Home Uncategorized Column: A YEAR OF TRANSITION 2013

Column: A YEAR OF TRANSITION 2013

We cannot know, of course, but 2013 looks like it is going to be a year of quiet, sullen adjustment. We are moving from an era when we thought we could repair the economy, the energy and transport systems, the welfare system, the discredited institutions, even our own personal health, to a new age in which we will have to rebuild everything along completely different lines.

We will have to get used to low economic growth, part-time working, high pension contributions, more angry weather, intractable wars, the politics of blame and avoidance, and a new realisation that we are responsible for our own health. In Scotland in particular, we are in a transition period between the years of recession and the year of the referendum. It may not be easy looking forward but the future becomes even more frightening if you look back.

In 2012, the British economy shrunk by 0.1 per cent. In 2013 it is forecast to grow, but only by 1.2 per cent, (according to the Office of Budget Responsibility). That is well below the 2 per cent (or so) to which we have become accustomed over the last 40 years. Unemployment is forecast to rise to 8.3 per cent, despite a huge increase in part-time employment. And we are still only half-way through the government’s austerity programme of spending cuts and public sector job losses. There’s still another quarter of a million jobs to go.

The search is on for different ways of providing public services – cooperatives, arms length agencies, private contracts, increased charges, preventive spending, means testing. Meanwhile, the private sector is supposed to be getting on with creating jobs – a million so far, but another million to go.

The trouble is that demand in the economy is just not there. And the export prospects don’t look good for 2013, with the Euro-zone only expected to grow by 0.2 per cent (says the IMF), the US economy facing tough times – even it does not fall over the “fiscal cliff ” – and the Chinese economy slowing down.

The banks, which have brought us to this sorry state, are reluctant to invest us out of it – which is why the government should be spending instead. The banks, of course, face their own year of transition. There’s talk of them considering their “social impact” and conducting a “moral overhaul” and linking bonuses to long term success. New laws are expected to set up firewalls between a bank’s retail activities and its investment department. And the Bank of England, under its new governor, Mark Carney from Canada, will be taking on a bigger regulatory role.

In the political world, the strains in the coalition at Westminster can only get worse. The Conservative right is getting restless over Europe. The Liberal Democrats are wondering when is the right time to jump ship. Britain is hosting the G8 in June this year at Enniskillen in Northern Ireland and there is pressure on David Cameron to give a lead in restoring the global economy to robust health and a measure of fairness over trade and tax.

There are general elections due this year in Israel, Italy and Germany. Everyone is waiting to see if the new US secretary of state John Kerry will have a go at settling the Palestinian question and whether he can break the UN deadlock over Syria. It’s hard to believe that the Assad regime can hold out much longer.

In Afghanistan, the gradual withdrawal of Allied troops is due to continue in 2013, ready for full withdrawal in 2014. British troops are to be reduced from 9,000 to 6,000. It’s an important year of transition, as Afghan forces take over the 12 year struggle against the Taliban.

Here in Scotland, we will move inexorably towards the referendum in 2014. Alex Salmond says the full details of independence will be spelt out in a white paper to be published in November. The referendum bill itself will be making its way through the Scottish parliament over the next nine months. The SNP will be asking what sort of country we want to live in. The opposition parties will be asking awkward questions about Scotland’s membership of the European Union, NATO and Sterling zone.

Meanwhile, the Scottish finance minister John Swinney will be getting on with trying to restore the economy and keep public services running, all on a restricted budget given to him by Westminster. Over this year we should see some of his “shovel ready” projects getting under way – new housing, replacement schools, road improvements and dockside developments.

In the important business of sport, again it’s to be a year of transition. All the focus will be preparing for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in July 2014. Golf’s Ryder Cup will follow at Gleneagles in September 2014. Scottish rugby goes back to the drawing board this year after a disastrous 2012. In football, Celtic will be battling its way through the European champions league, starting with the match against Juventis on 12th February. And the shinty men make an early start on the new year with the first big competition, the Lovat Cup, taking place in Beauly on 2nd January.

This is to be the “Year of Natural Scotland” when all government agencies will be promoting our fine countryside, fresh air, clear blue lochs, rivers and seas. Industry leaders will be urged to make the most of our natural resources – wind, tide and wave power – with the new £3b Green Investment Bank coming to Edinburgh. But there is a lot of work to be done to get back on track to meet our CO2 targets and to save our seabird population, which has fallen by 50 per cent in the last 25 years. And our changing climate will, I fear, have many a storm and flood to throw at us in the coming year.

Appropriately, the UN has chosen 2013 to be the “Year of Water Co-operation.” Conservationists will be celebrating the first John Muir Day on 21st April, the 175th anniversary of his birth. The European Union has declared that it is going to be “the Year of the Citizen” when it will try to win its 500m people around to believing in the European ideal again. In China, it will be the “Year of the Snake” which begins on 10th February. The snake in question is said to be “enigmatic, intuitive and introspective.” It doesn’t sound good.

In 2013, we will be marking a number of strange anniversaries, recalling times that seem so far away. It will be a hundred years since we learnt of Captain Scott’s death in the Antarctic, a hundred years since the suffragette Emily Davison threw herself in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby and 200 years since the publication of “Pride and Prejudice.” It will also be 500 years since the Battle of Flodden Field. But we don’t talk about that, instead we are looking forward to the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn in 2014. As I say, it’s a year of transition.

And of course, we are expecting a new monarch to be born in the summer. Like every baby, he or she will remind us that we are all in a state of quiet transition from one age to the next. Perhaps that is why the coming of the new year, in the middle of winter, is such a strange and emotional time.