Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.
I’ve been thinking about endurance. HMS Endurance specifically. It was a little ship the Royal Navy used to send down to the South Atlantic.
A friend used to serve on it, and I’m haunted by his description of life out on a tiny ship in some of the world’s roughest seas: the vast winds that endlessly circle Antarctica, with no land anywhere to slow them; the huge waves down in Drake Passage, with the green water coming over the bow and even hitting the bridge; and of wondering whether the ship would be broken by the sheer power of the ocean.
A bit after he was on it, the ship nearly sank following an accident. It filled up with freezing water, and with all power lost, amid a gathering storm, it started drifting towards the rocks. The crew spent 24 hours fighting for their lives: bailing out the ship by hand, and eventually escaped from a gathering hurricane in the nick of time. While the story of how they survived is an inspiring one – the account of the mistakes that were made that led to the accident in the first place is an informative one.
As so often with disasters, the warnings were all there: the wrong sort of ship; no proper maintenance; too many key staff absent; major problems with the culture…
As with so many disasters, in retrospect the warning signs were all there.
One of the great arts in politics is to see the problems and the big choices coming, so that you can solve them before the ship starts sinking. 2021 is shaping up to be a year where we make some very big choices that will define the coming years.
And I what I really want is readers’ views on what the big choices are. But let me start with my own mental list for later next year.
Let’s assume for a moment that we have come out of the other side of Coronavirus and Brexit. It’s 2021, the vaccine is rolling out, the virus is dying out, the economy is recovering. Still a long way to go, I know. But what will happen then? I think there are four really big choices:
First, the big fiscal choice. At present the focus is rightly on helping support the economy until we get into sustained recovery. But it seems likely there will be some kind of structural deficit afterwards, because the economy will be behind where we hoped it would be. We won’t know how big or small the deficit will be for quite a while. It may be small enough that we can take some time. Or so big that we can’t. So we may face some big choices on (a) how fast to try to close any gap, and (b) what mix of tax and spending decisions to use to fix it.
The second choice is our plan for growth. Western countries have had a rough decade, and some economists worry about “secular stagnation”. How do we get the economy moving faster? How can the tax system better support investment and innovation? How can we change the composition of government spending on research to better support business growth? How attract more inward investment in higher skill, higher tech, higher wage industries?
Third, we face big choices about the future of the UK. The Scottish Parliament elections on 6 May may herald a dramatic new phase in the debate. The bookies (though they’ve been wrong before) give the SNP a 95 per cent chance of being the largest party and a 66 per cent chance of an outright majority, either of which they would use to rev up their demands for another referendum. The breakup of Britain would lead to a decade or more of catastrophic paralysis. Years of arguments over currencies, pensions, debts, mortgages and state assets. Officials working to unpick hundreds of years worth of stitching. All parts of the UK would suffer economically, and it would make the Brexit rows of 2016-2019 look like a walk in the park. Yet even with the virus raging, the SNP are preparing to go into overdrive to force a second referendum. An equally strong campaign will be needed to fight back. How do we fight it?
The fourth big choice is about the levelling up agenda: and how far and how fast we can go. The lead times on getting things done can be daunting. For example: in 2014/15 we decided to phase out rubbish “pacer” trains in the north. But last won’t leave service in the north until next month. We need policies which will genuinely help poorer places catch up, but also need to show significant progress by 2024.
Then there’s all the other things.
Decisions to take about the future of devolution and local government in England, with a White Paper out in the spring.
There’s a second year of tough decisions to take on school exams. The Welsh government has already cancelled next year’s exams. Assuming we can still hold them in England, there are unavoidable choices on how to mark them. Given the disruption to schooling, mock results will likely be worse, but not evenly so across different types of schools – for example, the crisis has affected state and private schools very differently. So how do universities assess potential? And should we measure pupils against each other with the same distribution of grades as earlier years? Or maintain comparison with previous years, which would likely see grades drop across the board?
There’s a long-expected decision to take on universities. Do we keep the current system? Or build up technical education, and try to reduce the number of students on low value university courses which lead to low earnings while consuming lots of taxpayer subsidy?
At the start of November next year, the UK will host the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. There are big choices to make about how and how fast to pursue decarbonisation at home, and lots of questions about what the UK should be pushing for at the conference.
MPs voted for net zero, but massive questions about how to do it remain open. Are we aiming for heat for people’s homes to come from electricity in future, or by pumping hydrogen through the current gas grid? If more and more vehicles will be electric, what mix of (and how much) electricity production are we aiming for?
Then there’s big questions in foreign and security policy. The Integrated Review is due out, which (sensibly) combines the questions of our future defence and security spending with questions of economic security – given a world where we face ruthless technology competition, not least from China.
But there are other big security questions: France is suffering a wave of brutal Islamist terror attacks – is there more we need to do to pre-empt such atrocities here? The Prime Minister and President-Elect Joe Biden have both floated new ways to get the world’s democracies working together, including those like India and Japan that are outside NATO. Can something new be brought together?
These are just my starters for ten – so readers, it’s over to you. What are the biggest choices? What are the problems that we have to get ahead of to keep this ship afloat?