The overwhelming sensation from 2013 was that of waiting. Important processes have started and not yet concluded. There is a certain amount to be done in the meantime to shape them. But above all, we are waiting.
David Cameron promised, in the summer of 2012, a speech outlining a new policy on Europe. The following autumn, we waited and waited to hear his plans, and eventually in January – on a date postponed repeatedly even at the last minute – he told us that we would have to wait some more. The Tory plan is that, after the next election (due in 2015), there would be a renegotiation of the terms of British membership of the EU (which would take two years), culminating in a referendum to confirm the new terms or to leave altogether (in 2017).
And the objectives of that renegotiation? What does David Cameron want those new terms of membership to be? Ah, to know that, you will have to wait. Maybe for the Conservative election manifesto, and maybe not even then.
Of course, this is a position that has satisfied nobody. The Ukippers who want Britain to leave the EU would prefer not to have to wait a further 4 years until a referendum, a referendum that is conditional on the Tories winning the next election (and a strong UKIP makes a Tory victory less likely). People who are committed to EU membership are also unhappy, for this continuing uncertainty will make foreign investors think twice and will sow discomfort amongst Britain’s partners in Europe.
Neither side has sufficient combination of unhappiness and power to remove David Cameron from office and change his policy, so perhaps there is one person who is satisfied.
North of the border, too, we are waiting. There is a great deal for Scots to do in fighting the referendum on whether or not to leave the UK, of course, but the issues of interest to federalism aren’t really being discussed. The terms that Scotland would get as a new EU member state have been speculated on by the Scottish government but there is no word from the other side of that negotiation as to what might be possible. How many of the UK opt-outs would Scotland be allowed to inherit, opt-puts that have been denied to other new member states such as Croatia?
Similarly, what of the continuing relationship that Scotland would have to have with the rest of the UK? The Scottish government expects to be able to share a currency with the rUK, and to get free access to the output of the BBC, but these are decisions not only up to the Scots. Again, here we wait.
But it is not only on the Yes side that there are crucial silences. The No side has offered Scotland more devolution within the UK if the option of independence is rejected – as with EU membership, David Cameron’s government has rejected the status quo – but the nature of that further devolution remains undefined.
On the international scene, too, we wait. The biggest question of the year turned out to be the crisis in Syria – was this a moment to invoke the idea of Responsibility to Protect, to save the citizens of Syria from their government? After all, the forces of President Assad were widely believed to have used chemical weapons, thus crossing a line observed by 96 per cent of the world’s states.
But a parliamentary debacle in Westminster, where David Cameron and William Hague could not get a majority in the House of Commons even though two thirds of MPs were in favour of their policy, threw on the brakes and spared Syria from attack. Prior to that vote, British and wider Western policy was that President Assad should go and be replaced by the rebel coalition. The policy afterwards became that President Assad should give up the use of chemical weapons (Syria has now signed the chemical weapons convention). but that his future should be subject to negotiation. One might say that, as far as President Assad is concerned, the use of chemical weapons has been a success.
Happy New Year.