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Planning to recover
Written by Alex Massie
3 December 2020
The British government has not shone during this emergency, but even those disposed to thinking it uncommonly incompetent might pause to consider that in at least one area it appears to have performed admirably. The government’s ‘vaccine taskforce’ has successfully ordered significant supplies of multiple vaccine contenders. Indeed, on a doses per capita basis, the United Kingdom (and Canada) have bought more supplies of vaccine than their peers amongst western, developed, nations.
And so, tentatively but undoubtedly, there is at last the prospect of a kind of endgame. The development of plausible vaccines in less than a year is a mighty, even thrilling, achievement; a reminder of what humanity may achieve when it is required to address a single task of the utmost urgency.
To ask why these vaccines have been developed so quickly, and thereby implying there must be something problematic about them or, by contrast, something inadequate about the pace of developing other treatments for other conditions, is to miss the point in spectacular fashion. It is akin to wondering how a wartime economy might build planes and ships and tanks more rapidly than in peacetime. The reason stares you in the face and you need only open your eyes to see it.
This concentration of effort, however, does serve as a reminder that other mighty projects can be tackled too. If there is consolation to be drawn from this largely miserable year, it lies in a heightened awareness of what is actually possible, provided there is sufficient political and commercial will to pursue ambitious goals.
To that end, this is a concentrating moment, and it may be only a little too optimistic to suggest that the development of a Covid-19 vaccine – or vaccines – might serve as an example for other challenges. Among the most obvious of these is climate change and here too there are grounds for cautious good cheer. The British government is not alone in bringing forward ambitious carbon emissions targets, but it is the United States’ forthcoming re-engagement with the realities of climate change that is the planet’s healthiest development this year.
But a note of caution: there will be many people who will argue that the Year of the Virus proves they were right all along. About everything. There will be calls to reset everything and there will be demands to return to what we remember, dimly perhaps, as normality before Covid upended everything. Neither revolutionary nor reactionary politics are attractive; each is as simplistic as the other, offering the false promise of immediate and universal solutions. “Never waste a crisis” is a pernicious mindset at the best of times and these, you will scarcely need reminding, are not the best of times.
The coronavirus no more ‘proves’ the need for your favoured political objectives or pet policies any more than its absence also ‘proved’ their wisdom or necessity. It is a sui generis problem, existing beyond the reach of ‘normal’ politics. As such, arguments for what should follow it should begin from first principles.
This, of course, is an unfashionable position. For it suits many to pretend that the virus proves or disproves the need for independence or Brexit or anything else you care to contemplate. It does no such thing and those peddling such arguments are guilty of exploiting this emergency for their own narrow, sectional, interest. Indeed, the constancy of their preferences, whatever the weather, is proof those demands exist independently of the weather. Some scepticism, as so often, is useful here.
And yet some major thinking is going to be required. The United Kingdom did not enter this crisis in an especially healthy state and, now there is the prospect of an end to the immediate emergency, it will not leave it in fine fettle either. The economic hit to the UK seems likely to be amongst the worst in the developed world. Even if these forecasts of gloom prove exaggerated, the reality will be tough enough.
As and when the threat to public health recedes – possibly, with luck, by Easter – there is no plausible alternative to an economic policy that privileges a quest for growth above almost all else. That will challenge both our governments but, perhaps, the Scottish government most especially. It has been apparent for a long time now that Nicola Sturgeon’s instincts run rather more fully towards the public sector than the private.
If that reflects, in part, the distribution of political agency and responsibility in our current constitutional arrangements, it is also a division of attention that needs rebalancing. The first minister is not naturally comfortable talking the language of enterprise, but it can scarcely be repeated too frequently that enterprise is an essential component of recovery. That in turn requires real and frank engagement. Recovery is a long-term business and beware all those who promise some magical transformation. Real life is more complicated, and much harder, than that.
About Beyond the Street and Alex Massie
We are all guilty of being too inwardly focused sometimes, especially as we navigate these changed times. It is all too easy to be caught up in the problems close to home, and for overarching trends to pass us by.
To remedy that short-sightedness, Charlotte Street Partners has enlisted the ingenuity and talent of the writer and commentator Alex Massie. As our new correspondent at large, Alex will look at the bigger picture for us each week. We have challenged him to come up with something a bit different: broad, lateral thinking, thematic insights and a more global perspective.
Alex is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Edinburgh. Not only is he Scotland editor of The Spectator, but he also writes a political column for The Times and The Sunday Times. He features regularly on the BBC as a political commentator and has written in the past for The Telegraph, Politico, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the New Statesman, The Observer, and TIME magazine, among others. He was also the Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and assistant editor of Scotland on Sunday.
We hope you enjoy his work – and do feel free to forward this email on to colleagues and friends you think might be interested. They can subscribe to Beyond the Street and our other regular briefings here.