LAST Sunday I reflected on some aspects of the year which has just ended. Being about the past, it was within my comfort zone as a historian. This week the editor has set me a much more daunting challenge, the future, and particularly what we might expect in 2021.

What follows, therefore, can best be described as reasoned speculation or perhaps more bluntly as an intellectual leap into the dark.

When a journalist asks me about what is likely to happen on a particular issue in a few years’ time, my response is usually “I am a historian, the future is not my period”.

READ MORE: Tom Devine's reflections on 2020: The coronavirus pandemic and Brexit

Another of my favourite aphorisms, based on many years studying history, is the one certainty about the future is its uncertainty. In the era of Covid and

Brexit that is surely even more likely to be the case.

At least, however, our sympathetic editor has given me the freedom to decide the topics on which I can pontificate about 2021.

I start with outgoing US president Donald Trump and political populism.


The National:

BY the end of January, Trump will no longer be president of the United States. That is indeed a very welcome and sweet start to the new year. I see him to be the most disreputable and reckless president in American history, showing little or no concern for decent and traditional norms, humanity or the law, and making pronouncements which some have denounced as little other than racist diatribe.

Nor is Trump going quietly in his final weeks. Shamelessly, he has now pardoned, not only a whole gang of cronies, but four war criminals, security guards who were imprisoned for the killing of ­unarmed men, women and children in Iraq. They also happened to work (surprise, surprise) for a ­company owned by one of Trump’s leading supporters and personal donors.

We can therefore only hope fervently we have seen the last of him in any high political office, though he has not yet ruled out standing again for the presidency in four years’ time. But even if he quickly vanishes into history, Trumpism, or Trumpery as I prefer to call it, will still endure into 2021 and probably more than likely for much longer.

Trump may have lost to Joe Biden but the election revealed the yawning political and ideological chasms in a profoundly divided America. The only way to have made certain that Trumpery would be first marginalised and then emasculated would have been a resounding and overwhelming landslide victory for Biden. That did not happen. Instead, while the victor won 51% of the electoral vote, Trump took no less than 47%, a huge total of 74 million votes. His base therefore remains robustly intact and many of the entrenched within it rage at what they consider an election stolen corruptly by their opponents.

The reasons for Trump’s relative electoral resilience are not hard to find. He has solidified his hard-core white working-class male nativist support by trying to exclude non-white people from entering the country and by introducing tariffs in an attempt to protect ailing American industries in the rust belt. He has given tax cuts to citizens on above average incomes, mainly those who are deeply ­loyal to the Republican Party. He has also pleased the Christian evangelical right by appointing conservative-minded justices to the Supreme Court.

Trumpery is the most striking global example thus far of the impact of populism in the 21st century. But European countries such as Hungary and Poland also have been affected while Brexit might be seen as another potent example of its seductive allure, especially among those who feel disaffected for economic, cultural, political reasons or perceived threats to their traditional identities.

In consequence, as the American ­political scientist, Professor Barry Eichengreen, has put it: “Populism ­arrays the people against the political establishment and other elites, natives against ­foreigners and dominant, ­ethnic, ­religious, and racial groups against ­minorities. It is divisive by nature.”


The National:

THE issue of independence will inevitably be the dominant political topic in Scotland in 2021. Will the opinion poll continue to record Yes in a clear lead or even identify a further increase in support? Can the SNP win an overall majority in the Holyrood elections in May? If so, will that be seen as a convincing democratic mandate for the Scottish Government to pursue the demand for another referendum on independence? Will Boris Johnson relent from his obduracy or remain firmly opposed to any concession? If the latter, which I think is by far the most likely response, what, if anything, happens then?

Readers will not be surprised to learn that I cannot provide definitive answers to any of these crucial questions. What I can do, however, is offer an opinion on the timing of any future referendum and matters related to that vital issue.

Independence supporters are obviously joyous, not only with recent poll results but also other evidence favourable to their cause.

The official campaign in 2014 was opened on May 30, 10 weeks before the referendum itself. The first poll during that period had only a third of the ­Scottish electorate favouring Yes. By polling day, however, a further 10% had been added to the total and Yes eventually achieved 45% of the final vote. In graphic contrast, one poll in late 2020 put the Yes vote at 58%. The conclusions that might be drawn from comparing 2014 to 2020 are self-evident.

In addition, the Unionist parties seem currently to be in considerable disarray. While Scottish Labour remains a peripheral player, Scottish Tories have defenestrated their former leader in customary fashion but his successor still seems to be struggling to gain name recognition across the country. That new leader, Douglas Ross, is in the challenging position of knowing that his boss in Downing Street is more likely to trigger further increases in the Yes vote whenever he speaks out on the Scottish Question. So for Douglas the silence of Boris is indeed golden.

Yet his problems run much deeper than keeping a very unpopular PM in Scotland quiet on Scottish issues. The Tory party branches south of the Border, crammed as they now are with English nationalists, have become increasingly disenchanted with the Union and fed up to the back teeth with “subsidising” parasitic and ungrateful Scots.

The break with Europe is now a done deal; their next objective might very well be the end of the Anglo-Scottish Union. “Unionsceptics” may become the heirs of Eurosceptics. Douglas Ross admitted in a brave and frank admission at a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party conference in October last year that the attitude of English Tories “ ... is making the case for separatism more effectively than the SNP. Many Tories see Scotland leaving the UK as inevitable and now want a UK Government focused on England”.

A number years ago, I penned a newspaper article which speculated that if the Union did end, England rather than Scotland might be the leading assassin. That may no longer be mere speculation.

Underlying demographic forces also seem to strongly favour the nationalist cause. In 2014 men were more likely than women to vote for independence. Now that gender gap seems to have mainly vanished. The “grey vote” remains crucial to the Union (as it was in 2014), with the polls indicating in 2020 that more than two-thirds of those aged 65 and over in Scotland opposed independence. At the other end of the age spectrum, the average of polls in the same year suggested no less than 79% of those aged 16 to 24 supported Yes.

The lugubrious response of the psephologist, Sir John Curtice, to these findings should shiver the timbers of Scottish supporters of the Union: “Most of those in the age group of under-25s were too young to vote six years ago – and if those who enter the electorate anew continue to support Yes so heavily in future years, then, other things being equal, it will become with every passing year more difficult for Unionists to win any second referendum ballot.”

It is scarcely surprising therefore that many nationalists are now desperate for another referendum on independence to be held as soon as possible. The agreement on the details of Brexit which was sealed on Christmas Eve will further inflame passions. The First Minister has already denounced it as a much harder deal than was envisaged after the Brexit referendum took place and in which Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU.

However, I strongly believe this is a time for cool heads and shrewd thinking not knee-jerk emotional reactions. I share the view of Tom Nairn, one of the leading thinkers of modern Scottish nationalism, that a referendum should only be held over the next few years when the time is right and a clear vote for independence can be confidently expected when the real battle is joined. All that has happened so far is skirmishing and posturing in advance of the real match.

It be cannot be morally acceptable to press ahead in 2021 or 2022, even in the very unlikely event that the UK Government concedes another referendum. For much of this new year Scotland will remain in the grip of Covid-19 while the new vaccines take time to be rolled out and the vicious disease is eventually brought under control. There are then the twin effects of the pandemic and Brexit on an already battered economy to be borne in mind.

Some experts have predicted that Britain may face the worst slump in three centuries this year, while the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said last November that UK growth in 2021 was likely to lag behind every other major economy apart from Argentina.

The people of Scotland are not naive. They will not necessarily support the decision of a government which attempts to offer the prospect of huge constitutional change before national recovery has been established after the long months of ­painful adversity.

Canny patience can be a crucial political virtue, not least in this case, where the demographic trends outlined above suggest time is now on the side of national self-determination.

There is still much work to be done in the interim. The Yes movement was very vulnerable to attack by the No campaign in 2014 on the currency and economic plans post-independence. The time should now be used to build an armour-plated intellectual case on both of those core issues to make sure that defeat cannot happen again. If it does the chances of another referendum being called will vanish for a very, very long time or perhaps never.

Ironically, more time will undoubtedly be granted by Boris Johnson. The Christmas Eve agreement restores his declining reputation among the Tory faithful and his MPs. He will now lust after iconic status as the man who not only won Brexit but completed the process of its negotiation.

He will therefore likely remain as PM until at least the next General Election, feeling his position is now impregnable to challenge within his own party. ­Johnson’s brazen obduracy in refusing to concede another referendum on the ­question of independence for Scotland will therefore persist into the future.

What can advocates of Yes do about that, especially if the legal process before the Court of Session this month proves unsuccessful? That will become a burning question in 2021 as the constitutional debate intensifies.

After you have read this piece, please do remember, however, unless you have not already surmised, that the future is not at all my period.

Very best wishes to all readers of the Sunday National and their families for a peaceful and happy 2021.