As we come towards the end of 2020, the people of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are beset by the twin issues of the spread of the Covid-19 virus, and the present situation with respect to Brexit.
The first issue, the spread of the coronavirus, is assuming a new significance by the existence of a new variant, one that is threatening to get out of control. Various parts of the country have gone into a major lockdown, with the distinct possibility that, before the year ends, this lockdown may be on a national scale.
Over the Christmas period and beyond, the people of the UK face the prospect of there being a limitation on the time in which families can get together – and only in designated places, and with limited numbers of persons. There is the distinct possibility that numbers of elderly persons will face Christmas and New Year festivities in lonely isolation from other members of their families, including grandchildren.
Fortunately, and for many not before time, vaccines to combat the coronavirus are being rolled-out across the country, with present preference for vaccinating those in essential services – notably in hospitals and care homes – as well as the elderly at home. The vaccination programme will gradually work its way through the entire population, from older to younger, but this will take many months. There will be many for whom a badge of courage will be replaced by a band of honour once they have been vaccinated.
Unfortunately, during the period of the pandemic so far, the British people have often been ill-served by its government. Decisions have been delayed, protective equipment has been substandard, contracts for the provision of services have been given to the wrong companies, testing and tracing projects have been near to shambolic. To add to the confusion and agony of planning and programming, the established public sector services in health and welfare are being largely ignored in favour of private companies – too many of whom with links to government personnel.
There has been some sympathy for the government for, having been elected a year ago with an overwhelming majority of seats in Parliament, it now finds itself plunged into a fight with a pandemic for which it was ill-prepared and has proved to be ill-suited. So too, the government faces an opposition that is in the process of reorganising itself after years of leadership failures and an inability to accurately define itself.
The second issue is the ongoing situation with respect to the seemingly unending question of Brexit. Numerous deadlines have come and gone and still there is indecision, lack of agreement, and extended discussion on various matters (e.g., UK sovereignty, fishing rights for EU/UK fishermen, and a level playing field for economic exchange) that, for years, have dogged the discussions between the UK and the EU.
As this article is being written, Christmas Eve, 2020, there is no clear understanding as to what will constitute a workable deal between the EU and the UK, with a “no deal” scenario (masqueraded as “the Australian deal”) being a distinct possibility. There exist the twin feelings that either those engaged in the negotiations between the EU and the UK are not up to the job, or else a reasonable and practical agreement between the two bodies seems beyond the realms of possibility.
Of course, the economic damages to the UK of a no deal have been thoroughly explored, though much of this has been ignored. So too, incomplete attention has been given to the effect of a no deal or inadequate deal on the situation in Scotland, as well as the troubles in Northern Ireland.
The prospect of an incoming President of the USA, moreover, one with Irish roots, being favourable towards an “Irish criterion”, will signal gloom for those formerly hopeful of a meaningful trade deal with the USA. There will no longer be an anti-EU Donald Trump in the White House. Gone will be the ego-boosting bonhomie between the leadership of the USA and the UK.
Scotland is to hold its own national election next May. Present indications suggest that the Scottish National Party will again win with a sizeable majority, irrespective of the outcome of dealings between the UK and the EU. Such a result will hasten calls for another referendum on Scottish independence from the UK. Whether a British Parliament can refuse such an action is a matter of conjecture.
The UK faces the distinct prospect of a break-up, with an independent Scotland being in the vanguard of a movement that, for the above reasons and others, could see the Irish being once again united. The Irish question has been given a new edge during the past year in consequence of the British government’ s cavalier treatment of the trade border between Northern Ireland and mainland Great Britain.
An increasing number of commentators believe that the odds are stacked against the UK holding together. Break-up is more likely. This in turn brings about more general and widespread damages than the economic damage caused by the UK leaving the EU.
When putting together the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic with those of Brexit, it is realised that there is a sequence of “spiralling effects”. These have been variously described as a “knock-on of political consequences”, the fostering of “manic-depressive pessimism”, a “weakening of centrist political moorings”, a rise of “national-utopian fantasies”, and an “increase in extremism and instability” (with thanks to a recent Federal Trust essay for suggesting headings such as these).
As the political sociologist, Ira Straus, has reminded us, “The logic of separates states leads also to gradual reversion towards intra-Isles geopolitical struggles” (No EU Deal, no US Deal: US-EU again aligned, UK out in the cold). It may be that the foregoing could be termed “unpredictable”. This could be a political/diplomatic term that mean that they are in fact “predictably very damaging; with great uncertainty however, over their specifics.”
This writer was born at the end of WWII. Scarcely has there been in his lifetime such personal and international momentous times as now – that would include family emigration from the UK to Australia, the Cuban Crisis, the Vietnam War, personal unemployment, and the worldwide economic recession of 2008. Along with a multitude of others, the combination of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the looming realities of Brexit, are scarcely the kinds of realities for which the experiences of life are adequate preparations.
The year 2021 will be brings its own challenges, some of which will be formidable. However, the coming year may be greeted with a strange excitement at the prospect of overcoming adversity, an indomitable spirit that is convinced that we can rise above even the most intractable of situations, accompanied by an empathy and compassion for others less fortunate than oneself. 2021 may yet turn out to be the most ambitious, the most achieving and fulfilling, the most singularly successful that individually, and as a nation, we have yet experienced.
One of the most recognisable and memorable songs from the 1960’s – that decade of student protest, the Black Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, the Kennedy assassinations, and, of course, the Vietnam War – was the song “We shall overcome”. The unforgettable words of this song are as relevant for today as when they were first composed and sung.