Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:30 am
2020 was an exceptional year. It began with the US execution by drone of Iranian major general Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad, horrendous bushfires still raging in parts of Australia – and things just got better from there. I have picked out four stories that, arguably, help define 2020 for Britain and whose outcomes have yet to be determined. But, of course, you could be forgiven for thinking there has only been one news story over the past twelve months; sadly, it was not the US presidential election.
In late December 2019, news seeped out of China that the authorities were treating dozens of cases of a new coronavirus in the provincial metropolis of Wuhan. At that time, few in this country had even heard of Wuhan, despite it being a city of 11.8 million souls – more than the combined populations of Scotland and Wales and significantly larger than London. Something, so the rumours said, had gone wrong in a wet market. The virus was highly contagious. Soon, people were dying, and terrifying, apocalyptic, images began to appear on our TV screens. By the third week of January, there were confirmed cases outside China. On the 31 January, the first case was confirmed in the UK. On 11 February, the World Health Organisation named the disease ‘COVID-19’ and, exactly a month later, declared it a pandemic. By that time, the UK had had its first death. Less than a year later and the number of deaths from COVID-19 in our country alone have so far exceeded 72,500 – the second highest death-toll in Europe after Italy. To put this dreadful statistic in perspective, in ten months the disease killed more Britons than enemy bombing achieved in almost 6 years of war, from September 1939. More than 1.8 million people have died worldwide, including a staggering 333,000 in the USA.
Was it really just a year ago that most of us were blissfully unaware of Covid-19? Even when we became aware of it, how many of us took it seriously? But as well as the thousands of families directly affected by the tragedy of personal loss, and the difficulties of suffering a ghastly illness, everyone’s lives have been dominated by the virus. Normal life shut down during the lockdown imposed by the Government in March, and has yet to return. Schools and workplaces closed, events, sport, music, socialising, hobbies, travel – all have been placed in limbo. In total lockdown, the streets of Britain were eerily deserted; often, the only sound was birdsong. There was, and still is, fear: fear of the invisible killer, of course, but also fear that the National Health Service would collapse under the strain, of it being unable to cope with the sheer number of people sick with the virus, and those requiring treatment for other life-threatening conditions. Ultimately, could the virus become an existential threat? “Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives”, ran the Government slogan in the early days. Thousands of retired medical personnel offered their services to the NHS, temporary ‘Nightingale’ hospitals were created in concert venues and other large spaces to provide thousands of additional hospital beds. Whilst many were unable to work, and some worked from home, those employed in Britain’s support services – including, but not limited to health workers – gamely carried on. Food shops and supermarkets, deemed essential, stayed open. For nine weeks, every Thursday at 8pm was ‘clap for key workers’, when people the length and breadth of the land stood on their doorsteps, applauding, banging saucepans – even playing instruments – in recognition of those that kept the rest of us going. We witnessed panic buying – and online shopping boomed. There have been many individual heroes, within the care system and communities. A 99-year-old former army officer, Tom Moore, who became known as ‘Captain Tom’, raised over £32 million for NHS Charities. Whilst businesses large and small have struggled, and many collapsed, the Government has pumped unprecedented billions into the economy in an effort to protect it, and people’s livelihoods – which has included a ‘furlough scheme’, paying 80% of wages to those employed, but unable to work. Taxpayers will be meeting the bill for all of this for a very long time.
It has been a learning experience. Astonishingly in the 21st century, some have had to learn that unwashed hands, exhaled droplets and spending time in close proximity to other people can spread infection. We have all learned that some people are more at risk than others: the elderly, those with certain underlying health conditions, the overweight – even some ethnicities. You might think that a national crisis would unite us in the face of a common peril, perhaps making us all kinder. At the time of the 75th anniversary of VE Day, in May, people even tried to evoke the spirit of the war years, the so-called ‘Blitz spirit’ when everyone allegedly stood shoulder-to-shoulder against the foe. Even Her Majesty got in on the act. Alas, such comparisons bear limited scrutiny and, whilst most of us have discovered a new consideration for life and for others, unfortunately, not everyone has been carried along on a wave of common altruism. Ours is a less acquiescent, freer, wealthier and more pampered society than it was 80 years ago. Expectations are higher, and it is somebody else’s fault if they are not met. In 1939, there was some preparation for war; yet in 2020, whatever contingency planning had taken place under previous administrations, the Government initially appeared to be as ill-prepared as the rest of us. In time of war, although service personnel on the front line are at the greatest risk, everyone in the war zone – irrespective of age, gender, profession, or any other label – is in equal danger. As we have seen, that is not the case with a viral pandemic. And this must be why many (including the Prime Minister’s chief advisor) decided they were incapable of transmitting it and could therefore be excluded from personally inconvenient restrictions. There are a surprising number of these blessed beings, clearly visible in shops, at beauty spots miles from where they live, gathering in herds on beaches, selflessly helping the whole world by attending public protests, going to parties and no doubt playing in sand-pits as well. To be fair, a proportion of these individuals probably aren’t terribly bright. Tolerance is needed, too, for those who are not at all selfish, but who sincerely believe the disease should be allowed to take its course (enabling the survival of the fittest), that the regulations no one wants, but which are designed to protect the majority as much as possible, are an infringement of their rights and liberties, or that the damage being caused to the economy is entirely avoidable.
Despite this being the worst health crisis Britain, and the world, has faced in over a century, experts in handling pandemics have emerged from the most unlikely places – not least all over social media amongst those who would be opposed to the present Government whatever it did. The prejudiced language often used conveniently and inevitably ignores the poor alternatives voters were faced with at the last election, and the fact that few politicians and civil servants are more gifted than the rest of us. That said, apparent blunders – for example in being unable to provide protective equipment for hospitals, delays and fiascos over testing, denial and dithering over the wearing of face masks and the suggestion that unacceptable favouritism has taken place when awarding contracts – have not helped. Nor has the fact that the constituent nations of the United Kingdom have failed to act in concert – and that must have been a conscious decision, because it is such an obviously sensible thing to do. The alleged release of elderly patients from hospitals into care homes, without testing for COVID-19 (which seems to have happened), strikes me as nothing short of criminal negligence amounting to manslaughter.
Of course, the COVID-19 story is far from over. At the time of writing, the UK is going through a so-called second wave, with infections increasing, largely, we are told, due to a new strain of the virus. Consequently, and tragically, the number of deaths is increasing too. In places, hospitals are said to be close to capacity. The good news is that we now have more than one vaccine, developed by amazing scientists in record-breaking time. The Oxford AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, in particular, sounds as though it might be better than the first vaccine to be approved, produced by Pfizer/BioNTech, because the latter needs to be stored in a freezer, whereas the AstraZeneca version can be kept in a refrigerator – and is cheaper. Even so, inoculating the entire population will be a mammoth undertaking. It is a race against the virus. Moreover, the vaccines apparently do not prevent people from carrying and transmitting the virus, there is no indication how long immunity to it will last – or whether the vaccines can deal with mutations. In any event, people will continue to fall sick and die in 2021.
The United Kingdom and Gibraltar formally left the European Union at 11pm on 31 January 2020, almost four years after the people of the United Kingdom voted to do so. An 11-month transition period followed, during which the UK remained in the EU Single Market and Customs Union. The idea was to use this time to reach a trade deal, the deadline for doing so being 31 December 2020. So, our respective representatives (you know, the ones we pay to look after us), were allegedly in heavy discussions throughout these difficult months. Of course they were – though based purely on news coverage on TV and radio, you could be forgiven for thinking that very little was happening. Sometime around October-ish, I think, posturing started to get a bit more serious. The EU even threatened to take the UK to court for reneging on a previous deal. The consequences if a deal was not reached were potentially dire (depending who you listened to). My understanding is that, in the absence of a deal, the EU and UK would need to trade on World Trade Organisation terms, which would result in tariffs, new customs checks, massive amounts of paperwork, a possible impact on vital supplies – including food and pharmaceuticals – and increased prices. On the other hand, people said, the rest of the world will be lining up to buy everything we want to sell them, and supply whatever we need to buy, all on Very Favourable Terms, because the UK is Terribly Important and Very Nice. And, if they don’t, we’ll send in a gun boat.
By December – and despite the fact that most businesses need to plan for whatever it is they need to do – an agreement still hadn’t been reached. It got so bad that pizzas were supplied to keep the teams talking well into the night. The issues were not new and appeared to boil down to:
- Fishing – who could fish in UK territorial waters, what will they be allowed to catch – and could the UK sell the fish it catches itself to EU countries?
- The ‘level playing field’ – which was about regulations that businesses have to follow, subsidies, and concerns about unfair competition. The EU was concerned that the UK would relax regulations, making products cheaper and giving them an unfair advantage, so it wanted the UK to follow EU rules (which would seem to defeat the purpose of Brexit).
- Resolving disputes – the issue here was which body prevails in the event that of a dispute. Clearly, the UK’s decision to leave the EU meant that it no longer wanted to be subject to the European Court of Justice.
- Security cooperation – a hugely important issue. The EU claimed that access to information previously shared was not available to non-EU members.
- Northern Ireland – the thorny issue of managing the only shared land boundary between the EU and the UK, the currently open border between the state of Ireland and the province of Northern Ireland, without having a hard border (which no one wanted).
It seemed as though it was stalemate. Then, on Christmas Eve, word spread that agreement on a trade deal had been reached. Great news – though, whilst appreciating that the issues are complicated, you have to ask yourself why these idiots left it so late.
The key points in the 1200-page document, according to the BBC, are:
- Tariffs have been avoided, but there will inevitably be much more bureaucracy at ports and borders.
- There will be more restrictions on the supply of some services, because qualifications may not be automatically recognised.
- UK nationals will need a visa to stay longer than 90 days in the EU, EU pet passports will no longer be valid, European Health Insurance Cards, (EHIC) cards will remain valid until they expire, but will be replaced with a new UK Global Health Insurance Card.
- UK mobile phones may cost more to use in the EU – check with your supplier. (Presumably, this works both ways – who knows?).
- The UK will progressively gain a greater share of fish from its own waters over the next 5½ years, and then there will be further talks. Hmm.
- Unresolved disputes will not be resolved by the ECJ (except, possibly, for disputes involving Northern Ireland), but will be referred to an independent tribunal. I have no idea what or who this tribunal is. Anyone?
- With regard to security, the UK will not have automatic access to data and cooperation, but it sounds as though this will exist when needed anyway. Surely, it is in mutual interests for it to be so.
- Participation in the EU Erasmus student exchange programme will end, except for students at universities in Northern Ireland, and a new, worldwide, ‘Turing’ scheme will be introduced in 2021.
It all sounds so simple. On 30 December, MPs voted through the European Union (Future Relationship) bill by 521 votes to 73 – a majority of 448. The Government was supported by the main opposition, Labour, but all other opposition parties, including the Scottish Nationalists, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and all Northern Ireland parties, voted against the deal. So far as I know, it still needs to be approved by the European Parliament.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has hailed this as a new future for Britain, saying that “The destiny of this great country now resides firmly in our hands.”
The UK had been a member of the European Union, originally the European Economic Community, since 1973, the best part of half a century, and our departure is viewed as one of the most significant events since the end of the Second World War. However, it would be interesting to see how much space future history books give it – and of course things change very quickly; it wasn’t that long ago that opinion polls showed a massive majority in favour of EU membership. Whether or not it will prove to be a Good or Bad Thing, two facts that history should note are the amount of Government time that has been spent on the departure, at enormous cost to the UK taxpayer (and arguably at the expense of other vital issues), and the degree of acrimony the decision to leave has caused. Some would argue that the departure could have been handled more efficiently, with better leadership, but it has also been influenced by the strength of feelings on opposing sides of the debate. The intolerance of other people’s views, by fanatical zealots at both extremes, has been astonishing and, frankly, unsettling. The process has probably further fuelled diminishing respect for politicians of all parties. If there has been any benefit whatsoever in COVID-19 dominating the news in 2020, it has been that it has kept immoderate remainers and leavers off the airwaves.
BLACK LIVES MATTER
On 25 May 2020, George Floyd, an American with African heritage, was mistreated and killed whilst being arrested by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost 8 minutes to restrain him, despite the fact that Floyd had already been handcuffed and repeatedly said he could not breathe. It was the catalyst for an eruption of anger against a history of police brutality in the States, and racism against black people, all over the world. Protests resounded around the UK. Most were peaceful, but violence erupted at some and some damage was caused. In London, the statue of Winston Churchill was daubed “was a racist”. On the same day, 7 June, in Bristol, a mob tore down a Victorian statue of slave trader and city benefactor Edward Colston (1636-1721) and deposited it in the harbour. It was subsequently recovered, but not replaced. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced a review of any statues and street names with links to slavery, and a statue of slave owner Robert Milligan (1746-1809) was removed from outside the Museum of London in Docklands. The protests were held in the name of ‘Black Lives Matter’, a movement that grew from 2013 out of earlier incidents of police brutality in the US. In contrast to the largely peaceful nature of the Black Lives Matter protests, a counter-protest in central London to ‘defend’ Churchill’s statue was attended by a bizarre bunch of thugs, around 1,000 in number, many of them apparently drunk, who attacked the police that were on duty protecting monuments and also turned upon journalists. One man was photographed urinating in the street, next to the memorial outside the Palace of Westminster to PC Keith Palmer, the officer who was stabbed to death during the Westminster Bridge terrorist attack in 2017.
In answer to ‘black lives matter’, many in the UK asked whether it should not be the case that everyone’s life matters, irrespective of race? Whilst surely no one could dispute that, ‘black lives matter’ is intended to focus attention onto an abiding discrimination not felt by white people, who are rarely, if ever, judged or abused because of the colour of their skin.
Out of the wave of protests grew the gesture of ‘taking the knee’, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. In this context it originated, not from the killing of George Floyd as many thought (and not from ‘Game of Thrones’, as some, including Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, believed), but from an earlier protest in 2016, when an American football player knelt, rather than stood, during the playing of the US national anthem. In 2020, the gesture was taken up by the soccer community in the UK, which appears to have a particular problem with racism, and players are typically seen to kneel before the start of each match. In December, after several incidents of fans booing what is intended to be an anti-racist gesture, the Professional Footballers’ Association surveyed its members and over 80% of players supported continuing to ‘take a knee’.
The reaction to George Floyd’s killing in the UK, including the defacing of Churchill’s statue and the wrecking of Colston’s, sparked, or renewed, a debate in the UK about Britain’s history as a slave-trading nation and imperial power. Some of the debate focussed on statues, including those of imperialists such as Cecil Rhodes. Reasoned debate about these issues is healthy and the removal of Colston’s statue was surely overdue – but these things cannot be determined by a mob taking direct action. The vandal who defaced Churchill’s statue was right, Churchill was racist; but it was not his right to deface the statue and this country, and the free world, owes Churchill a huge debt. To add a little context, I’d hazard a guess that most people in Britain were racist to some extent 80 years ago. No one would celebrate that, but there’s not a lot we can do about it. What we can do is try to understand our history, all of it, in context and not just the bits we want to hear about because they suit a particular narrative. The transatlantic slave trade that operated between the 16th and 19th centuries involved an estimated 12 million people being forcibly transported from west Africa to become slaves in the Americas. Some 2 million died before they got there. Most European powers indulged in this brutal, immoral, trade, and Britain became the most successful. I got the impression in 2020 that many people seemed surprised to learn that so much of Britain’s past wealth, and many of its institutions, had been built on the backs of slavery. In 1807, it became illegal to transport slaves on British ships and, thereafter, the Royal Navy actively sought to liberate slaves. However, slavery was not abolished in the British Empire until 1834. At that time, there were some 40,000 slave owners all over Britain – not just wealthy landowners, but people like country clergymen and widows too – who were responsible for about 800,000 slaves – men, women and children. And when slavery was abolished, they were richly compensated for the loss of their fellow human property.
THE ROYAL DEPARTURE
The Royal Family has a unique place in British hearts and constitution. So when Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, announced in January that they wished to step down as ‘senior royals’, it caused some consternation. The plan, apparently, was to disengage from royal duties and be financially independent, which necessitated no longer living full-time in Britain, dividing their time between here and North America. They initially seemed to be nicely settled in Canada and then – because I confess to not following these things too closely – appeared to pop up out of the blue in California. The missus and I were thinking of doing a similar thing, once we’ve sold ‘A Bit About Britain’ for a hideously enormous sum.
The reasons for Harry and Meghan’s decision are unclear, but are probably many. They might include the belief that Meghan felt unwelcome in the family itself, did not get on with Kate, Duchess of Cambridge – and the media. In an interview, Meghan said that friends had warned her about the British media – which has form in being a law unto itself. Harry has spoken of a “wave of abuse and harassment” in newspapers and “outright sexism and racism” in social media. After his mother, Diana’s, experience with journalists, Harry is undoubtedly sensitive to his wife being similarly hounded. Indeed, at the time of their announcement, Meghan was in the process of suing Associated Newspapers, an action that is still ongoing (along with others). The pair’s impending move was promptly dubbed ‘Megxit’ in the press.
Since leaving, the Duke and Duchess have signed a multi-million deal to do something-or-other with Netflix, which has enabled them to repay the £2.4 million it cost to renovate their home in Windsor, Frogmore Cottage. They have recently launched a podcast, featuring a number of their friends, including Elton John and James Corden.
Personally, whilst not minimising for one minute the pressure that the Sussexes were under, their decision is essentially a form of abdication and, from a UK plc viewpoint, can only be viewed as a pity. Harry has long enjoyed widespread respect and Meghan, largely unknown in this country and only here for about 5 minutes, was viewed by many as the UK’s 21st century fairy-tale princess. I was unaware of anyone saying anything nasty about her, but probably missed it. They seemed a lovely, happy, couple and a force for good. I fear, though, that the danger is in overestimating public interest in them as people, rather than as members of the British Royal Family. More importantly, unfortunately, is the effect this will have on the monarchy as an institution. That remains to be seen, but it’s not going to help the cause, that’s for sure. Alas, all too often we are reminded that royals are human and suffer from similar frailties as the rest of us mortals. In 2019, Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, stepped back from royal duties because of his association with convicted American sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein. But to those of you who have dreams of a republic, I say be careful what you wish for. The good news is that the Queen’s Christmas message topped the TV ratings that day, with an audience of 8.14 million. ‘Call The Midwife’ came second, with 5.43 million.
Well, that’s four stories from 2020. None of them is just about Britain, but global in reach. It is a small world. I realise they also have a common vein of conflict running through them. Issues seem to polarise opinion to an extent I have never been aware of previously, and in a dangerously simplistic and divisive way. There are only ‘good’ or ‘bad’ politicians and parties, and if you don’t share someone’s view, you are not only wrong, but quickly become an object of hate. Though we enjoy great freedom in Britain, this trend actually stifles freedom of speech and constructive debate. Wouldn’t it be good to hear more, this year, “I disagree with what you say, but defend your right to say it”?
I take this opportunity to thank you, dear reader, for visiting A Bit About Britain, and wish you the best that 2021 can bring.
Visit the 21st century timeline for a selection of other events from 2020.