The Lowdown Hub

The UK can lead the world in 2021 with a pioneering lockdown exit plan

It has been the custom of this column to devote its first appearance every new year to anti-predictions: things that would not happen in the following 12 months. But under the circumstances of the present emergency, it seemed more appropriate to use this space to set out a list of good news developments that might reasonably be expected to occur. This decision was, at least in part, prompted by the quite startling resourcefulness of the broadcast media in finding ways to bury any good news story under an avalanche of public sector lobbying. What follows, then, is a list of eventualities that could be described as optimistic – that’s the whole point – but which are not, I would argue, implausible.

The first one follows from the stupendous success story of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine which has given the world an infinitely more practicable and inexpensive way to inoculate vast populations – especially those in developing countries – against the pandemic. As the prime minister, among many others, has pointed out, this is a triumph for British scientific endeavor and pharmaceutical cooperation. That such an innovation emerged in this country should not, of course, have been a surprise. The double helix structure of DNA and the basic principles of modern computing were also discovered in the UK.

But here we are – with a stunning, inspirational boost to our global reputation for ingenuity and resourcefulness. The miasma of reservation and self-doubt that is being cast around it is nothing short of perverse. It is a spectacular leap with historic significance for the global fight against Covid, and for the British genius for exploration and enterprise. That word “enterprise” brings us to the next hurdle. There is a good deal of alarm about the attention being paid, particularly by Boris Johnson himself, to the idea of government intervention in private enterprise. The prime minister appears to be hinting that all our national gifts of expertise and invention should be harnessed, or directed, or somehow interfered with by forms of partnership with the state. I understand the alarm over this. It is indubitably true that it is a private enterprise and free markets that enable genuine originality and more vital modes of adaptation than any state monolith with its lumbering directives. But it is just as easy to interpret the PM’s intentions as implying that government should embrace the private sector mentality and that partnership with it could incorporate a spirit of flexibility and innovation. Providing that private enterprise is allowed to teach government how to move faster, rather than government putting a brake on originality, there is no reason why such cooperation cannot succeed. In fact, if we could manage this feat, even in a small way, the future could be a grand opening for an explosion of entrepreneurialism and development in, for example, the new IT industries in which the British have managed to distinguish themselves in spite of the burden of EU bureaucracy. The M4 corridor had become the Silicon Valley of Europe even before Brexit. Imagine what it might be now. And then there are the new “green” energy ventures which Mr. Johnson rates so highly, and for which British engineering seems to have a particular talent.

So yes, we might well have a post-pandemic economic recovery that beats that of the EU – and not purely because we started our vaccination program weeks earlier (although that is true, too). But what about some of the other tragic consequences of this horrendous year? The near-death of High Street is very serious. Online retail can never replace the social experience of physical shopping or the culture of family businesses that once gave such local character to towns and regions. But what if a great many of those shuttered shops and outlets are turned into residential developments so that every town center becomes a mix of homes and commercial activity that turns into a new kind of community life? And what if these new neighborhoods, which would no longer be deserted and unsafe at night, constituted a happy confluence of domesticity and urban conviviality? It might just be a very agreeable way to live – especially for young, single people who are now desperate for their own homes and reluctant to migrate to outer suburbia. There have been two disasters that will struggle to find good endings to their stories. The collapse of the performing arts is a catastrophe of historic proportions. There has not, since Cromwell, been such a total extinguishing of theatre, opera, ballet, and live music events – not even in wartime when their continuation was thought indispensable to national morale. The Government has been willing to offer generous subsidy but there is a lesson that should be obvious.

Maybe now the Treasury will come to understand just how tenuous is the existence of all those people in the creative industries virtually all of whom are self-employed and stop inventing new ways to torture them. Might it finally appreciate why its new demand for every creative freelancer to file four income tax returns a year – thereby quadrupling his accountant’s fees – might seem like gratuitous victimization? Isn’t there enough sympathy and appreciation of the actors, the dancers, the singers, not to mention the production people who make it all possible – to wring the heart even of the stony-faced HMRC? Then there are the schoolchildren, especially those in the phase of their education on which their futures depend. None of this has been their fault. The country is going to have to turn itself inside out to make up for what they have lost. But away will be found because these are our children and grandchildren and the moral force of their need will take precedence over everything. Rules about higher education entry will be rewritten; the new industries will accommodate their differing interests. Being young and indomitable, they will find a way through. As for the rest of us, we will have learned something too. The love and companionship of family and friends, so often taken for granted, became in this year of terrible absence, a vibrant, palpable thing, and I doubt that will be forgotten.