Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 21 February 2021



Britain Is Entering a Parallel Universe

Brexit, natural disaster, wokeness and a loss of enlightenment values – Philip Pullman’s novels are an intimation of the post-pandemic world.

Crumbling? Photographer: Carl Court/Getty Images

In Philip Pullman’s series of fantasy novels, “His Dark Materials,” we enter a universe containing an infinity of parallel worlds. In the most important of these worlds, which is similar to ours in many respects, evolution and history have had subtly different outcomes. Human beings have visible souls — small, semi-autonomous “daemons” that take the shapes of animals. And the Reformation has failed, leaving Europe still under the dominance of an obscurantist and oppressive “Magisterium.”

The home of the indomitably mendacious young heroine, Lyra Silvertongue, is an Oxford in which the nearest thing to physics is “experimental theology.” The Scientific Revolution has not been fully achieved and the Industrial Revolution looks equally incomplete. Lyra’s is a world that remains in many ways early modern. There are no planes, only balloons and airships. There is a primitive form of electricity but “anbaric” light is a luxury. The social order too lags behind our own. Servants rather than machines still perform most menial tasks. There are priories full of nuns. Politics remains an aristocratic preserve.

You are unlikely to have read “His Dark Materials” unless you have children, but perhaps you saw some of the recent HBO adaptation, notable for an unexpected and not wholly convincing appearance by Lin-Manuel Miranda as the Texan balloonist Lee Scoresby. If you’ve never even heard of Pullman, educate yourself. For he is not only as significant an author as that other great Oxonian C.S. Lewis (in many ways, the initial book in the series, “The Golden Compass,” is the atheist’s answer to “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”). Pullman also seems unwittingly to have written an intimation of the post-pandemic world.

There are a great many of us who still want to believe that at some point this year we shall all get back to normal — meaning life will resume more or less exactly as it was at the end of 2019. I am sure that by the summer it will feel in most developed countries that the worst of Covid-19 is over, thanks to a combination of mass vaccination and naturally acquired immunity. I am also confident that there will be a protracted global party to celebrate the reopening of bars and restaurants and the easing of at least some travel restrictions.

I fully expect a bout of rapid economic growth to ensue: Consumers have accumulated a vast sum of forced savings, a large proportion of which they are poised to spend — even before governments add fuel to the fire in the form of yet more fiscal stimulus.

Nevertheless, I am doubtful that our near-term future is going to revert entirely to the pre-pandemic normal. First, the SARS-CoV-2 virus is mutating in ways that few people foresaw a year ago, becoming more transmissible or more vaccine-resistant.

Second, the dominance of vaccine nationalism over global inoculation, combined with significant “anti-vaxxer” sentiment in countries that will soon have more vaccine shots than they require, will leave the virus with plenty of time and space to evolve further, especially in the Southern hemisphere. The elimination of Covid seems a distant prospect. A more likely scenario is that it will become an endemic, seasonal disease, requiring annual shots and causing recurrent waves of excess mortality.

Third, the hypermobility of the pre-pandemic era is highly unlikely to resume any time soon. Many countries that have managed to suppress the disease (e.g. Australia and New Zealand) will maintain travel restrictions. Few large businesses will return to their previous volume of corporate travel: Many meetings that would previously have necessitated long-haul flights will continue to happen over Zoom. A significant proportion of relatively high-skilled people will continue to work from home at least part of the time. And will you throw away all those masks? Will you resume hugs and handshakes of people outside your innermost circle? I know I won’t.

Fourth, Covid-19 has exposed how very poor our preparedness for disasters of all kinds has become, the central theme of my forthcoming book, “Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe.” There is a consensus that the next disaster we shall have to contend with will be related to climate change: That is Bill Gates’s story. Yet there are other disasters lurking out there to which we attach much lower probabilities. The eruption of Mount Etna last week is a reminder that the world has not seen a really large volcanic eruption since Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815. It has been two centuries since the annual amount of sulphate aerosol injected into the atmosphere by volcanic eruptions exceeded 50 million tons. We have forgotten how severe volcanic global cooling can be.

There’s a pervasive darkness to Philip Pullman’s worlds that I cannot help suspecting may characterize our world in the years ahead. Much of “The Golden Compass” is set in “the North,” including the frigid Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. Texan readers are discovering that the weather of the north can now reach a lot further south than we are used to.

In “The Subtle Knife,” we encounter a beautiful Mediterranean country where specters hunt down adults and suck the vitality out of them — where only children are oblivious to and safe from the danger. It is remarkable how Pullman anticipated our ageist pandemic. In “The Golden Compass,” kids are cruelly separated from their daemons. In the Covid world, they are cruelly separated from their friends.

“The Book of Dust” depicts Lyra’s Oxford devastated by a disastrous flood. Those who live there can easily imagine such an inundation, having seen the Thames so often burst its banks and submerge Port Meadow in recent years.

Nowhere does the future look less like the recent past and more like Pullman’s parallel universe than in his own country, England. True, 2021 has got off to a much better start for the U.K. than 2020 did. Thanks to world-class research at Oxford and elsewhere, bold procurement decisions led by Kate Bingham, head of the government’s task force, and the experience of the National Health Service in mass vaccination, the U.K. has surged ahead of the European Union in the vaccination race.

The European Commission has handled the vaccine challenge so badly — simultaneously centralizing procurement and slowing it down, then lashing out at the U.K. with empty threats to close the border between Northern Ireland and the South — that even the most ardent proponents of Brexit can scarcely believe it. (“I understand Brexit better now,” a pro-EU source at the drug company AstraZeneca told the Spectator last month.) Close to a quarter of the U.K. population has now received at least once vaccine dose, compared with 12% in the U.S. and less than 4% in Germany.

However, this success story comes after an annus horribilis. Excluding tiny Gibraltar and San Marino, the U.K. has the third-worst Covid mortality rate of any country in the world, exceeded only by Slovenia and Belgium. The country saw two of the world’s worst waves of excess mortality, in April last year and again over the Christmas holidays.

The U.K.’s gross domestic product shrank by 9.9% last year, the worst performance of any major economy apart from Spain, according to the International Monetary Fund. The last annual contraction larger than that was in 1709, when economic activity was steeply reduced throughout Europe by the “Great Frost,” the coldest winter in five hundred years. This has been attributed by modern research to the exceptionally low sunspot activity known as the Maunder Minimum, as well as to volcanic eruptions in the two preceding years at Mount Fuji, in Japan, and Santorini and Vesuvius, in Europe.

The worst years in English economic history, according to the Bank of England, were 1629, when the economy contracted by 25%, and 1349, when it shrank by 23%. The 1340s were the decade of the Black Death. I still cannot work out what went wrong in 1629, a year best known to political historians as the beginning of Charles I’s 11-year “Personal Rule” without a parliament.

Rise and Fall

Annual change of real GDP of England at market prices

Source: Bank of England

A contraction of nearly 10% turns the economic clock of a country back around six years. Also turning the clock back is the effect of Brexit, which formally came into effect at the beginning of this year, after four and half years of divorce negotiations. As I warned back after the June 2016 referendum, Brexit was always going to be one of those divorces that takes a lot longer and costs a lot more than the exiting spouse imagined at the outset. Sure enough, now that Britain has its decree nisi, the true costs of splitting up can no longer be glossed over. The U.K. has opted to phase in border checks on EU imports gradually until July 1, whereas U.K. exports to the EU have faced the full suite of new restrictions since Jan. 1. The Road Haulage Association has reported that U.K. exports to the EU have fallen by more than two thirds, though the government does not accept this claim. 

Not only is trade in goods suddenly a lot more difficult than it was before — cue a hundred press stories about customs paperwork crushing small businesses whose owners voted for Brexit — there simply is no agreement on trade in services. Nor are the Europeans in any hurry to recognize London as having equivalent regulatory status with euro area financial centers.

As people anticipate the new world in which London is no longer both de facto and de jure the EU’s principal financial center, the City is losing out. A chunk of London’s swaps business has migrated. There is already talk of changing the rules that allow asset management funds based in the EU to be managed from the U.K. Most startling of all, Amsterdam overtook London as a stock trading center in December. That probably hasn’t been true since 1709, if not 1629.

It’s sometimes forgotten that the 17th century Dutch Republic led England in terms of financial development: the former had a “golden age” while the latter was wracked by a religious and political civil war. Only with the ouster of James II and the installation of William of Orange as king of England in 1688 — the so-called “Glorious Revolution” — were Dutch economic institutions imported to London from Amsterdam.

The English already had their own East India Company, but before 1688 it was commercially inferior to its Dutch counterpart. In 1694 the Bank of England was founded to manage the government’s borrowings as well as the national currency, similar (though not identical) to the successful Amsterdam Wisselbank founded 85 years before. London was also able to import the Dutch system of a national debt, funded through a stock exchange, where long-term bonds could easily be bought and sold.

Brexit has also turned the clock back demographically. According to the Migration Observatory at Oxford, the U.K.’s foreign-born population shrank by just over 1 million in the first three quarters of 2020. About 481,000 of those departing were born in the EU, reversing an influx that began in 2004, when the U.K. was one of only three established EU countries (the others were Ireland and Sweden) to allow immediate free movement by the citizens of the 10 Eastern European states that had just joined the union.

Of all the political mistakes that led to Brexit, this is the one that attracts the least attention, because it was made by a Labour government, based on civil servants’ disastrous underestimates of the likely westward migration flows. Those who voted for Brexit to reverse these flows are seeing their wish come true, especially in London, from which there has been a veritable exodus of migrants.

I used to worry, half-jokingly, that the net result of Brexit would be turn the social and economic clock back to before 1973, the year Britain joined the European Economic Community. I am old enough to remember the shabbiness of the country in those days: the inefficiency of nationalized industries, the excessive power of trade unions, the pervasive mood of cynicism that was good for sitcom scripts but not much else. Economically, however, not even the combination of Brexit and Covid-19 could return living standards to the low levels of those days.

Yet culturally the country seems to be lurching even further backwards. It is not just those on the right who quietly craved a less cosmopolitan country. It is also those on the left who seek to repudiate almost all of British history since 1709. The “woke” elements on British campuses took this repudiation to new depths earlier this month with a conference on the “racial consequences” of Winston Churchill at the Cambridge college that bears his name.

Speaking at this event, Kehinde Andrews, author of “The Psychosis of Whiteness,” described Churchill as “the perfect embodiment of white supremacy” and the British Empire as having been “far worse than the Nazis and lasted far longer.” Madhusree Mukerjee argued that “militarism is the core of the British identity” and called for statues celebrating British militarism to be taken down. No Churchill defenders were among the panelists.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson last week announced new measures to uphold free speech at British universities. That may provide protection to the conservative thinkers who have recently been subjected to various forms of “cancellation” at Cambridge and elsewhere, but it will do nothing to stem the tide of wokeism. The government may stand, as Williamson said, “unequivocally on the side of free speech and academic freedom, on the side of liberty, and of the values of the Enlightenment.” But the academic left repudiates the Enlightenment as a mere helpmeet of imperialism and likes nothing better than to claim that conservatives are “weaponizing” free speech. So dominant are such ideas on some U.K. campuses that the clock appears to have been turned all the way back to the mid-17th century, when it was routine to denounce one’s ideological enemies as heretics and to condemn their ideas as blasphemy.

Pullman’s England seemed a through-the-looking-glass place when I first read his novels to my older children. I now realize we are hurtling towards it.

Nothing would turn the clock back further than the breakup of Britain — an eventuality predicted many times over the years. The New Left writer Tom Nairn published a book of that title in 1977. I remember being briefly converted to the cause of Scottish independence by the arguments of that book, combined with renditions of the Corries’ faux national anthem, “Flower of Scotland,” at international rugby matches. (I was 13 and soon grew out if it.)

But Scottish independence, which I have opposed throughout my adult life, may now be inevitable. Elections to the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood are scheduled for May 2021. The Scottish National Party, which is campaigning for a second independence referendum, is on track to win a comfortable majority. Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, does not want to proceed to a “indyref 2” without the U.K. government’s consent. However, on Jan. 24, her party published a “Roadmap to a Referendum,” which stated that if the party wins a majority in May, it will hold an independence referendum regardless of the U.K. government’s consent — the same strategy that led to chaos in Catalonia in 2017.

My favorite cartoon of the year so far was by Graeme Keyes. It depicted an Englishman striding resolutely westward with a suitcase labeled “BREXIT,” while a kilt-wearing Scotsman sauntered in the opposite direction with a suitcase labeled “EXBRIT.”

Recent polling points to a wider disintegration of the country officially known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Not only do 49% of Scottish voters now favor independence over 44% who oppose it; 42% of voters in Northern Ireland also support a United Ireland. Moreover, the English themselves are becoming resigned to these outcomes. Some 49% of voters in England now think Scottish independence is likely; 45% would either be “pleased” or “not bothered” by it; and an amazing 57%  would be “pleased” or “not bothered” by Irish reunification.

No one knows how exactly the Scottish economy could cope with independence, especially if it were to apply to join the EU as many nationalists would like (remember, Scotland voted emphatically against Brexit). But practicalities are no more in focus than they were in 2016, when the English voted to leave the EU — despite the fact that this would be a much more momentous divorce, ending the union of parliaments of 1707 and potentially even the union of crowns of 1603.

You see what I mean about turning the clock back? And yet it may be time for me to accept this process of historical shape-shifting instead of trying to fight it. Reading the novels of Walter Scott, the first of which appeared the year before Tambora erupted, I am reminded time and again how contingent the Anglo-Scottish union was at its outset, and how hotly contested, sparking major rebellions in 1715 and 1745. Just as Pullman’s novels conjure up an imagined England, in which modernity does not quite come together as it has in our world, so Scott’s remind us of what the pre-modernity was like — a world not just lacking in modern technology, but afflicted by religious zealotry and intolerance.

The thought that we might be on our way back to that world would make my daemon — if I had one — shudder.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Niall Ferguson at

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