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Speed of Covid vaccine rollout will decide our economic fate in 2021


The landmass now known as Britain first disconnected from the Continent between 6000 and 5500 BC. Popular, if not populist, descriptions of what happened next are expressed in terms of Britain becoming cut off. Nationalists take pride and take comfort from Britain’s long physical isolation and are delighted with the latest iteration, the most recent separation.

Not for the first time, this misrepresents history. Yes, it was a physical shearing of the landmass. But the consequences are exaggerated. You couldn’t walk to where you needed to go but that didn’t necessarily mean you couldn’t get there.

Stone Age forecasters predicted that human contact between ‘The Great Isle’ and the mainland would dwindle once the land bridge became submerged. Exactly the opposite happened.

On both sides of that narrow channel, people learned to build boats. Consequently, getting to France became quicker – sailing was faster than the previous walk. Coastal communities adapted to marine life. Unlike people, animals can’t sail, so species that relied on a land connection for migration either adapted or died out. Denied the connection it needed, the Elk, for instance, disappeared from Britain.

Use of modern names like Britain and France in this way is anachronistic. The historian Norman Davies argues that it’s worse than mere inaccuracy: giving stone age land masses modern place names is problematic, particularly when given a nationalistic twist.

Brexit has often been described in terms of an imaginary history, a desire to return to a golden era that exists only in fantasy. Memory is an unreliable companion at the best of times. In part, Brexit was a yearning for something that never was. A confusion about the past. We Brits bang on about the unbroken history of our island race. But only an island for less than 1 per cent of the time that humans have inhabited Europe.

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England is imagined to have lasted forever, certainly long before its actual birthday some time in the tenth century. Too many people mix up Britain, England and the UK. Relatively few of us know that the United Kingdom only goes back as far as 1707 and has been fundamentally redefined twice since then. But nobody bothered to change the name even when radical change was visited upon what that name represented.

As the economist Chris Dillow says, Brexit was mostly desired for its own sake: an intrinsic good (or bad, depending on your silo). It’s done. So Farage can say “the war is over”. Chair of the ERG, Mark Francois, can say “it’s time to lower our spears”. Slightly oddly, Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, says “it’s time to end the constitutional Kama Sutra”.

To ask if Brexit will be a success is to miss the point: success is defined by Brexit’s existence. That’s it. But what happens next is not predestined: it depends on whether or not new ways of connecting are established and nurtured. That’s a choice.

Britain’s connections

The future will be shaped by the contest between those who want to improve Britain’s connections and those who do not. Britain’s economic problems were solvable as a member of the EU and are still solvable now. Set the policy dials for maximum growth and minimum inequality: easier said than done but possible. The fate of the Elk awaits those who wish for anything less.

A key policy dial is marked connection, one that represents the opposite of nationalism. Set connection to zero and you get North Korea. Turned up to full volume and you get modern Ireland, one of the most connected, most prosperous, countries on earth. Britain’s connective choices will determine its economic fate.

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Nationalists, including Irish ones, hate connection. The nationalist asserts that problems are the fault of the other and easily solved. Nationalists know that connection reveals the truth about the complexity and universality of our challenges. Embrace nationalist simplicity, nationalist mental and physical isolation, and the future is darker. You know who I am talking about. As Francois Mitterrand said, nationalism is war.

It’s what happens next that matters. If I was a bookie I would stop taking bets on the UK’s chances of a third transformation. Scotland will, sooner or later, go its own way (back into the EU) and Ireland needs to start saving up for the costs of reunification. This is now what English nationalists want.

All forecasts come with a health warning. That story about the rise of expert sailors is the one to keep in mind. It reminds us about the unreliability of crystal balls. And it contains another, deeper, lesson: newly separated people can, sometimes, choose to work hard at maintaining and improving connection. That way generates economic and personal well-being. The other path leads to cargo cultism.

History is full of examples of societies that get into trouble, or even disappear, when co-operative connection is restricted. Economies are enhanced by connection – similarly, individual health and well-being are improved with connection. Some lives are saved by lockdowns but our economies and lives are diminished by separation.

Policy choices matter, they always have consequences. We were told by the World Health Organization that rolling lockdowns while waiting for a vaccine was the worst possible choice. Yet we made that choice. We now choose to deploy vaccines quickly or slowly: that choice will determine our 2021 economic outcome. Longer term, how we choose to reconnect ourselves and our economies matters above all else.

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