massive asset purchases and quantitative easing, it is not immediately obvious those remedies – or, rather, palliatives – will be available next time calamity comes calling.

But if the markets displayed increasing signs of anxiety as the year drew to a close, that suited the political mood too. This was a year in which, undaunted by reverses during the mid-term elections, Donald Trump grew into his role as president of the United States of America. A President Trump more actively engaged with his brief is a significantly greater risk than a President Trump too bored, too lazy, or too uninterested in tackling his responsibilities. The resignation of James Mattis, hitherto the defence secretary, seemed a telling moment in the story of Trump’s presidency.

Mattis declared he could no longer serve a president whose ambitions were incompatible with the Pentagon chief’s own understanding of America’s role in the world and its historic responsibilities. There was, once again, the sense of the adults leaving the ship. What steadying influences there have been on the president are disappearing one by one. What follows next must, perforce, be uncertain but it is unlikely to be cheering.

Trump’s administration can hardly see an international norm it is not interested in violating. Hitherto it has been kept in check by the pressures of, for want of a better term, institutional muscle-memory. Increasingly, that looks like a force that is weakening all the time.

If the United States is no longer a reliable guarantor then other bets, placed elsewhere many years ago, are also off. Russia and China must each, in different ways, be emboldened. Equally, Trump’s evident weakness for strongmen has encouraged Recep Erdogan in Turkey. Little good is likely to come of that either. A new economic crisis will, most likely, only increase the appeal – and strength – of illiberal “democracy”.

Meanwhile, Europe scarcely needs to go foraging for troubles. Russia still occupies much of eastern Ukraine while Poland and Hungary continue to kick against and challenge EU norms. Here too you sense some kind of reckoning cannot be avoided forever.

Uncertainty abounds in Berlin too; Angela Merkel has, for better or worse, been the most significant European political figure for so long that her forthcoming departure necessarily invites further uncertainty. Germany remains the indispensable European nation but change is unavoidable here too.

In France, the bloom is off the boy-emperor; Emmanuel Macron’s argument with the Gilets Jaunes might be dismissed as one of those periodic eruptions of virulent Frenchness to which the republic has long been prone, but it is also a reminder that the forces which in large part allowed for the creation of Macron have not yet been solved by him.

If the east is stormy, there are squalls at other points of the compass too. Matteo Salvini’s populist government in Italy is a challenge with which the EU could cheerfully do without while, perhaps more significantly, the problem of illegal, and desperate, migration in the Mediterranean remains unresolved for the simple reason it is unresolvable. Here too, you catch a whiff of an ancient continent no longer quite sure what its role in the world may be or how it should adjust to changing times. The palpable sense its best days may lie in the past threatens to weaken Europe still further.

Here, of course, one story above all has dominated the year. Disentangling the United Kingdom from the continent – or, at any rate, from the EU – has proved a more complex and fraught task than Brexit’s cheerleaders promised. It has, paradoxically, simultaneously paralysed and convulsed British politics. No movement on other issues is possible while Brexit remains unresolved and Brexit cannot be resolved to anyone’s satisfaction.

There is only one thing upon which almost everyone can agree: the deal made by Theresa May with the EU is a rotten one. Nobody likes it which is also its greatest selling-point in a zero sum era when your unhappiness is taken as proof of my victory. That may not be enough to rally sufficient support for it as and when the House of Commons is finally asked to vote on the proposal but, in the absence of any alternative, Mrs May’s deal is the best, or rather only, show in town.

The alternative is a No Deal exit previously generally considered a calamity for which the government and the country is singularly ill-prepared. It is a sign of how likely this is to become the reality that in recent days and weeks an increasing number of Brexiteers politicians and commentators have been talking up its chances and talking down its impact. No deal really is better than a bad deal, apparently. This even though no deal is not quite the same as a good deal.

No wonder the idea of returning Brexit to the people who are responsible for it — the great British public themselves — has become a popular, if still probably doomed, cause. A second referendum allows for the possibility of resolving the crisis but offers no guarantees. It is, chiefly, a torch carried by Remainers who refuse to countenance the dying of the European light but would require a change of heart from either the Conservative party or Labour to have any actual chance of happening. At present, neither major party is inclined to indulge campaigners for a so-called ‘People’s Vote’.

Indeed, when Len McCluskey, Labour’s leading trade union backer, came out against a second referendum this week it was hard to avoid the thought that must mean the game is up. It seemed improbable McCluskey could have been wandering off the reservation here and rather more probable that he was channelling the dear leader, Jeremy Corbyn, himself.

Corbyn remains, astonishingly, a prime minister in waiting and yet also — and this is equally astonishing — even less popular than the unpopular incumbent. Mrs May might be a glum-bucket but the British public still prefer her to the gourd-grower of Islington. This, given the miserable circumstances, is remarkable.

The Prime Minister plods on. No amount of mud can deter here from slogging through it. This indefatigability in the face of so much provocation to give up gives her ministry whatever sense of mission it retains. It exists because some form of government must exist and it carries on because the alternatives are even less appetising.

In that respect Britain enters 2019 much as it did 2018, torn between the unappealing and the impossible. Here too, nothing has changed. Nor will or can it until such time as the Brexit knot is unpicked. Well, now more than ever, good luck with that. If you think 2018 was trouble, just wait until you see what 2019 has planned.

Alex Massie is a political commentator