Monday, 4 January 2021


When Slade first sang this iconic Christmas song in 1980 it was against the background of the worst recession for over 30 years, inflation of 18% and mass unemployment. Slade’s lead singer, Noddy Holder, said it was their attempt to cheer up people and get them to visualise a better future. It’s how we need to begin 2021 when all many see is Casper David Friedrich’s extraordinary painting ‘The Sea of Ice’ (1824) depicting a shipwreck in the Arctic where the ship has been overwhelmed by a compressed mountain of ice.

Where are we? 

Intriguingly we moved up to 5th in Global Economic League of 2020 (source: IMF data from 2019) mainly because India’s economy did so badly. The top ten are shown below and in bold on the right the ranking of each of the top 10 in the 2020 Global Happiness League (source: United Nations/Gallup).

Economic rank


GDP (US$ trillion)

Happiness rank


United States
















United Kingdom























Despite our problems we seem to be doing well. People like being British more than say the Germans like being German or the French are content with being French. So much for those lamenting how wrecked we are. But let’s not get complacent – there’s a lot of work to do.

What do we want to become?

Increasingly it became clear that the Brexit argument was not about negotiating a trade deal but about who we want to be. Like it not Brexit is done.

‘Sovereignty’ (which, allegedly, whenever he heard it used - which was often - reduced the European Commission's Head of Task Force for Relations with the United Kingdom, Michel Barnier, to uncomprehending rage) was the core issue for the Brexiteers. They believed we needed to feel free, to be on our own, to control our ‘identity’. 

Which is what? 

That’s the problem. No one seems to have nailed this down. Over Christmas I read an engaging book by Cees Nooteboom called ‘Venice. The Lion, the City and the Water.’ In it he quotes academic and author, C.P. Snow, from over 50 years ago, comparing the history of Venice and Britain:

“The Venetians  knew, just as clearly as we know, that the current of history had begun to flow against them. Many gave their minds to working out how to keep going. It would have meant breaking the pattern into which they had crystallised. They were fond of the pattern, just as we’re fond of ours. They never found the will to break it.” 

Which is why “getting back to normal” has always seemed to me such an anathema. We’ve has a far bigger shock to our economy in 2020 than any for around 300 years. GDP fell by 11% (only Argentina did worse). The Government has categorised swathes of what many thought made life worth living as “inessential”: bookshops, theatres, concerts, restaurants, hotels, travel, museums, sport and hugging.

That pattern of normal that’s crystalised in Britain needs breaking because as things stand we shan’t be Good Britain (let alone Great Britain after the Covid crisis ) unless we make some hard choices about where to focus next.

More good news

We have a certain inbuilt resourcefulness and resilience that we saw in action in the 1980s.  That’s when creative industries thrived most and our entrepreneurial boom began. We need more of the same. Much more. 

We need to become Silicone Island (we’ve already made a promising start in boom sectors like gaming) and the big techno-giants are investing in huge look-at-me HQs in London employing talented young people whose ambitions for independence will outstrip their employers soon enough. 

In film, music, fashion, theatre, literature, events, environmental technology and restaurants we have the talent and capacity to continue leading the world.  Treat these half as seriously as we treat fishing and the rebirth of  tourism and the hospitality sector will follow. By looking to the future and reinventing rather than restoring what we once had we will have a great opportunity to create important global businesses.

Pricking the Covid Bubble and learning some lessons

Lessons we must learn as the vacillating vaccination programme trundles through 2021 are:-

i) How to manage risk well. We’ve flip-flopped from reckless to paranoid in 2020.  We cannot and should not completely avoid risk. We just need to manage it and mitigate it. Risk management is a key theme for the next decade.                                   

ii) There are going to more Covids – this one was just a dress rehearsal. We need to invest in planning protective measures for round two and three now.

We need to think the unthinkable. We need to re-think education and examinations, hospitality, cities and towns. As Shopping Centres become increasingly defunct with old shopping venues like Westfield emptying of tenants the opportunity for creating world-class entertainment centres and tourist magnets exists. Time to blow away the dust of uncreative, profit-focused and old-formula thinking of developers and landlords.

Economists are always wrong

That’s one thing to be sure of. The fallibility of economists. So far I’ve heard two rock-solid predictions from them. First that we are on the brink of a boom the like of such we’ve never seen before, thanks to all that cash poured into the ailing economy to keep us afloat. Secondly, we’re doomed. Double dip recession, raging unemployment and company failures on an epic scale.

Long experience suggests it’ll be neither but a mixture of both - the first half of 2021 a storm to make 1980 look like a breeze but with boom sectors emerging in the second half with possible strong resurgence in some sectors. But the scale of sustainable growth will not depend on economics alone. It will depend on people.

So how do we feel? How will we react?

We learnt some strangely alien habits in 2020: working from home, missing those ‘off the record’ lunch conversations, Zoom, no informal meetings, social distancing, not being able to affirm our feelings by hugging, shaking hands or just brushing someone’s upper arm. We’ve become less human.

People are for the most part rule-abiding, well behaved and resilient. Overall we’ve done brilliantly in 2020 even if some of us feel a bit robotic sometimes. There’s a problem though. The excess of information, astoundingly clumsy communication from Government and the conflicting views of experts have made us, most of us, cynics about our leaders and about Professors, Doctors and other “important people”. Cynicism and a profound distrust of government is the biggest negative legacy of Covid.

I think the quest for transparency and full disclosure has damaged us all. Life is too busy and our individual tasks too demanding and important for us to spend our energy on subjects we don’t and never will understand. Social media has become a disruptive and corrosive influence in this respect so it’s interesting that a lot of young people I know have abandoned it completely as a time-waster.

Ultimately how we feel is mostly up to us but we can feel better just by looking at the future and determining that we, not a grey shroud of characters we call “they”, will shape our future.

A cautiously optimistic expectation

I believe in humankind, in our ability to help each other, to do creative things, to invent new ways of improving the world in which we live. We’ve just undergone what we can describe as global chaotic incompetence or, from a more optimistic perspective, a phase of “creative destruction.” No longer are we in an era of business as usual. The game has changed and all the pieces – education, housing, government departments, shopping, working, taxation, the environment and yes even the NHS – are in different places, in different shape and all need to change and be changed.

But this will take time. Consistently we’ve been promised quick fixes. It’s time to think longer term and forget tomorrow’s headline. Time to start under-promising and over-delivering. Time for calm and patience. Time for ambition, sure, but not for being reckless.

This could be the most exhilarating time any of us have seen for 40 years or longer.

Welcome to a truly Brave New World. 

1 comment:

John Eustace said...

I'll send you the phone # for # 10 call the Prime Minister, he'll help you get over this problem of optimism you have, quiet quickly too

Happy New Year, just choose a year please