Why I’m more optimistic for Britain in 2022 than almost anywhere else in the world: Author NIALL FERGUSON on the vaccine triumph, the refusal to cave in to the woke mob and that stoical determination to keep calm and carry on
The longer you can look back,’ Winston Churchill famously said, ‘the farther you can look forward.’
But you don’t have to look back more than 12 months to realise how hard it is to know what 2022 has in store for us.
At the beginning of this year, on January 10, I hypothesised that my fellow Americans might achieve herd immunity to both Covid and populist politics.
I was writing just days after the then President had incited a mob of his supporters to march on the Capitol. The US was fast approaching the peak of its third and biggest wave of Covid-related deaths.
Wrong on both counts. The shape-shifting virus has found a partial way around our vaccines – I write eight days after testing positive for Covid, though three jabs of Pfizer have so far protected me from serious illness.
Perhaps even more surprisingly, a second wave of Trumpism also seems perfectly possible.
What lay ahead for Britain? Here, by contrast, I was too pessimistic.
Writing in February, I feared the economic costs of Brexit would continue to depress growth.
The woke battalions would further erode free speech at our universities while the UK was doomed to break up, with Unionism on the decline both in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
England, I lamented, was starting to resemble the gloomy, backward place depicted in Philip Pullman’s fantasy novels, set in a parallel universe where the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution hadn’t quite happened. At the very least, we seemed to be heading back to the 1970s.
Wrong, again – well, partly wrong. There were echoes of the 1970s this year, no question. English football raised hopes to fever pitch only to dash them agonisingly in a way that recalled Gerd Mueller’s quarter-final winner in extra time in 1970.
The Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits the Francis Crick Vaccination Centre in central London, to have his second Covid-19 Vaccination jab
And not since the Sex Pistols released God Save The Queen has the Monarchy been trashed quite as publicly as it was back in March, when Oprah Winfrey interviewed Prince Harry and his professionally aggrieved wife, Meghan Markle.
BUT in other ways the British public seemed – and seems – impressively determined to keep calm and carry on in ways that recalled earlier and more admirable periods in its history.
Britain was the first major country in the world (leave aside the United Arab Emirates and Chile) to get vaccine shots into the arms of 75 per cent of its population. It also moved faster than the European Union to remove Covid-related restrictions, so that life in England felt a great more normal by October than it did in either California or Germany.
And the probability of Scottish independence went down, not up, as the Scottish National Party fell short of an outright majority in the Edinburgh parliament and the public grew weary of Nicola Sturgeon’s penchant for meddling in their private lives.
Perhaps most heartening were the signs that the tide was turning against wokeism in British culture, even at the universities.
In Cambridge, bold dons staged a splendid and successful revolt against their vice-chancellor’s appalling speech code – in reality, a charter for censorship – and there was a wave of support for Kathleen Stock after she was harassed off the Sussex University campus by a mob of transgender Red Guards.
True, Covid in the guise of Omicron has been an unforeseen Grinch. But people seem a lot less ready to heed the panic-mongers and prophets of doom, led by my namesake Neil Ferguson at Imperial College London.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the Government’s public health advisers model the worst-case scenarios and rarely the best-case.
I find myself rather heartened by this public mood of scepticism, which contrasts so markedly with the resigned fatalism with which we accepted the lockdowns of 2020.
I’ve also been impressed by the aura of competence and down- to-earth decency projected by Sajid Javid in his role as Health Secretary.
That moment when he persuaded Sky journalist Jon Craig to get his booster shot before an interview certainly bucked me up, reminding me what decent, unpretentious political leadership looks like.
So what does 2022 have in store?
Of course, a lot will depend on how the pandemic plays out. It is quite plausible to hope that the Omicron variant marks a decisive shift from the pandemic to the endemic stage of Covid – which is to say that it survives but becomes part of the normal pattern of seasonal illness and mortality.
But 2021 has taught me to steer clear of wishful thinking on this subject. There is no law of nature that says viruses are bound to get more contagious but less lethal over time.
NIALL FERGUSON: Perhaps most heartening were the signs that the tide was turning against wokeism in British culture, even at the universities. (Pictured: J.K. Rowling, who has come under fire from trans activists this year)
The long history of influenza is a reminder that, because of the way it mutates, such a virus is capable of causing multiple pandemics. So it would not surprise me if we had to contend with further letters in the Greek alphabet – the Pi, Rho, and Sigma variants.
It is clear, too, that rich countries must help to speed up the vaccination of the less developed world. Right now, sub-Saharan Africa is the place most likely to breed dangerous new variants because vaccination rates remain very low and the legacy of HIV in that region is a large population with compromised immune systems.
Once Omicron has finished wrecking Christmas for millions of families (mine included), it is going to pose a further challenge to governments. When do they abandon the playbooks they developed in the first wave of the pandemic?
Many restrictions make no sense when a much smaller share of the population is truly ill. What’s the point of travel restrictions if you can get negative test results in the early stages of being infectious?
Are we really going to shut down all the schools and colleges when everyone now knows that ‘distance learning’ is an oxymoron? And how can you quarantine every doctor and nurse who tests positive and still staff the National Health Service?
As the public adjusts to regarding Covid as posing a comparable risk to the flu, public health officials and politicians will be forced to abandon their control-freakery.
Let’s hope that Britain leads the way to a saner strategy for learning to live with Covid. That’s certainly what ordinary Britons crave.
There are economic surprises in store for us, too – surprises which will revolve around one word: inflation. Most economists, especially those at central banks, gravely underestimated the surge in consumer prices we saw in 2021.
It turned out the warnings back in February were right: Joe Biden’s administration was going to overheat the US economy, although few expected a 6.8 per cent inflation rate by November.
Inflation is a bit lower in the UK and Europe because the scale of government stimulus to the economy has been less bazooka-like.
But even on this side of the Atlantic there’s a recognition that the central banks urgently need to cool things down.
What happens next, as they begin reducing their purchases of government bonds (which have kept long-term interest rates low) and start raising short-term interest rates to control inflation?
If higher interest rates trigger a big stock market sell-off, for example, as happened in the last quarter of 2018, that will be bad news for British consumers already facing higher prices and taxes.
Yet the problems facing China’s economy could be even more challenging. Xi Jinping’s tightening grip on power is having some adverse consequences for growth.
This year he picked a fight with the country’s most successful companies – notably web marketplace Alibaba – and watched impassively as its most indebted property developers, led by Evergrande, slid towards bankruptcy.
The effective closure of China’s borders may suit Xi politically as he prepares to be formally anointed as leader for life at the 20th Communist Party Congress, but it’s yet another economic headwind.
And, crucially, China has no good answer to Omicron, against which its vaccines offer next to no protection.
Sustaining a ‘zero Covid’ policy (especially during the Winter Olympics) will be possible only with even tighter restrictions, making it harder for the Communist Party to meet its growth targets.
The trouble is that we won’t pay nearly enough attention to China because the Western world’s own problems will be so distracting.
American voters thought they could stop the pandemic by getting rid of Donald Trump. Surprise: more people have died of Covid on Biden’s watch, despite the abundant availability of the vaccines developed under Trump.
This helps explain why I was wrong about Americans getting to ‘herd immunity’ against Trumpism. New polling shows that Trump remains amazingly popular among Republicans.
More than 72 per cent still approve of his handling of the presidency. Asked about his personal attributes, 82 per cent think him authentic and 73 per cent honest and trustworthy. (I kid you not.)
Trump is miles ahead of the other Republican nominees for 2024. Moreover, the Biden administration is proving so incompetent that qualms about Trump in the wider US population may not be enough to avert his re-election.
There is a very real possibility that Trump will actually win by a decisive margin, as voters revolt against the forever pandemic, high inflation, violent crime, border chaos, and ‘wokeism’ in education.
For the moment, Americans are stuck with Biden as president – provided his health holds up.
Elsewhere in the world, however, voters will get a chance to replace their leaders.
NIALL FERGUSON: Many restrictions make no sense when a much smaller share of the population is truly ill. What’s the point of travel restrictions if you can get negative test results in the early stages of being infectious? (Pictured: March in London against vaccine passports policy)
Increasingly, I doubt that Emmanuel Macron will secure a second term as French president, now that a credible Centre-Right challenger has emerged in the form of Valerie Pecresse.
Brazil’s mercurial populist Jair Bolsonaro also looks to be on the way out, now that the hero of the Left, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is out of jail, with his convictions for corruption quashed.
Perhaps these foreign leaders envy Boris Johnson, who in theory does not have to face his country’s voters until 2024.
However, it is not the electorate Johnson has to worry about, so much as Tory MPs and party members, who increasingly share the view of his embittered former adviser Dominic Cummings that the PM has all the strategy – not to mention the principles – of a careening supermarket trolley.
There have been seven Tory leaders since Margaret Thatcher, of whom only two, John Major and David Cameron, lasted longer than five years. William Hague struggled through just over four.
The rest – Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Howard and Theresa May – served 26, 25 and 36 months, respectively. Johnson is on 29 not out. Like an English batsman in today’s Boxing Day Ashes Test, he seems unlikely to make a century.
Russian President Vladimir Putin looks rather more durable and now seems intent on emulating the greatest victory of his idol, Tsar Peter the Great – by winning a war in Ukraine.
His forces are mustered along the Ukrainian frontier. His rhetoric grows ever more bellicose. His reduction of gas exports to Europe is exerting calculated economic pressure on America’s European allies and British industry.
And he is counting on bumbling Joe Biden to retaliate with nothing more than financial sanctions when Russian forces sweep westwards towards Kiev – much as happened in 2014, when Biden was vice president and Putin annexed Crimea with near impunity. Putin is probably right. If there is a war next year, it will be a small one.
As 2021 draws to a close with yet another wave of Covid infections, restrictions and irritations, it is tempting to say: ‘Good riddance.’ Dare one look forward to 2022 with anything more than trepidation? True, the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee will be a cause of celebration, particularly around the special bank holiday in June – Covid permitting, that is.
And compared with other countries around the world, including an ever more polarised America and an ever more closed China, the United Kingdom has some reasons to be cheerful.
A year ago, however, some optimists were talking about a rerun of ‘the Roaring Twenties’, a decade-long party to rival the generation of Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby. Fat chance!
A young Tory MP was once told by Churchill: ‘The secret of drinking is to drink a little too much all the time.’ Increasingly, I think this may be the only way to cope with the Boring Twenties.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, and managing director of Greenmantle. His most recent book is Doom: The Politics Of Catastrophe.
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