LONDON, Dec. 31 (UPI) -- January may turn out to be the most difficult month for Britain in 2004. By New Year's Day it should know if its biggest-ever adventure into space -- the Beagle 2 Mars lander -- is a success or a failure in its search for life on the Red Planet. On Jan. 8 Queen Elizabeth II is scheduled to name the world's newest and biggest passenger liner, the Queen Mary II. On or about Jan. 12, Lord Hutton is due to report on his investigation into the suicide death of weapons expert David Kelly.
The three events are quite separate, but full of potential contradictions that could influence the directions of Britain over the coming year.
Success for Beagle 2, for instance, is likely to be portrayed as a triumph for innovative British technology. But it could as easily be seen as yet another example of the determination required by a handful of British individuals to overcome official policy which, unlike the past, does little to encourage such bold research. The Mars lander only got to Mars thanks to a French rocket and the European Space Agency, and needed an American NASA mission to bounce signals back to earth. Failure would draw attention to those national deficiencies.
The same ambivalence applies to the Queen Mary II, which inevitably draws comparison with its 1937 predecessor, now a permanent fixture at Long Beach, Calif., and to the Queen Elizabeth II liner, which the QMII replaces. It might be officially launched by the Queen, it might be owned by Britain's Cunard Lines and it might travel from Southampton to Florida, but everyone knows this is a triumph of French shipbuilding, not British.
And so it will go for the year in industry and commerce: thrusting bits of rising British innovation contrasting with grand echoes of past glory. That includes British defense, still second only to the U.S. in its ability to project power around the world, which will spend much of the year trying to squeeze more value-added technology out of a flat or even declining budget.
For Britain, the European Union remains a continent of economic and political caution, particularly with 10 new countries joining in May, as much as a continent of opportunity. With the euro and a new EU constitution on the back burner most of the British public willsee Europe in 2004 more for soccer's European Cup competition than for anything else.
Fortunately, Britain's economy is set to continue its excellent performance, its services powering ahead of manufacturing and beginning to convince itself that it matters less if most of its manufactures have 'Made in China' stamped on them as long as it continues to succeed in high-end services such as finance, insurance, law and advertising.
This is one year, however, where government policy will play a big role in British economic performance, largely because it has loosened the purse strings to get many more public sector workers such as nurses, teachers and police officers, and is raising their pay. The year is, in fact, Prime Minister Tony Blair's last big chance to persuade the voters that his promises on improvements to health, education and transport really are to be believed.
January is the month Blair faces his toughest domestic challenge when almost half his Parliamentary party threatens to reject his plans for major changes to university funding -- applying so called 'top-up fees' that will affect the abilities of millions of students and parents to pay.
His old approach of 'trust me, I know what I'm doing,' has been badly damaged following the failure to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and this is why the Hutton report in mid January is so important. It isn't strictly in his terms of reference, but if Lord Hutton's report heavily criticizes the government's attempts at manipulating the dangers of Iraq's WMD -- as alleged by a BBC news report -- and particularly its handling of the alleged government source of the story -- then Blair's credibility may be in such trouble he may find difficulty in leading the country.
Fortunately for him, however, he is still seen as the best possible leader by a majority of his own party and even the opposition Conservatives, and if he survives the Hutton report he could see a revival in his fortunes. This will be particularly true if Libya is seen to have been strongly influenced by British diplomacy in abandoning its WMD program and by Blair's determination to invade Iraq as 'the right thing to do.'
If he can also persuade Iran to give up its nuclear program, and if Iraq finally settles down, the chances are that by the time of the U.S. elections next November, Blair could be in an impregnable position come the British national elections in late 2005. It is generally accepted that the job is there for as long as he wants it, and that he will want it as long as his health holds up and Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer, remains his only potential Labor replacement.