This has been a pig of a year but it ends with hope of things to come. Yesterday the EU (Future Relationship) Act passed the House of Commons with a majority of 448 and the world’s best hope of post-viral normality – the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine – was approved for immediate use. These momentous achievements will not be the end of the Brexit saga or the pandemic. But they do signal the beginning of the end of both, and allow us to start thinking seriously about the future.
After the war must come the reconstruction. There is much to do. The economy is suffering extreme short-term distress and long-term geographic imbalance. The protective fabric of society is fraying and the UK’s national community – the Union – is in peril from separatism and neglect. And we have just three decades to decarbonise our domestic economy and convince the rest of the world to do the same.
Happy New Year from The Onward team
What we are looking out for next year
This year more than most proves that political predictions are a fool’s errand. But here are some things that the Onward team is expecting to see in the next year:
Light at the end of the tunnel. The accelerated rollout of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine and new JCVI guidance heralds the return to something approaching normality by the Spring. This will likely bring a release in any pent up economic activity, and the possibility of a rapid economic rebound. But we may also start to see how the Treasury intends to pay for this year’s emergency largesse. Most eyes for this will be on the Chancellor and his new fiscal rules, but attention should also be paid to the Scottish Government and their fiscal response to the pandemic.
Getting on with it. It is easy to forget that we are already 25 per cent of the way to the next General Election. Many of the changes that the Government wants to effect by 2024 – constitutional reform, net zero, levelling up – will take years to bite. While some manifesto commitments may no longer be possible due to the pandemic, ministers will need to accelerate progress on everything else to demonstrate progress to new voters. This will include £100 billion in infrastructure investment, strategies for hydrogen, heat and buildings and decarbonisation ahead of COP26, a new industrial strategy, and the long-awaited Devolution and Recovery White Paper.
Electoral realignment. May 2021 will hold the first series of comprehensive UK-wide elections since the General Election – including the election of new Scottish and Welsh Parliaments and Metro Mayors in city regions including West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Tees Valley and London. While commentators are likely to focus on Scotland, it will be the first test of resilience for the Conservatives’ new electoral coalition in the wake of Brexit and coronavirus, and of Sir Keir Starmer’s electoral appeal. Read Onward’s report on the post-2019 electorate, here.
The future of the Union. Having successfully withdrawn from one political and economic union, the Government now turns its attention to maintaining the integrity of another. There is little doubt that the Union is fragile: 58% of voters now back independence, giving Nicola Sturgeon a 16-point margin. While a Brexit deal will aid the unionist cause, coronavirus has so far done the opposite and with the debate increasingly being fought in emotional and values terms, the path to a still United Kingdom is not clear.
The international rules-based order. The new US Presidency, the UK’s Presidency of both the G7 and (with Italy) COP26, and putative trade deals with the US, Australia and Canada: 2021 will be a year of international diplomacy. These offer enormous opportunities for the PM to substantiate his vision for Global Britain, and for Britain to play a leading role in designing a new international rules-based order after years of decline. The new D10 group of democracies – the G7 plus South Korea, Australia and India – is likely to be the cornerstone of the new approach and has been championed by Onward’s Advisory Board member, Tom Tugendhat.
Onward’s Programme in 2021
We spent much of December finalising our programme for 2021 and are excited to announce that we will be working on four key research programmes over the coming twelve months:
1. Levelling Up
The Prime Minister has said that now Brexit is done, the Government’s focus is “to level up and spread opportunity across the country”. Onward’s Levelling Up programme, launched last May, has already scored several policy wins, including reform of the Treasury Green Book, a £4 billion investment in regional intra-city transport, and the new National Infrastructure Bank announced in the Budget. In September, we set up the Levelling Up Taskforce, which now counts 65 MPs as members.
In early 2021, we will publish papers on how tax reform can contribute to levelling up, the role of innovation in fixing Britain’s regional productivity problem, and the regional balance of foreign direct investment in the UK. We will also shortly launch a major series of events on Levelling Up, examining how transport infrastructure, devolution, digital and financial investment and clusters can level up lagging parts of the UK. Get in touch with James Blagden to find out more.
2. Getting to Net Zero
In November, the UK and Italy host COP26, the UN Climate Conference. Last year, the UK was the first major economy to legislate for Net Zero emissions by 2050, prompting China, Japan, France and South Korea to increase their ambition. If the USA, as expected, signs up to a similar target under President Biden, more than three fifths of global CO2 emissions, and three quarters of global GDP, will be subject to legally binding net zero targets. Three decades is not a long time and the changes required are enormous.
In 2021, Onward will launch a major year-long programme of work, Getting to Zero, to explore the political and policy challenges to net zero and to develop bold policies to help us achieve decarbonisation. It will include papers on decarbonising incumbent industries, retraining workers whose jobs are set to go, and setting the market incentives to drive change. Get in touch with Ted Christie-Miller to hear more.
3. Repairing our Social Fabric
The pandemic has taught us both the vitality of social connection and its fragility to many people and in many places. While the early stages of the crisis were characterised by amazing acts of kindness, recent months have witnessed rising isolation, mental illness and social decay. It remains to be seen whether high streets, pubs or local community assets can be revived. While the pandemic has been disastrous for society, this is a long term trend. As Onward’s work on social fabric as shown, the decline of community is also highly correlated with the political volatility of recent years.
In 2021, Onward will continue our work exploring the state of community in the UK, publishing a series of policies to reinvigorate belonging and equip fraying communities with the powers and capital needed to renew themselves. We will also look at what works in regenerating left behind places and seek to understand why some people, especially young people, appear more detached from community today than other generations were at their age. Get in touch with Fjolla Krasniqi to work with us.
4. Defending the Union
The United Kingdom will face one of its sternest tests in the next twelve months, if – as expected – the SNP secures a majority in Holyrood. Westminster will rightly seek to delay any potential referendum but it will be difficult to sustain a position that another vote has no mandate. With nearly six in ten voters now backing secession, the Union is on shaky ground.
Yet for all the awareness of its fragility, there is surprisingly little research on the Union. In 2021, Onward will work with leading campaigners to better understand how different parts of the UK view the Union, what values and culture it holds for different groups, and seek to develop policies which will defend and improve the United Kingdom in the face of those who seek to pull it apart. Get in touch with Will Tanner to hear more.