As I See It: Terry Murden
In a recent poll asking which was their favourite year of the past decade most respondents opted for 2012, the year of the London Olympics and the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s reign. For changes in the way we live, as opposed to the events that took place, 2019 will take some beating and could prove to be a major turning point for decades to come.
Some may think back on the past year as dominated by the exhausting Brexit debate or the series of World Cups in cricket, rugby, women’s football and netball. But there were more fundamental and irreversible shifts in attitudes and behaviour that will help define the near future and beyond.
Look at the issues that came to the fore in 2019: climate change, women’s rights, the British political system, plastic packaging, flight shaming, sexual diversity, alcohol, news media, petrol-driven vehicles, red meat, television versus the internet, fast fashion, Christmas wrapping paper, the high street…. they all came under the microscope of public opinion, in many cases demanding a significant response; others marking a change in how we interact.
Here are some thoughts on what might be awaiting us in the year and decade ahead.
The political system is wobbling after being badly beaten during the Brexit debate, all in the name of democracy. The House of Commons is due a shake up, but reform seems unlikely in the short term. Boris Johnson’s 80-seat majority and Labour’s collapse has almost ensured a decade of Tory governments, providing no basis for ministers to axe the first past the post voting system that might weaken their grip.
Growing Anglo-Scottish tensions must be resolved somehow. Mr Johnson, who has no track record in consistency, could surprise us all and bring the matter to a head by calling the SNP’s bluff and allowing a second referendum. That still looks highly unlikely and even the SNP’s senior members admit the odds are heavily stacked against a referendum any time soon. If it did take place, a defeat for the nationalists would be an embarrassment for Nicola Sturgeon who would struggle to stay on as party leader, let alone continue the fight.
It is heavily odds-on that the PM will continue to resist calls for a second referendum, promoting the Union ‘dividend’ and driving policies that will undermine the SNP and Ms Sturgeon, who may decide to step aside anyway rather than face damaging potential divisions in her own party as the hardliners demand unilateral action.
Should she step aside the likely candidates to replace her are in short supply. Finance Secretary Derek Mackay is an obvious candidate, but keep a lookout for Kate Forbes, not yet 30 but doing a decent job as Public Finance and Digital Minister.
As for any realistic challenge to the SNP, an alliance of moderates from the other parties may consider forming a new centre ground party to provide an effective opposition. Without such a move, they’ll be out of power for at least this coming decade.
Will Scotland’s opposition parties restructure to provide a stronger alternative to the SNP? (pic: Terry Murden)
The Labour party died in 1979, along with mass industrialisation, and was resurrected in the 1990s only because Tony Blair re-invented it as Tory-lite New Labour in tune with the Britpop and pro-enterprise era. It needs to elect a new leader with a similar mindset who recognises that Britain believes in fairness, but is not a socialist country. Whoever it is will need stamina, given that they are likely to be in opposition for the whole of the next decade north and south of the border.
The Honours system has once again prompted accusations of cronyism. A petition to scrap and replace the unelected House of Lords has hit 100,000 signatures in just two weeks. Few would oppose change, but the prospect of an elected second chamber does not appeal to everyone. A system of appointees on merit remains preferable to some, though this would again open the door to favouritism.
Brexit will not be the economic disaster some have predicted. The SNP and other opponents of the British government will persist with their forecasts of economic armageddon and 100,000 lost Scottish jobs. It won’t happen. Investment will be unleashed now that the Brexit argument has been tamed.
The Scottish billionaire Jim Mellon senses “the UK will do just fine, and that there will be a boom in 2020, eclipsing almost every other European economy.” He also concurs with my own view, expressed here previously, that Europe, has a lot more to lose in trade terms than we do by not concluding a deal.
The next big question is what sort of economy do we want? Can we go on forever adding to the consumer stockpile, insisting on four or five foreign holidays every year, and adding to the world’s waste mountain? Should there be cheers or tears when airports announce more passenger growth? When consumer spending rises? When packaging companies announce increased output?
The big questions must include the seemingly unthinkable notion that the world economy may need to press the pause button and learn to live more frugally. Could we sensibly manage an era of nil growth? While there is a case to be made for slowing down and putting a lid on the ever-increasing demand for more profit and higher dividends the answer surely lies in sustainable growth. Doing more with less. Using resources more efficiently to achieve a better outcome.
Despite the criticism it gets, the energy industry is a leader in developing these ideas. Apart from the transition from fossil fuels to renewables in firing industry, the technologies being developed are manifest in the shift to electric vehicles and energy-efficient homes.
War on plastic and waste
The chef and restaurateur Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and TV presenter Anita Rani showed us how much plastic is stored in our bathrooms and how much ends up dumped in fields in Malaysia. The natural historian Sir David Attenborough frightened us all by highlighting the impact of plastic on the oceans.
2019 was the year when we all decided enough was enough and companies began to listen, but action is still barely visible.
Retailers, particularly supermarkets, continue to stock products in unrecyclable plastic containers and use too much packaging. Plastic carrier bags remain an issue. Public opinion on this is firmly opposed to more of the same and those companies that fail to respond will find themselves suffering a backlash.
Already our economy is being geared towards more sustainable products and services and there is a drive on getting more use, or alternative uses, from the items we already own, and finding cheaper and more acceptable ways of doing regular tasks.
Make do and mend, which emerged in the post-war austerity era, is making a comeback. Workshops are springing up, as are television programmes on giving new purposes to other people’s junk. Salvage and restoration is one small contribution to the waste issue, but it could flourish into a bigger industry.
Sales of low and non-alcohol drinks will rise sharply. The young are adopting a more health-conscious lifestyle and attitudes are changing. Excessive drinking, at home as well as in bars, will be seen as increasingly anti-social.
Britons spent a record £57 million in the 12 months to April on low or non-alcoholic beers — an increase of 39% on the previous year. They also spent £48m on low or no-alcohol wines over the same period. Non-alcoholic spirits, a market only three years old, is now worth £5m.
This will force brewers and distillers to extend their ranges and encourage bars and restaurants to stock more low-alcohol options. It should be encouraged by ministers as a response to the health and crime statistics.
Meanwhile, gin is already worth more in the Scottish on-trade than whisky. There are 200 gin distillers in Scotland alone, which points towards a series of mergers as the market peaks.
Few could have predicted in 2007 how the introduction of the smartphone would have such a profound effect on how we communicate with each other and conduct our affairs, from banking to consuming news. It is said that the pace of change is quickening so that predicting the next ten years is a bit of a fool’s game.
What we do know is that artificial intelligence and robotics will replace more human endeavours.
Fintech and its offshoots such as healthtech and proptech will become big sectors, driving change in employment and in the commercial and consumer markets. Edinburgh is well-poised to weld its financial and technology sectors and become a leader, but competition for investment in new ideas across the UK and elsewhere will be fierce.
While processes may speed up, product development may slow down. New smartphones show only incremental change and the next big thing will be about how devices control behaviour via the internet of things.
There is also scary stuff such as Deep Fakes which uses AI to create videos of people doing or saying something they didn’t do or say. They are very convincing and a huge potential challenge to lawmakers and to democracy.
Gaps on Britain’s high streets have been among the most visible reminders of the changes in consumer behaviour.
Immediate attention is on further reform of business rates to reduce costs. Property owners will also need to review their business models as retailers demand lower and more flexible rents.
The St James Centre opens in October
Edinburgh’s St James Centre opens in October amid expectations of attractive terms to lure tenants and an exodus of stores from other parts of the city which will be transformed into food and drink outlets, leisure zones such as gyms and relaxation venues, service and repair hubs, business workshops, hotels and residences.
A further challenge is the growth of the direct to consumer market as manufacturers bypass the wholesaler as well as the retailer and sell to customers via social media platforms. More than three-quarters (79%) of manufacturers are currently using or planning to sell via Facebook and nearly three-quarters (72%) are using or planning to sell via Instagram.
It’s been a desperately bad decade for the newspaper industry. More than half the UK is no longer served by a local paper. The reasons have been well-documented, suffice to say the process shows no sign of reversing as more readers choose quicker, easier and cheaper ways to access news electronically.
Websites and social media platforms now dominate and it will be a huge surprise if more of the big titles do not join the Independent‘s move in 2016 to go fully online.
The Scotsman and The Daily Telegraph are looking for new owners and the sale of the ‘i’ to the Daily Mail & General Trust has shorn The Scotsman‘s owner JPIMedia of a revenue-earning prop. More mergers will be inevitable and the precarious financial position of some groups will at least help avoid the competition inquiries that would normally be triggered.
Social media has been the growth story for the past decade with 2m more people reading news online than a year ago and 19m reading the ‘papers’ online as opposed to 11m consuming the print versions. BBC Scotland may even begin to notice the shift in reading habits and acknowledge the existence of a thriving online news sector in Scotland.
So-called fake news has always been with us, but by and large journalists are disciplined in the art of checks and balances. Social media and online publishing, on the other hand, has encouraged ‘citizen’ journalism and amateur blogging based on idle rumour and opinion and as we saw with the Laura Kuenssberg tweets during the general election campaign, traditional journalism has been infected by the eagerness to be first with ‘news’. With concern also growing over hostile messaging, there are bound to be calls for greater control over what is still a largely unregulated media.
Meanwhile, in an era of Netflix and Amazon Prime, the BBC may lose its dependence on the licence fee and be forced to compete commercially. There is a certainly a case for the BBC’s website being put on a commercial footing so that it does not stifle competition.