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Onwards and upwards into a new year
Written by Alex Massie
31 December 2020
If ever a year deserved to be signed-off by the Reverend I.M. Jolly, 2020 makes a powerful, even impregnable, case for being that year. Alas, Rikki Fulton’s doom-burdened alter ego, the star of so many Scottish Hogmanays, is no longer available. But, still, as the Reverend would begin: “What a year”.
Few will be displeased to see the back of 2020 and, for once, the promise of a new year truly does offer genuine potential. This has been a long slog and the time before Covid now has an inescapably prelapsarian feel to it. We know it must have been better, but it seems so very long ago we can no longer accurately recall the details of daily life as it used to be led. In that regard, the virus has thrown a cloak over everything else, shutting out the light.
It has been such a difficult, grinding, year that it almost feels foolish – or certainly risks tempting fate – to note that there really are grounds for optimism. January will be the cruellest month next year and we must grimly prepare for a tsunami of appalling statistics as the impact of the virus’s latest wave hits home. Hospitals are already struggling; they have harder times ahead. The daily death toll, already akin to wiping out an entire village every day, seems likely to rise still further.
But – for there must always be a ‘but’ – there is, at last, good news ahead. If 2020 has largely been a year of misery it has also, in one vital respect, been a year of wonder. The successful development of multiple vaccines, brought to market in record-breaking time, is a staggering feat. I suspect we are so accustomed to technological marvels as a now commonplace part of everyday life that we actually underestimate the hard work, technical skill, and imaginative prowess required to develop not one, but several, vaccines for Covid-19. That this has happened in less than a year is sensational.
And for all that the British government has not had a distinguished year, not everything it has touched has crumbled into dust. Some parts of the state have performed admirably. If the tireless work of doctors and nurses is widely appreciated, the value of the government’s vaccine taskforce has drawn less attention than it merited. The United Kingdom might have had a bad emergency, but it may yet emerge from it earlier than most, if not all, its peer group.
Granted, placing orders for millions of doses of the Pfizer and Oxford vaccines is no guarantee that an efficient and equitable vaccination programme will be built in a month. There is, and will continue to be, a sense that more could be done more quickly. Faster, faster, faster is a useful imperative, not least since it focuses attention where it needs to be.
Slowly but surely, then, the virus is likely to be held at bay. Day by day and week by week, progress will be made. Like many things I suspect this will feel as though it is happening too slowly and then, suddenly, almost all at once. That’s how you go broke and it is also how the virus will be beaten back.
And for all that this has been a gruelling and costly year – a price paid in souls as well as hard currency – it has also been a year of countless acts of decency and humanity; of neighbours rallying to those that need their assistance; of companies working through almost intolerable conditions to maintain vital services upon which the public depend. A year of almost immeasurable charity and compassion as well as a year of tears and justified frustration. Those who break the rules invariably find themselves in the limelight, but most people have done their best to do their best. Maintaining some of that spirit, that dogged determination to do the right thing, as we come out the other side will be a challenge, but one worth aspiring to meet.
There are also, I think, some other reasons to look forward to the new year. Brexit is, at last, almost behind us. The time for arguing about it is finally coming to an end. What is done is done and if it might have been done better it is too late for it to be redone all over again. If nothing else, that allows for a certain clarity. A line has been drawn; now we move on. That it might have been drawn in a better place is now less salient than the opportunity it provides to get on with a new version of normal life.
None of which is to suggest that this new era will be easy or even necessarily attractive. The transition costs will be considerable and I still hold to the view that Brexit is a retreat from the world, not an advance towards a greater, more glorious, future. But uncertainty imposes costs too and ridding ourselves of these, even with a lesser deal than might ideally have been negotiated, offers some relief of its own. We may see matters more clearly now.
If that is a modest relief, I am afraid no such succour will be available on the domestic front of Scottish politics. The national question, about which we have been arguing for so many years now, will dominate 2021. Even the coronavirus will have to concede it is no match for Scotland’s constitutional argy-bargy; this remains the only issue which truly galvanises the electorate. That imposes an opportunity cost: for it means that the bread and butter, the blood and marrow, of ordinary, everyday, life will continue to be eclipsed by the constitutional argument. Real and difficult discussions – about education, the kind of economy we need, the public health scandal of Scotland’s drugs problem and much else besides – will once more be left unaddressed. We might – indeed I think we should – wish it differently, but this is the way in which 2021 will, like all the years preceding it, play out.
But the constitutional argument is everyone’s comfort zone. It is a place to which you may retreat, secure in your convictions; a place where presumptions rarely need to be interrogated let alone truly tested. Here too, Scotland desperately needs fresh thinking. The kind of thinking that starts from a position of considering the constitution an irrelevance. Rather than waste time arguing about what cannot be done – or, on the other side, fretting that allowing something to be done is another step on the road towards oblivion – we might better direct our energies to looking at what can be achieved.
For in truth, the constitutional rammy is a distraction from matters of more immediate, daily, concern. This need not be as good as it gets and the spectacle of ministers shrugging their shoulders as if to suggest there is no alternative should enrage a greater share of the populace than it does. That in turn requires a more engaged citizenry. The problems in Scotland’s schools and hospitals owe little to the constitutional constraints in which they operate; they could, they should, be better than they are.
Too often, however, we settle for the just-about-good-enough or find convenient excuses for palpable under-performance. If 2021 was marked by nothing more than a collective raising of ambition it would have achieved more than enough. But, while there are reasons to be optimistic that the new year will be better than the old, it remains prudent to temper that optimism with a measure of scepticism. We can hope for better, but it would be wise to hedge those hopes with the remembrance that reality is a stubborn problem that cannot be wished away.
But, nonetheless: onwards. Happy New Year.
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.