It wasn’t supposed to be like this
Originally published here
2020 will perhaps be described by future historians as ‘the year that wasn’t’. The question now for the Prime Minister should be whether he wishes to turn ‘the lost year’ into ‘the lost decade’.
It is worth casting our minds back to this time last year in politics. We were in the final, lurching death throes of the previous Parliament. The big questions of the day were whether Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament was lawful; whether his Government would survive if that decision were overturned; and whether we would manage to leave the EU – ‘do or die’ – on October 31st.
The country was tired, after years of political wrangling around Brexit, and despondent. Hard-line Brexiteers were frustrated by their inability to get Britain’s departure from the EU over the line, while hard-line Remainers were becoming increasingly irascible at their inability to reverse the result of the 2016 referendum.
Nerves were frayed; tensions were high. In the meantime, the rest of the country – largely lying somewhere between those two positions – was desperate for someone to come along and fix the mess. They were, frankly, weary of years of indecision around an issue that was long overdue a resolution, so the country could move forward and people could get back on with their lives.
And, in the end, someone did. No less maverick a figure than Boris Johnson, aided by his equally left-field lieutenant Dominic Cummings, went on to mastermind a political strategy that led to an early General Election campaign. That campaign resulted in a new Parliament that was, at last, able to bring the Brexit stalemate to a conclusion that satisfied most of the nation – as could be inferred from the election result. Britain was back on the road to hope, happiness and prosperity.
That new Parliament, led by Johnson’s Conservatives, took to its newfound decisiveness with great gusto. The revamped Withdrawal Agreement passed through its parliamentary stages in a manner that, to those who had observed the efforts of Johnson’s predecessor with mounting despair, seemed smooth and effortless by comparison. Business leaders and market analysts, too, whichever way they had personally voted, were now being confronted with something that was finally beginning to look a lot more like the certainty they had always craved.
Even the defeated People’s Vote lobby was now able to begin the healing process, reconciling their view of what might have been with the reality they now faced. For Brexiteers, on the other hand, this was a time of great triumph. The pound was rising once more, the economy was on the up, and the nation was beginning to look outward again – to the next phase in our national history, with the upcoming EU future relationship negotiations and beyond – instead of inward, to its own internal squabbles.
Some particularly eager voices began, in late December and early January, to describe this period as the start of ‘the Roaring Twenties’ (perhaps forgetting how the last set of those ended). There was a palpable enthusiasm in the country that had been absent for what seemed, to political commentators, like forever.
But then the coronavirus pandemic struck, and those of us who always knew that a rejuvenated population, with a hopeful and optimistic spirit, was the only way this country could cope with the very real threat of a No-Deal Brexit have been left feeling particularly aghast.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
With a fresh legislature, a Prime Minister who had comfortably won the confidence of both the Commons and the country in a General Election, a largely acceptable Withdrawal Agreement passed and Britain’s departure from the European Union finally taking place on January 31st, things were supposedly looking rosy. Britain would go on to negotiate, not just with the EU, but with the rest of the world, emboldened by a reasonably strong economy and the looming reform of many of our institutions.
Yet in just a few short months, at one stroke, we have undone all the work of the past ten years in restoring our nation’s financial security for the future, while terrifying the good people of this country into believing it was unsafe to lead their lives.
While some of these measures were undoubtedly necessary, back when we had little understanding of this new flu bug on steroids and lacked the healthcare infrastructure to cope with a sudden upsurge, things are now different. This is not the time to allow people’s spirits to lapse back into despair.
Does the Prime Minister really believe that he can guide the country through a now-likely No-Deal Brexit scenario with a population that is cowed and frightened?
Dealing with a sudden rupture from our nearest major market is something that I, personally, have consistently been willing to accept. But this was always predicated upon a Britain awash with positive, upbeat, forward-looking people who, with confidence in their hearts and minds, would conceive of new and creative ways to handle the inevitable challenges posed by an acrimonious split with the EU.
That has always been the British spirit, but the bulldog will have no teeth on the world stage if its population is too petrified to go out to work, send their children to school or meet in groups of more than six.
So, what this self-styled ‘People’s Government’ must now give us is an ‘inverse Roaring Twenties’. One hundred years ago, emerging from a period of devastating warfare, Europe enjoyed a period of great prosperity, which tragically ended with an unprecedented economic crash that ruined the livelihoods of millions.
Can it be too much to ask that we do it the other way round this time?
These particular Roaring Twenties must see that same effect in reverse. This time round, the crisis comes at the start of those Twenties instead of at the end. Beginning with an economic crash, we must now find our way out of it and move on to bigger and better things. But while that will take careful management, it will also demand a sober acceptance of reality.
It is an inalienable principle of life that things generally tend to get worse before they get better, and working through that initial, painful period is usually a prerequisite for getting anything done at all. As it was with Brexit, so it will be with coronavirus. That is just life, and that is what people expect in life. It is now time for us all to just lean into it and get on with it.
The Prime Minister cannot save everyone, and nor is it his job to do so – so he should now stop trying. Instead, he should deploy the quality for which he is best known in pubs and living rooms across the land: his ineffable hope and optimism. He must work through his own character, and as much of the machinery of government as he can command, to raise our spirits once more. Only this way can we pull ourselves through the times ahead.
We have all had to accept that we have lost 2020. Let us not find ourselves losing the Roaring Twenties to economic stagnation and geopolitical irrelevance too.