It's not recession, but secession that's worrying many: Scotland will vote on independence from the UK, while Britain's own potential exit from the EU could stunt an economic rebound.
LONDON — British Prime Minister David Cameron’s New Year’s message was an occasion to congratulate himself; and in doing so, his criticism of European partners — France in particular — was hardly veiled: “If you doubt how disastrous a return to Labour-style economics would be, just look at countries currently following that approach,” he said. “They face increasing unemployment, industrial stagnation and enterprise in free fall.”
And yet if the new year indeed seems promising for Britain’s economy, it could also be among the trickiest ever for the United Kingdom otherwise. The country seems increasingly tempted to part ways with the European Union, and the independence movement in Scotland is simultaneously on the rise. The more international-minded British — especially those in the world of finance — have already coined a name for their country, should Scotland exit the great nation: “Little Britain.”
There’s a risk these burning issues could very soon outshine the benefits of economic growth and of the austerity policies the government has been implementing.
The most important date for the UK in 2014 will undoubtedly be Sept. 18. On that day, the Scots could choose by referendum to end a 300-year-old alliance, which gives the rest of the kingdom a territory that is bigger by one third, and adds not just five million inhabitants to its population but also oil reserves.
Though most polls show a significant lead for the status quo, a secession would raise a number of breathtakingly difficult questions. Could an independent Scotland enter a monetary union with the UK to keep the British pound? Could it directly join the European Union? Could it, on its own, take on the debts of the Royal Bank of Scotland? How would it manage to preserve a social model that is more generous than in the rest of the UK with the decline of its oil reserves in the North Sea?
Faced with these challenges, Scottish businessmen, many of whom have criticized the prime minister and independence movement leader Alex Salmond, feel helpless.
Despite what the polls say — and the obstacles that many consider insurmountable — the Unionists aren’t claiming victory yet. The man who is leading the campaign to maintain the alliance has been accused of leading a weak campaign, too technical and negative, against independence. His name is Alistair Darling, who was Labour’s Chancellor of the Exchequer — this British Cabinet minister who is responsible for all economic and financial matters — between 2007 and 2010.
Darling’s feeble campaign stands in stark contrast to his independence counterpart, the charismatic Alex Salmond, who has managed to arouse a certain enthusiasm. What’s more, the policy of austerity, which Cameron’s government recently reaffirmed, plays for the independence movement, which promises that it will protect its people from the damaging effects of budget cuts.
The Times reported not long ago that Lynton Crosby, an election adviser to Cameron who has been dubbed “master of the dark political arts,” thought the polls showing a huge margin of support for unionists were wrong. In other words, a political earthquake is still possible.
Britain’s EU future?
The other big topic for the coming months, Britain’s possible exit from the European Union — which the leaders of the three main political parties there all oppose — won’t be decided this year. But 2014 could accelerate what some denounce as the country's “sleepwalk” out of the EU.
The European elections in May could suddenly make the leader of the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP), Nigel Farage, head of the country’s largest political party. A recent poll showed that 37% of those who had voted for David Cameron’s Conservative Party in 2010 no longer support the prime minister, and that half of them would vote with the Independence Party.
The anti-EU sentiment on display in London (Ben Cawthra/Lnp/London News/ZUMA)
The election will be crucial for several reasons. It could be a first step towards a split in the Conservative Party. It could also determine the position of the Labour Party, which might be forced to promise voters to hold a referendum on EU membership if they win the 2015 general election. Just over a year ago, David Cameron pledged to submit for a 2017 referendum a new membership pact that he intends to negotiate with his partners in Brussels. On that occasion, if the prime minister is reelected, Britons will be able to vote to remain in the EU under the new terms, or not.
Growth in the UK will likely begin to slow a little this year compared to the last few months, Goldman Sachs predicts. But it will nevertheless continue, thanks in large measure to the strengthening of the banking sector. This newfound dynamism has, however, started a tricky debate about the benefits of growth.
Chancellor George Osborne, the UK finance chief, chose to redouble austerity measures to reinforce the already established, and politically efficient, perception that his party is serious about the economy. But his promise to balance the books by 2018 — after promising to do it by 2015 when the Conservatives entered office — by cutting an extra 12 billion pounds in the welfare budget opened the door to two major criticisms. Keynesians are wondering where the rush is since markets seem to be reassured, and the most “innocent” Tories are worried that their party looks even more like that of the rich.
The irony of it all is that the Conservatives could still be assured this year of their future majority in Westminster: Should Scotland choose independence in September, the Labour Party would lose all of its many Scottish voters, while the Conservatives have no support there.