The Sunday Telegraph
Welcome to Operation Rebuild Britain
Not since 1945 have we faced such a challenge to return life and liberties to ‘normal’. Simon Heffer sets out a path towards the revival and re-moralisation of the nation
In the depths of another lockdown, we must sustain our optimism by remembering that this crisis will end, and the chance will come for us to enjoy life largely as we did before March 2020. But if we are to seize that chance, we must be realistic about how much there is to repair.
One needs to be well over 80 to remember when British life was last so fractured, overturned and dismembered as it is now, after nearly 11 months of government restrictions to try to contain the pandemic. Our economy, institutions, public services and, above all, our human capital and relationships must all be renewed or mended. Above all, people must be given the confidence to resume an existence uncontrolled by the state after a year of infantilisation, and a loss of personal liberty unthinkable even 12 months ago.
One is loath to compare even this pandemic with the two world wars, but not since 1945 have we faced such a challenge to return life to “normal”. Indeed, matters have taken a course in the last year beyond what happened in either war.
The governments then never ordered large sectors of the economy to close for months on end. They did not try to tell people who could or could not enter their houses, or how often they could leave their homes – and how far they could go when they did. They did not take children out of school for weeks, or forbid people from visiting elderly relations. Even in the Blitz of 1940-41, when 43,000 people were killed, anything between 50,000 and 140,000 injured, and two million houses damaged, the country’s boast was “business as usual”. Now an entirely different, and alien, mindset has been created – and it must be undone.
The challenges are enormous. Take one example: many children have missed months of school. For the second year running, it seems there will be no conventional exams. Businesses hiring school-leavers and universities admitting students will be less sure of what they are getting. There is talk of university standards being lowered in order to take in the usual quota of students. However, it isn’t just a question of knowing a young person is up to the demands of a university education; it is knowing that he or she has had the chance to acquire in the sixth form the basic knowledge required for a university course. According to one senior academic, some starting university this year will simply not catch up, and this may be reflected in their eventual degree – unless marking is more generous, which would undermine the very value of a university education.
The Department for Education should be prepared to do almost anything to ensure these young people do not suffer – perhaps by delaying exams by a couple of months and moving back the start of the university year to November, or having universities run extensive sandwich courses for disadvantaged students before they start their degrees. Otherwise, the long-term consequences for those affected and for the country could be life-changing, and not beneficially.
There are other profound social issues. The Government gave the police an almost impossible job in enforcing the drastic curtailment of our civil liberties. Inevitably, there have been absurd misjudgments – such as the fining (since rescinded) of two women in Derbyshire for being in possession of cups of tea in a public place. The police were already held in lower esteem before the pandemic than they had been a generation ago; thought must be given urgently to how to change their current reputation as interfering and overzealous killjoys.
One of the worst problems of all is with our criminal justice system: according to one senior judge, the impossibility of dealing with all but the most essential cases mean some courts have given up listing trials because it would mean putting them in the diary for 2023.
The solution is what judges are calling “Nightingale Courts” – emergency court complexes operating six or seven days a week, where juries and personnel can be properly socially distanced. The alternatives are downgrading some cases so magistrates can try them, granting amnesties for minor offences, or risking miscarriages of justice because of the time elapsing between the alleged offence and the trial. Unless this problem is dealt with decisively, the rule of law itself is imperilled.
The economic challenges are, according to one senior government official I spoke to, “grave and farreaching”, made worse by the spasms of ministerial panic. Perhaps when restrictions are lifted, there will be an orgy of deferred consumption; the economy will unquestionably pick up. However, many businesses will not re-open, such as in the hospitality sector. Others will spot opportunities to replace them.
We shall rely more than ever on enterprise and entrepreneurs, and it will be crucial not to strangle them at birth by imposing tax rises on them to recoup some of our astronomical debt. The Government must address the retraining and re-moralising of those who have lost not just jobs, but their savings, too, because their businesses have collapsed. Making it easier to start businesses and to find work, not just by tax incentives but also by cutting regulation, are obvious prerequisites.
The pandemic has already brought structural changes, notably in showing how effectively millions can work from home. This has already affected commercial property values, which is in turn affecting investment trusts and pension funds. Businesses that served a population of office workers have been brutally hit. There will be gaps on most high streets, exacerbated by the shift online of so much retailing. Much will never come back.
One way to revive town centres is to convert surplus commercial property into residential buildings; this would not only sustain local small businesses, but arrest the relentless concreting over of the countryside, and improve the environment. The Government will also have to encourage a revival of the countryside, by creating conditions in which businesses can establish themselves there and village communities can revive to support those working at home.
Pubs have been exceptionally hard hit, and the Church of England (whose absence of hope and constructive engagement during this crisis, from the Archbishop of Canterbury downwards, has been abysmal and has angered many local clergy) fears that some of its village churches may not reopen. None of this would necessarily be helped by direct state intervention, but government can reward, incentivise and encourage local charities, voluntary groups and risk-takers who are best equipped to lead such a revival.
With a smaller commuting population, the sustainability of public transport must be examined: it cannot be subsidised indefinitely if demand is to be permanently slashed. Ministers must look again at HS2, too, and ask whether the huge cost (currently computed at up to £106billion, compared with £56billion in 2015) can be justified by the new economic circumstances. With the Government having spent £280billion on its response to the pandemic, it would be a useful saving.
The Government will also be under pressure to ensure essential services are fit for a recurrence of such a health emergency, and the probability of one recurring. This requires a frank public debate about our expectations of the NHS, and whether the Armed Forces, on which we have had to call in this crisis, are adequately resourced for such contingencies. Soldiers I have spoken to say they are plainly not.
The Government could best serve the public by emulating a device from the two world wars. A year before the end of the first, and two years before the end of the second, a minister of reconstruction was appointed to oversee the physical and psychological rebuilding of Britain and of British society. Such a person should be appointed now, and without delay, and his or her job should be to ensure that every government department plays its part in ensuring the revival and re-moralisation of a country and of a people that have suffered much since last March. This cannot be done haphazardly: it requires coordination and leadership.
Given the failures of the Government’s management of the pandemic, such a person (who should be a Cabinet minister) might well have to come not just from outside the present team of ministers, but from outside the Commons. There are peers with long experience and knowledge of Whitehall, and the search for the right person should perhaps start among them.
However, most fundamentally, repairing the social damage of the pandemic relies on our not feeling forced to treat every other human being as a lethal chemical weapon. The vaccine, we hope, is taking us closer to the point where we no longer need to live in our own personal silos. In the end, it will be down to the resolution, courage and willpower of every one of us if something recognisable as “normal” is to be regained, and the world is to open up to us once more.
A minister of reconstruction should be appointed without delay
It will be down to the resolution, courage and willpower of every one of us