image of 2020 in paper

Time stands still for Brexit but not Covid

Published: 17 December 2020
Author: Richard Parry

As an epic year for global public policy reaches its end, Richard Parry discusses the way that the pandemic has impacted other aspects of the political cycle. 

Once in a century, events can happen more often, as with the weather and the election of bizarre political leaders who do not emerge from party systems. But Covid 19 came right on cue, 102 years after Spanish flu.

The nature of the Covid 19 virus posed similar difficulties for public policy in every country. Less lethally spectacular than Ebola, SARS and the plague, the policy instruments of total state-enforced quarantine on anyone infected were not obligatory. But the handling of seasonal flu – accept higher death rates and do not alter economic and social arrangements – could not be a model either. Too many people were dying. The original conceptualisation of the disease as flu-like for most was wrong – symptoms could be non-existent or could accelerate during apparent recovery, and some suffered long-lasting effects.

Eventually an epidemiological view prevailed over political declarations of victory. Stay-at-home lockdowns suppressed the virus. But the subsequent controlled deconfinements did not work for long. Rather poignantly Wales – the one UK nation to accept medical advice and lock down again over school half terms from 23 October to 9 November – found that the promised unlocking propelled it back to an even worse position.

By year-end, even the poster children of Europe, especially Germany, were converging on the infection and mortality rates of their neighbours. Christmas truces on restrictions stood out like embarrassing islands in a worsening context of infections. The Scottish Government’s approach was generally more coherent than other UK nations. Even the U-turns on examinations and blended learning, where Scotland was first in line, turned out to be the route to the right answer.

Covid fell at the key election point in the US political cycle. The first event to displace Covid, in the news and on the streets, was the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May, a lasting reminder that Black Lives Matter and that inequality of policy outcomes is worse than ever in times of crisis.

November saw Donald Trump increase his vote from 63 million to 74 million, and his share from 46.1% to 46.8%. How could he not have won re-election? European levels of turnout and his insouciance about Covid did for him. Alarmingly, he attempted to apply his career-long approach that there must be a workaround in the face of setbacks, even a loss at the polls. But he was impeded by the independence of the judiciary and the control of the House of Representatives by the party of the President-elect. Many systems would not have such checks and balances.

Brexit negotiations also faces a hard-stop of a 31 December end to transitional arrangements, with no mechanism for an extension. Both sides knew that the UK attempt to demonstrate that the Leave project would be validated, and the EU insistence that it would not, required an exquisite negotiating balance even by EU standards. Having achieved clear victories of their withdrawal priorities of Ireland, people and money, the EU team have been trying to do the same on fisheries and common business standards. In the end it was they who seemed to decide on 13 December that it was worth negotiating to a conclusion rather than having a trade and fishing war to start 2021.

Clocks were stopped and deadlines set aside as EU provisional and emergency devices offered scope for deferring the final formal processes into the new year. The EU will have observed that ‘no sellout’ was a rhetorical device of the Johnson government rather a factional grouping in the Conservative Party that might seriously question a Boris victory lap. Once the modalities emerged – a transitional period on fisheries, and common standards achieved without direct EU mechanisms – it became a test of drafting and presentational skills for the weary negotiators, with the seasonal champagne in arm’s reach.

In Scotland, timing also intruded as the fixed-term election of May 2021 was set to take place while polling majority for independence was for the first time ever sustained and not momentary. The Covid crisis reinforced the post-2014 fusion of support for independence, voting intention for the SNP, and personal esteem for Nicola Sturgeon. Unionist parties applied to Covid their narrative that the SNP’s constitutional focus was the cause of policy deficiencies; it again failed to do the trick. But the weak connection between dreams and reality evident in Brexit remained available to be applied to independence once the forward policy process crystallises.  

The final time-related challenge is over the public finances and the financing of government debt. Most indicators look terrible, but debt interest as a share of public expenditure does not. Until inflation and higher interest rates come back (and Japan has been waiting for decades), any amount of government debt can be financed cheaply.  But sub-national government with limited borrowing powers, like the UK devolved nations, are trapped, with limited buoyancy in the revenue sources they have. 2020-21 has had to be written off, but the new UK financial year on 1 April 2021 has to deliver better numbers, starting with low rates of excess deaths and an economic performance sustained at the high level of the false dawn in August 2020. Downsides have been underestimated throughout 2020, but upsides too can surprise us.

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