We must embrace a new beginning

One year into the global pandemic, Lord Digby Jones considers our future post-Covid.

Covid has hastened the transformation of the retail industry, but what do we do with rapidly emptying high streets . (Picture by Adrian Miller, 29188182)
Covid has hastened the transformation of the retail industry, but what do we do with rapidly emptying high streets . (Picture by Adrian Miller, 29188182)

As You read this, the world is entering the 12th month since it began to undergo radical change.

An entire year since, country by country, the human race began to deal with the assault upon the very survival of its way of life, for millions its very existence, by an unseen, all-powerful living being: Covid-19.

So many of these changes will not endure and the ‘new’ in ‘new normal’ will disappear almost as quickly as they arrived. Public gatherings will return just as soon as a combination of the law, universal vaccinations and public confidence allows. Theatres, sport, restaurants, pubs; it will be very much ‘as you were’. Hopefully professional top-drawer footballers and international rugby players will by then have stopped the ‘show’ virtue-signalling of taking the knee. The vital fight against the disgusting existence of racism deserves better than a ritualised, fast becoming an empty, gesture before a match when the return of normality will see players facing a regular torrent of abuse from sections of the crowd as they kneel down, leading them publicly to giving it up; and backing down on something that had its origins in standing up for what is right would be such a backward step.

Some of the changes over the past 12 months have merely arrived more quickly than would have happened without the consequences of society’s fight against the killer disease. These will endure.

The fundamental shift in the retail offering is a prime example. The high street offering has taken 10 months to change in ways that, without Covid, would have taken 10 years to bring about. Technology has seduced the consumer into a totally different retail experience and every extra pound that goes into Mr Bezos’s pocket is another nail in the coffin of the familiar retail experience of yesterday. It would have happened anyway but certainly not as quickly.

It has presented those who govern us with massive challenges: what do you do with rapidly emptying high streets and retail parks? Creating swathes of social and affordable housing in the very centres of our towns and cities is an obvious change that helps solve a pressing problem across the developed world but knee-jerk reactions fuelled by a quest for political popularity risk the creation of socially-damaging no-go ghettos, to no one’s benefit.

And how does society deal with an increasingly monopolistic Amazon? If ever ‘technological disruptor’ had its meaning and consequences writ large for us all to see, viz Amazon! But where are its essential contributions to society that are surely part of the retail bargain? Does Amazon take responsibility, in cash or facility terms, for the disposal of the enormous volume of packaging material its activities leave us to deal with every day? Does it insist on its self-employed delivery drivers using electric vehicles and thus minimise the pollution and environmental damage caused by its business model? Does it pay its fair share of tax to help the very societies that have paid for and nurtured the enormous profits its monopolistic but clearly popular activities yield? Does it, in short, compete on a level playing field with its traditional retail rivals? Or have the past 12 months brought into sharp focus an irreversible change that must be faced up to ... and quickly.

As countries headed, one by one, into lockdowns and varying forms of social isolation (I never thought I would be attending my 96-year-old Mum’s funeral via webcam, that’s for sure) the words ‘Zoom’ and ‘Teams’ were known to the very few. Today, they have become an indispensable part of the way of life for families, friends and businesses alike.

There has been a commensurate growth in the use of and reliance (bordering on addiction with so many people) upon social media.

For all its benefits (and there are many, especially during lockdown’s assault on the usual, taken-for-granted freedoms of social intercourse), Mr Zuckerberg and friends have selfishly and greedily created a monster of which Dr Frankenstein would have been proud. Social media has fuelled a cancel culture that is already out of control. It has taken the embryo of wokery and fed it, facilitating its growth in a womb of irresponsible and often anonymous unaccountability, allowing it to develop into the damaging, appalling wrecker of people’s careers and livelihoods.

Social media has also been a major source of mental health issues the world over. Governments from Washington to Canberra and back again must now deal with these monopolies that put into the shade Nelson Rockefeller’s activities with railroads and oil over a century ago.

Facebook hides behind the ‘we’re a platform not a publisher’ defence of irresponsibility and now effectively behaves as being more powerful than democratically-elected governments. This fight would have taken place anyway, but Covid has accelerated its arrival. The USA, EU, Canada, Japan and the UK must all get behind Australia and ensure that out of Covid comes a more powerful democratic rule of law, not chastened governments kowtowing to Sir Nicholas Clegg’s high rollers.

There are more areas where the post-Covid challenges are many, where there will be casualties but also surprising winners; international travel for leisure and business, attendance at universities and colleges, the workplace and its new standing in the work/life balance, personal relationships of all sorts.

But, as we peer into the uncertain future of a post-Covid world, one thing is clear: there will be a feeling of a New Beginning in so many people and businesses, not to mention electorates, both local and national.

The countries that seize that feeling, make the big, bold decisions and then implement them with leadership with which every part of society can understand will win the post-Covid race that is international competitiveness. That race takes no prisoners and gives very few second chances.

Guernsey is in prime position to win in that race. The spirit of Guernsey Together, fostered in the depths of the lockdown and quarantine provisions of the last year; the quality of island life; the very location of the Bailiwick and its sunshine, tides and wind; its fiscal and legislative framework; its geographical proximity to both the EU and the UK; its useful Brexit deal; its vital association with a UK that is stepping out, in Asia’s century, into the world like never before in 50 years.

But whether we now make the most of a new beginning is down to us all, no one else. Guernsey’s infrastructure is a massive priority, both human, with skills and training delivering a workforce fit for purpose in the fight for international competitiveness, and physical, with the airport, the port and energy all requiring big investment. We need to have a fresh and innovative approach to the Bailiwick’s funding, both for the day-to-day current account of income and expenditure and the capital account of project funding. We must move in giant steps on the agenda of sustainability in many ways.

Guernsey will win the race if it is attractive to talent and capital from around the post-Covid world. Many people will want to come to a welcoming place, escaping countries where a new beginning has meant higher taxation, more regulation that discourages creating new jobs and where the ‘get up and go’ got up and went in a morass of envy and suspicion.

These people will bring investment to Guernsey, they will pay tax here, they will create jobs here ... and they won’t want to leave. And neither will the next generation, who will be able to see clearly that their home retained its inherent values after its year of Covid, yet also used its new beginning to be a winner in the race for international competitiveness.

Walter Wintle wrote in 1905:

‘Life’s battles don’t always go

To the stronger or faster man;

But sooner or later the man who wins

Is the man who thinks he can.’

Carpe Diem!

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