The festive season is upon us and, in the shadow of Covid and the imminent advent of ‘final Brexit’, I’m not at all sure what mood to strike. As we near the end of 2020, a year without much of a fan following, what can we anticipate in 2021?
Whatever your religion or belief, midwinter has always been a crossing point between the onset of the dark days of winter and the anticipation of the warmer days of spring and summer. It’s the time of year when, whatever has gone before, we seek to recrystallise hope.
We make wishes. Whether we believe we have some power to make them come true or not, we nevertheless put down markers for what we want the next year to be and what we hope it will bring. The balance between hope and expectation is always finely judged – and arguably, if you tilt too much towards the former, there’s a stronger chance of disappointment. But maybe at this particularly bleak juncture, we’re allowed to hope for the best rather than the good enough.
What would that feel like? If I could get all I want for Christmas, where would that take us?
I’ll start small. The first parcel I would unwrap on Christmas Day would see the survival, and then the longer-term success, of the smaller local businesses I’ve discovered in the course of the various lockdowns. I think this aspiration is achievable, but local communities have to keep their eye on the ball and continue their support, rather than steaming on auto-pilot to the big supermarkets. It might require a certain effort – walking, rather than driving, for example – but it’s well worth it.
The second gift that I take from underneath this imaginary Christmas tree would be the return of live performing arts. The pandemic has hit the sector really hard, and many artists across all disciplines are struggling. We need the arts not only for our own mental well-being, but because it is an economic powerhouse which massively enhances the UK’s international reputation.
The parcels are starting to get bigger. The third one has reason and science gaining more of a foothold in people’s thinking. Given the high profile of many scientists during the pandemic, public understanding of science may in some ways have developed, but it’s still striking how many people remain uncomprehending. As I unwrap the gift and empty out the contents, I see evidence and analysis beginning to roll back unsubstantiated narrative. I see people beginning to believe in hard facts rather than in whatever they want to. A big ask, I know, given human psychological predispositions, but let’s aim to cement truth to the pedestal where it belongs.
The fourth parcel is large and difficult to open, but not impossible. It’s the promise of 2021 being the year in which people increasingly see authoritarians and populists for what they are: people for whom the truth is a flexible concept, who place much more value on personal networks than they do on individual merit and who promise much but often deliver little.
At the same time, moderate politicians have to step up to the plate and deliver. Everyone’s eyes will be on President-elect Biden and VP-elect Harris, and their challenge will not only be improving living standards for those who’ve been left behind, but also reaching out to those who bought into the previous administration’s narrative. There will be lessons for moderates globally on how to wrest the agenda back from populism.
Finally, I find myself holding a parcel wrapped in paper with a Union Jack motif. As I tentatively begin to unwrap it, I see that it contains a vision of the UK as a modern nation, with the well-being of its people at its heart and a clear-eyed view of its own past. It’s a future in which we respect, but no longer live by past glories, real or perceived.
Some would argue that Brexit was designed to stimulate a renewal of this kind, but the opposite is true: it harks back to an era when Britain was in the ascendancy on the global stage, rather than the reality of the medium-sized power we have become. Where Brexit does look to the future, it aspires to a political economy largely foreign to our culture. Nevertheless, the upheaval it and Covid are causing present an opportunity to re-design our nationhood. It’s time to move on. As I’ve said before, we should know our history, but not live in it.
So there you have it. I’ve opened all my presents, for the time being at least. I hope to get a lot of use out of them in the coming period, not least as themes for future blogs. It would be interesting to hear what gifts you’re hoping to receive, and how they will change our world into 2021 and beyond.
Back in a less metaphorical world, the past few days have been characterised by strong winds and driving rain. The skies have been grey, and paralleling the rollercoaster ride that is the pandemic, there’s been little to cheer the spirits. But as I worked through some of these thoughts, the sun broke through and stayed for most of a cold but clear December day.
Grounds for optimism? Let’s hope so. And in the meantime, all the very best to you, your family and friends for the festive season, and for the year to come.