Daniel Hannan: Why is the West falling behind? Because we are abandoning meritocracy.

19 Jan

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Even in Pakistan’s remote mountain passes, you keep stumbling upon China’s spoor. By the side of empty roads, you find monuments celebrating the unlikely alliance between the world’s first purpose-built Muslim country and the last Communist power. On the edge of villages, you find Chinese-funded social projects. More and more, you find highways, dams and factories springing up along the path of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

I spent early January in those sparse highlands. Like most visitors, I was struck by the beauty of the landscapes and the warmth of the people; but also by an uneasy sense that a country with the strongest demographic and cultural ties to us has drifted into the orbit of a nearer and fiercer star.

Pakistan has its own reasons for cosying up to China, which it has long seen as a counterweight to India, and to which it is closely tied commercially. But something similar is playing out across swathes of Asia, Africa and, now, Latin America. Countries which, 20 years ago, looked to the West culturally and politically – countries which wanted to think of themselves as a law-based, propertied, multi-party democracies – have found an alternative model.

Imran Khan, Pakistan’s clever and charming prime minister, recently put it this way:

“Up until now, we were told that the best way for societies to improve themselves is the Western system of democracy. What the CPC has done is that it has brought this alternative model. And they have actually beaten all Western democracies in the way they have brought up merit in their society.”

Merit. That’s the key. Allocating positions through talent rather than by birth, caste or status was a big part of what originally elevated the Anglosphere and a handful of related European states over their rivals. Now, just as the West is letting go of the idea, the world’s greatest autocracy has taken it up.

I have been thinking a lot about merit since reading Adrian Wooldridge’s magnum opus, The Aristocracy of Talent. I had vaguely intended to review it last year, but I was enjoying it too much, and wanted to savour each chapter.

Wooldridge, who recently moved to Bloomberg after a career at The Economist, has written one of the great books of the decade. Here, meticulously researched and in arresting prose, are definitive accounts of Plato’s authoritarian philosophy and the way later generations interpreted it, of China’s mandarinate, of the rise of IQ tests and much else. But what comes across most strongly is just how downright weird the concept of meritocracy is.

For most of human history, hierarchy and heredity were seen as the natural order. Wooldridge begins with some lines by our national poet:

How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows!

I remember Michael Portillo getting into terrible trouble when he quoted that passage. Yet, until an eyeblink ago, almost no one seriously questioned the world-view that Shakespeare was articulating. It seems to have been hard-wired into us as social primates. Even when we imagine future worlds – think of Star Wars, Dune or Foundation – we people them with emperors and princesses.

Wooldridge shows how English-speaking nations, in particular, replaced kin-based models with open selections and exams. He reminds us of how recent and, by global standards, how unnatural this system is. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, its chief supporters were on the Left. The Webbs and their followers saw a rational, socialist state as resting on meritocratic appointment, while many conservatives protested that abandoning the older social order would leave people deracinated and unsatisfied.

Oddly, from our present perspective, some of the biggest supporters of IQ tests and unadjusted exams in the United States were black sociologists, including Horace Mann Bond, Charles Johnson, Howard Hale Long and J. St Clair Price, all of whom saw the ability to rise by talent as an antidote to racism.

Judged by economic outcomes, meritocracy worked. Countries that tried it got richer than countries that didn’t. The Anglosphere went more or less the whole hog, but most places ended up with hybrid systems. Pakistan, for example, took from Britain the common law, individual property rights and a civil service open to talent. It also retained clannish voting patterns, resting on strong extended families.

As long as Western nations had open institutions, they tended to outperform their rivals. But, as Wooldridge shows, they are now turning against the creed that elevated them.

The assault comes simultaneously from both sides. There is a Trumpy/populist/Know-nothing line of attack which holds, roughly speaking, that a bunch of effete pointyheads, removed from the general population, are imposing their Leftie values on the decent majority. And there is a woke line which holds that groups rather than individuals are what matter, and that if, say, blind assessments result in more Asian than black students getting into a particular university, then those assessments should be racially weighted.

There is a third and more subtle critique, which posits that meritocracy is a hoax. Rich parents, themselves products of elite universities, invest resources in rigging the system in favour of their children, sending them to expensive private schools and buying them opportunities to ensure that they go to the same universities and perpetuate the cycle.

This line often comes from beneficiaries and exemplars of the system being decried. Professor Daniel Markovits of Law at Yale Law School argues in The Meritocracy Trap that “merit is nothing more than a sham”, a way to transmit inherited privilege. Harvard’s Michael Sandel agrees. In The Tyranny of Merit he laments the decline of manual jobs and argues that a new trans-national elite has arisen, bringing hopes of social mobility to an end for most people. The same theme is taken in Britain by David Goodhart who holds, in Head Hand Heart, that the overvaluation of cognitive skills (head) over manual (hand) and caring (heart) has led to the creation of a graduate oligarchy.

There is something in this analysis. The solution, though, might be more meritocracy. The domination of elite schools by the wealthy could perhaps be addressed by crammer-proof aptitude tests. The under-valuation of non-academic skills is widely acknowledged, and huge efforts are being made to boost technical education.

Far more dangerous is the notion that openness to talent is intrinsically racist. Woke critics don’t want to improve meritocracy. They want to return to the pre-modern idea of group rights, collective identity and advancement by caste. A theory that was, until perhaps eight years ago, more or less confined to campus, has, with astonishing rapidity, taken over most of our institutions. Company boards, charities, schools, churches, political parties, local authorities, NHS trusts and, most of all, the civil service – all now recruit and promote on the basis of physiognomy as much as aptitude.

You know who isn’t bothered about “equality, diversity and inclusion”, though? China. That’s why it’s on course to become the world’s largest economy. No wonder ambitious politicians across Asia and Africa are learning Mandarin. No wonder up-and-coming cadets want to train at the PLA National Defence University rather than Sandhurst.

The way for any society to get rich is to allow people to rise to the level of their talents, to remove obstacles of birth, tradition and clan, and thus to marshall its human resources with maximum efficacy. We used to do that very well. Now, others have taken our place.

Garvan Walshe: The time for fine-tuning Brexit is over. The Government needs to focus on making the most of their own deal.

6 Jan

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party.

It’s a year since the entry into force of the “Trade and Cooperation Agreement” between the UK and the EU, in which the Government chose one of the most decisive forms of Brexit, with Great Britain leaving the Single Market and Customs Union.  And the UK declining to participate as associates in Europol, the Erasmus programme, and the European Defence Agency.

The Government took the view that the terms offered weren’t good enough to satisfy the grievances of those who votedLleave in 2016, and nor, indeed are the terms of the deal it itself negotiated: that’s why it is trying to revise the Northern Ireland Protocol.

But it is now five and a half years since the referendum vote, and even Leave voters are tiring of this approach, with only 48 per cent endorsing the government’s handling. Its time would be better spent making the most of the situation they have crated, instead oftrying to fine-tune the Brexit deal further. Two areas are in particular need of attention.

First, Brexit entails a restructuring of the British economy: the Government needs to focus on maximising economic advantage, rather than seeking to address the grievances that led to Brexit.

And second, now that the UK has left the EU, it needs to exploit its diplomatic relationship with a still reasonably friendly bloc to its maximum, rather than re-fighting the Brexit negotiations.

Economically, new barriers to trade in goods and services have been erected, and the net loss is projected to amount to four per cent of GDP each year in the long run.

Making good this annual loss requires dramatic improvements to productivity. Long term economic growth depends on equipping people with the skills for tomorrow’s economy. This cannot be achieved by policies to improve the conditions for people who lack those skills and are unlikely to acquire them, or be in parts of the country where they could take advantage of them even if they did. Rather, levelling up will only be affordable if productivity can be enhanced elsewhere.

As Richard Baldwin argues in The Great Convergence, modern industrial goods are manufactured in three main geographically concentrated clusters: south-east Asia, North America, and continental Europe. Leaving the EU’s Customs Union is a decision to uncouple the UK from pan-European supply chains.

Leaving the EU has also made it harder to access customers there, limiting Britain’s access to the high-earning part of the European value chain. This leaves two possibilities for profit, increasing access to other parts of the world, and taking new steps in design and invention.

Trade deals alone cannot make up the loss of leaving the EU, because trade is inversely proportional to distance, and the rest of the world is far further away than Europe, but ways of reducing other aspects of what trade economists call “trade resistance” can.

Having cut itself out of the only manufacturing cluster within reach, the UK has to rely on its dominant service sectors. Differences in regulations impede service sector trade, and this is hard to reduce without the sort of enforceable agreements to harmonise them that this Government considers an infringement of sovereignty.

This leaves travel costs and cultural difference. Travel to Europe apart, costs are largely a matter of airport infrastructure and, in the medium term, decarbonising air travel. Reducing cultural difference means persuading more British people to learn languages and about other cultures.

Another aspect of services is people. If more aviation and languages boost service sales abroad, effective immigration policy can boost their creation at home, with the proceeds (because immigration is in virtually any circumstance economically beneficial) being used to build up domestic human capital too.

As David Willets has argued, we should build more universities in places that lack them, so that more young people can participate in the international service economy. All this will better equip the UK economy to thrive outside the EU’s trade structures.

When it comes to relations with the EU itself, the Government should start with an accurate understanding of the organisation it left. The EU is not merely an association of member states, but has acquired some of the powers and apprutenances of a state. That is why British voters wanted to leave, after all.

Yet the Hovernment persists in focusing on bilateral realtionships at the expense of that with the Commission. Even when it does not descend into the absurdity of Lord Frost refusing to call the EU by its name, this fails to recognise the reality of the Commission’s power in trade and economic policy, let alone the fact that the countries still in the EU have decided to pool their powers in Brussels.

So rather than wishing the Commission away, the government needs to seek out a real, mutually beneficial, relationship with it, in areas like research, and security and defence policy, even if closer trade policy is currently off the agenda.

Anti-Brexit opinion, which is concentrated among the young, has consolidated, rather than faded with time. Though it will take some time to work through, the weight of that opinion will eventually be felt, and take Britain back towards a closer relationship with the EU. If the Government wants its Brexit legacy to stand, it had better start thinking how to make it work.

Daniel Hannan: Through their intimidating fervour, woke hardliners are pushing our Enlightenment values to the brink

8 Dec

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

What do you see in the above image? It’s a self-portrait by William Hogarth from the late 1750s, in which he sits palette in hand, absorbed in the work of painting the Muse of Comedy. An apt theme for the bawdy satirist, you might think. But the curators of the Hogarth exhibition currently on at Tate Britain could see only one thing – slavery, supposedly embodied in the curved mahogany chair:

“The chair is made from timber shipped from the colonies, via routes which also shipped enslaved people. Could the chair also stand-in for all those unnamed black and brown people enabling the society that supports his vigorous creativity?”

Seriously? That’s what you see? I suppose, if you are determined enough, you will find racism everywhere – even in works by an 18th-century London artist who had no connection with slavery and whose political views tended towards radicalism.

The fact that Hogarth was no slaver does not deter the woke inquisitors of Tate Britain (whose chair, talking of chairs, is Roland Rudd). Nor does his humane and often sympathetic portrayal of the handful of black characters who make it into his works. Hogarth was satirising the world he knew, and many of his black subjects appear as servants in grand houses, looking out on scenes of upper-class degeneracy. He occasionally gives them the tiniest hint of a sardonic smile, as if they alone understand what is going on.

What might have been an interesting exhibition that set Hogarth (who was, for want of a better shorthand, a Eurosceptic) within the context of contemporary Continental trends instead descends into a harangue against the man it is meant to celebrate.

Where you or I might see, for example, a room filled with comical drunks, the show’s curators prissily tell us that “the punch they drink and the tobacco they smoke are material links to a wider world of commerce, exploitation and slavery”.

Where you or I might see, at the end of the Rake’s Progress, a young dandy brought so low that he ends up in a madhouse, the authors of the wall text see a white man “shackled and near naked, like the enslaved African”.

Where you or I might see, in Marriage A-la-Mode, a morality tale about a faithless couple, the authors see “overall a picture of White degeneracy”

Consider this image above: Southwark Fair, painted in 1733. Again, what do you see? A rumbustious outdoor crowd, yes? A vivid portrayal of ordinary people carousing noisily and chaotically? Well, reader, check your privilege. The young black boy playing the trumpet in the foreground might look as if he is joining the fun. But apparently “the dog makes a racist juxtaposition with the trumpeter”.

And what happened to the canvass itself, hmm? It turns out that “Hogarth’s Southwark Fair, painted for Mary Edwards, was subsequently owned by William Atherton, who joint-owned two plantations in Jamaica”. Hogarth might as well have fashioned the coffles himself, eh?

“All is race, there is no other truth,” says a character in one of Disraeli’s novels. That sentiment, already slightly nutty when Dizzy penned it in the 1840s, was utterly discredited a century later. But it is making an unlikely comeback in the Anglosphere.

Everything – absolutely everything – is nowadays seen through the prism of race. Horatio Nelson is judged, not as the man who sank our enemies’ fleets, but as someone who failed to support an abolitionist measure in the House of Lords. Jane Austen (a strong abolitionist) is condemned because her clergyman father (also an abolitionist) would have become the trustee of a plantation had a friend of his died – which he didn’t. Every work of art, music and literature is judged by standards which, in effect, damn every white man born before the First World War.

The oddest thing about this monomania is its timing. I understand people becoming obsessed with slavery at the height of the campaign for abolition. I understand people seeing things in racial terms while fighting for desegregation. But why now, at a time when (at least before the rise of BLM last year) race relations had never been better?

I know optimism about race infuriates wokies, but take pretty much any measure you want – mixed marriages, mixed neighbourhoods, violence, composition of Parliament and Cabinet, public attitudes towards immigration, acceptability of racist language – and find me a less bigoted decade.

Why then, when slavery still exists in parts of Asia and Africa, are we so preoccupied with Britain’s past participation in the trade? After all, we don’t extend the same test to anyone else. Go to an exhibition of Chinese or Arab or Russian art and you won’t be lectured about how everything you see is the product of forced labour. No, our obsession is purely – and paradoxically – with the country that poured its blood and treasure into a campaign to end the slave trade.

I fear the monomania is precisely the attraction. The experience of many ages teaches us that people respond to simplicity and certainty. From Marxism to Salafist extremism, we are drawn to creeds that allow us to interpret everything, from marriage to music, through a sacred precept. The very unreasonableness of the creed turns out to be part of its appeal, giving devotees a sense that they are set apart from the run of humanity.

The devotees may be few in number, but their intimidating fervour allows them to set the agenda. Just as the Bolshevists pulled behind them mainstream Russian socialists (who had had enough of Tsarist tyranny) and just as the jihadis pulled behind them peaceful Muslims (who had had enough of secular dictators), so woke hardliners exert a pull on moderate Leftists who have little time for cancel culture, but who don’t like to line up with conservative opponents of identity politics.

Thus, one by one, the Enlightenment values that we have taken for granted since Hogarth’s age are extinguished. A long night stretches before us.

Saqib Bhatti: Labour’s plans for the music industry would have a disastrous impact – at a time when we should be promoting its growth

30 Nov

Saqib Bhatti is MP for Meriden.

Joy Crookes, the 23-year-old British-Irish-Bangladeshi singer, is one of the rising stars of British music, reaching critical acclaim this year both at home and abroad.

She has a Top 5 album and was nominated for Rising Star of the Year at the BRIT Awards last year. It may appear that Joy has suddenly risen to stardom. In reality, there are years of investment, creative expertise and promotion behind the promising trajectory she is on today.

Joy is just one example of why Britain’s music industry punches above its weight on the global stage, topping charts, racking up awards, and fronting sell-out tours. From The Beatles and Elton John to Ed Sheeran, Stormzy and Adele, we should be proud of our creative heritage and globally renowned music talent.

Our music sector plays a vital role in creating jobs and opportunities, including for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and in projecting British soft power across the globe. Our artists are a vital advert for UK plc in growing markets internationally.

The UK music industry cannot risk losing that critically acclaimed reputation. However, a Labour-led Private Members’ Bill – being branded as a ‘simple fix’ to how much artists earn from streaming – has been tabled and is expected to seek legislation for the introduction of so-called ‘Equitable Remuneration’ or ER.

The proposal suggests that streaming revenue should be diverted away from the labels who take the initial risk and make the upfront investment in an artist’s career.

Of course I want artists to get paid more, especially if it results in a more thriving music industry. However, while ‘Equitable Remuneration’ might sound appealing, the system it describes would be far from equitable. It would do exactly the opposite of what it intends to do.

First, the proposal would cripple small independent British labels and make it harder to be a DIY artist because of the new red tape. A logical conclusion is that if record labels (of any size) have their revenues significantly cut, there will be less money to invest in emerging new artists.

This means fewer opportunities for the young superstars of tomorrow, or for those from under-served communities. Some of our greatest UK artists have come from extremely underprivileged backgrounds and that is part of the reason we must continue to encourage record labels to invest in growing talent.

Second, there’s also a real risk ER would make Britain’s music industry uncompetitive and harm our music export potential. As free-market conservatives, we need to do all we can in the industry to become attractive for investment. Additional barriers will only hinder growth opportunities for local talent.

International competition is already eroding our position as a global leader in music. Markets in Asia and Latin America are booming, while the UK’s overall share of global music revenue has slipped by seven per cent in just six years. This legislation would hasten that decline if large labels decide to invest more in overseas territories than the UK, as larger markets like Latin America or the US would have lower costs.

Third, a change to the entire streaming model in the UK, and its economics, will add further complexity to an already complex business model which in turn will force operational costs to rise. This cost will ultimately be passed onto the consumer, bad for fans and another inflationary pressure.

We need to support the dynamism of this industry and continue to create opportunities for the next wave of British music talent, rather than stifle investment with the unintended consequences of regulation. Our efforts should focus on maximising investment in British talent, ensuring that streaming platforms responsibly protect and value music, and enabling the live music industry to continue to bounce back post-pandemic.

The Government is already doing great work in this area, looking at thoughtful and collaborative reforms in the music industry via several DCMS working groups that report back next spring – an important and thorough industry-led process.

Ultimately, success in music is largely driven by consumer choice and popularity in a fiercely competitive industry. It is vital that we do everything in our power to ensure the continuation of the sector’s global competitiveness and throw our weight behind initiatives that encourage investment in UK music and foster international success.

If we want a thriving music industry with lots of upcoming talent then we must encourage investment, not take away the incentives for doing so. Let’s not pull the rug from under the feet of our future musical talent.

Duncan McNair: For too long, UK tourism has driven up cruelty to animals. The Animals Abroad Bill can change that.

16 Nov

Duncan McNair is a lawyer and CEO of Save The Asian Elephants.

The Government’s Action Plan for Animal Welfare in May announced a new Animals Abroad Bill “to ban the advertising and offering for sale here of specific, unacceptable practices abroad. Our intention is that this will steer tourists towards visiting attractions that involve animals being cared for and treated properly.” Polling and other indicators show public support across the UK at over 90 per cent and rising.

Why is this law important and how did it come about? I founded Save The Asian Elephants in 2015 to fight to protect this ancient, wondrous species, having witnessed the most extreme violence committed on baby and adult elephants in India.

To supply tourist attractions baby elephants are brutally snatched from the wild, the mother killed who tries to protect it. To compel submission for easy use in tourism, the babies are isolated, starved, beaten, stabbed, ripped – to “break the spirits”. My shock at witnessing the screaming and crying of the babies was eclipsed by the outrage at learning of the leading role played by the UK market in driving up this atrocious trade.

Revered by the world, numbers of Asian elephants have crashed from millions to barely 45,000 today, 40 per cent of them in cruel, non-breeding captivity, routinely tortured to ensure submission for ready exploitation. Now they are highly endangered.

What’s gone wrong? The 1960s’ explosion in package tours hugely increased elephant tourism in SE Asia, promoted by businesses indifferent to the terrible price paid by little elephants. Their daily lot is unnatural tricks, rides and games enforced by brutal violence. A life of torment, pain and loneliness for tourism “fun”. Held down by chains and fierce wire bindings, without shade or water, malnourished, forced to work in burning heat, untreated wounds going septic, they suffer and die broken by physical exhaustion and deep psychological distress.

Tourists too pay heavily for this exploitation. Elephants when provoked beyond endurance attack and kill. STAE’s evidence shows hundreds of people attacked, 242 fatally. One such instance is tourist Gareth Crowe, killed by a captive elephant in 2016. The elephant, Golf, is reported to have been tortured as a punishment, then placed back amongst other tourists.

Further, held in dank fetid captivity, when they exhale, sneeze and spray water elephants transmit lethal airborne viruses like TB, and seemingly now Covid-19, both global pandemics killing millions, dangers concealed by the travel industry.

Human trafficking is now emerging as a feature of the unethical elephant tourist trade. Uneducated and vulnerable ethnic minority groups, such as young Karen refugees in Myanmar, are trafficked on false promises to Thailand to handle elephants at unethical tourist venues. Without training or experience they fall victim to many dangers, are often unpaid, and being stateless face intense discrimination and rights violations. In contrast at ethical venues like Elephant Nature Park in Thailand proper pay, security and housing is provided to incoming mahouts and their families.

Asian elephants play a uniquely important role in our ecology as “megagardeners of the forests” which they nourish and sustain and on which untold species including humans rely for survival. Forests are the lungs of Earth that lock in our carbon output, helping combat climate change and maintaining biodiversity. We destroy them at our peril.

STAE’s research reveals the UK’s shameful role in this pernicious trade: over 1,200 UK companies selling 265 brutal venues through thousands of adverts. The figures just keep rising. Many are members of leading trade body Abta. The problem is vast and growing.

In 2016, 40 per cent of tourists visiting Thailand had or planned elephant rides. Thirteen million rides happened there in 2016 alone, 16 million in 2019. Guidance by the industry to itself is voluntary, full of holes, lacking any monitoring, enforcement or sanctions, and widely ignored. Self-regulation has proved futile for decades, no evidence forthcoming it has yielded any benefits whatever. Numerous promises of change by operators have been broken.

STAE has relentlessly urged new law to ban adverts and sales of access to brutal venues. Public and specialist support for such change is vast and growing: STAE’s petition stands at 1.08 million, 32 million more from aligned, similar petitions.

Populus polling (2020) shows 90 per cent support for such change. 2021 polling records 99.1% want penalties for those benefitting from such abuse. A hundred leading organisations and influencers want this new law including RSPCA, the Royal Veterinary College, vet schools, biologists, conservationists, churches, businesses and leaders of SE Asia’s faiths.

Government has promised an Animals Abroad Bill to do just this. But it must have teeth –robust enforcement and effective deterrence, not just token fines for multi-billion-pound serial exploiters. STAE’s purpose is to steer the market to ethical, sustainable sanctuaries where elephants exhibit natural behaviour in herds from a safe, respectful distance. If well-framed and enforced, and not undermined by an active tourist lobby against change, such law offers real hope for all endangered species brutalised in tourism who are facing their end: elephants, lions, tigers, monkeys, gorillas, bears and more. Such law is adoptable across the world, and fitting for any nation with such a gruesome market.

We thank government for its promise. It must now act. It can lead the way globally and help save the noble Asian elephant, brought so low by Man. Untold millions are waiting. The time is now.

STAE’s petition to end the cruel treatment of elephants is at www.stae.org.

Chris Skidmore: For the UK to become a global science superpower, the Chancellor must set out a clear plan this week

26 Oct

Chris Skidmore MP was Science and Research Minister between 2018-2020 and co-author of Britannia Unchained.  

10 years ago, I was sat around a cramped room in Westminster with four members of the Cabinet – the current Foreign, Home, Business and Justice Secretaries. We had recently launched our first book, After the Coalition at Conservative Party Conference, which attempted to chart a course away from what seemed like endless compromise with our Liberal Democrat partners.

Now we were planning a second – not on domestic policy, but instead on how Britain risked missing out on the huge transformational changes on the international stage, if we did not begin to chart our own course as a nation that looked to Asia and other emerging economies for lessons on how to deliver future economic growth. Rather than accept a diminishing role for the UK, why not begin to invest in a strategy that could maintain our international influence?

So Britannia Unchained was born, as each of us decided upon a chapter we would write. I chose what seemed an obvious and essential narrative: the need for the UK to take science, R&D and innovation seriously. By 2011, government investment in science had basically flatlined, while our investment in research and development as a proportion of overall GDP had slipped backwards, to an embarrassing 1.6 per cent of our total national spend.

Meanwhile, other nations such as the US and China had bold plans to be reaching three per cent and above, spurred on in part to the emerging science and tech powerhouses of South Korea and Israel, who were spending around 4.5 per cent of their expenditure on investment in the technologies of the future.

As a result, both nations had transformed their economies from largely agrarian to high-tech within a few decades, bringing in international private investment while at the same time becoming global leaders in electronics, computers and communications. Establishing clusters of high-tech businesses where none had existed before, this investment in R&D resulted in an entire upskilling of their populations, making them some of the most educated in the world.

It shouldn’t be hard to see, I argued then, the importance of why investing in research and science effectively was the same as investing in your future success as a nation in a century dominated by technological change. We could be another Israel or South Korea too – but only if we took a long term and strategic vision of where we wanted the UK to be. We had some of the best universities and researchers in the world, particularly in the life sciences, but they were managing to achieve extraordinary results with little money.

That needed to change. Fast forward seven years, and as Science and Research Minister, I had the opportunity to make that investment, securing the Government’s manifesto commitment to raise its spending on R&D from £12 billion a year to £22 billion by 2025.

In turn, this had the potential to leverage in additional private research investments from international companies into the UK, thanks to the establishment of R&D tax credits, ideally to the tune of around £70 billion a year – allowing the UK to finally reach around 2.4 per cent of its GDP being spent on science and research by 2027, a target set back in 2017. Even with this investment, the UK would only sit in the middling league of the OECD average, watching as other nations continued to pull ahead.

The UK could still be another Israel or South Korea, if we set ourselves a strategy and stuck to it. But that most important commodity of all in politics, time itself, is slipping away. The Spending Review is Boris Johnson’s last chance to deliver a successful vision for increased investment in R&D. The money promised in 2019 has yet to materialise, and if there is not a clear plan from the Chancellor this week, then the Prime Minister’s vision of the UK as a ‘global science superpower’ would have been torn up by the Treasury.

And with but days until the UK takes the leadership of the international stage at COP26 in Glasgow, expectations are set that it will be investment in new renewable technologies, nuclear power and innovation in carbon emissions reductions that can deliver net zero by 2050. None of this can happen without the UK stepping up to make investments in research, which is desperately needed.

The alternative is that we slip not only further behind in the global race, watching as South Korea, Japan or China disappear over the horizon, we will start to go in the wrong direction: researchers and companies choosing to place their faith elsewhere, in countries that recognise the integral purpose of science to future economic growth.

2021 has demonstrated the incredible potential that science, research and development has not only to transform lives, but to save lives also: the UK has been rightly praised for its early investment in its vaccine programme, which was made possible thanks to our life sciences industry and high levels of existing R&D spend. To paraphrase Isaac Newton, we are standing on the shoulder of giants, of those generations before who made those strategic choices to invest in pharma in the UK.

What we cannot afford to do is to end 2021 by not continuing to place our faith in research and development, the investment for which must flow. As I wrote back in Britannia Unchained a decade ago, we can build a new future for the UK by recognising that future should be grounded in innovation and research. That future, and the Prime Minister’s vision of the UK as that science superpower, risks being lost this week if we do not act now.

Orban says he’s defending Christian civilisation. His opponents say he’s subverting Hungary’s democracy.

24 Sep

Will the European Union hold together? Or is Western Europe going one way and Central Europe another?

Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, is perhaps the most eloquent exponent of, as he put it in a recent lecture, “a Central European cultural, intellectual and political entity that is growing more and more different from Western Europe”.

Orban has many critics, but his lecture was directed against one in particular, Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies at Oxford.

There was a time when they were on the same side, for as Orban says:

“The professor has an excellent knowledge of Central Europe and used to inspire many of us during our years of resistance against communism and the Soviet occupation, in the late 1980s.

“What’s more, members of the current Hungarian political leadership had the chance to personally attend his lectures, which took a stance for freedom, at the University of Oxford.”

Orban, born in 1963, sprang to fame in Hungary in June 1989 by giving a speech demanding the withdrawal of Soviet troops and the holding of free elections, after which he studied for a few months at Pembroke College, Oxford, on a scholarship awarded by the Soros Foundation.

He returned home in January 1990, was elected to the National Assembly, became the leader of Fidesz, which he led in a national conservative direction, and served as Prime Minister from 1998-2002 and again since 2010.

Garton Ash has become, as in this interview with Euronews on 8th September, an unsparing critic of Orban:

“we do have European Union values which are being massively violated in countries like Hungary and Poland, and I think we need to stand up for those values…

“Viktor Orban is having his cake and eating it. He’s winning elections by saying ‘Stop Brussels’, campaigning against the European Union, but taking billions of European taxpayers’ money.

“Therefore the key to an effective response is to establish a linkage between the Europe of values and the Europe of money. And that’s what the European Union has so far failed to do…

“It is absolutely outrageous that you have a member state of the European Union which in my view is no longer a democracy, which has destroyed media freedom, which doesn’t have fair elections, free but not fair elections, which has kicked out the best university in central Europe, which has indulged in outrageously xenophobic propaganda, the treatment of migrants and so on, which is still receiving billions of euros in the EU funds, that is an outrageous state of affairs.”

When asked whether Orban’s illiberalism is a real threat to the EU, Garton Ash replied:

“Without question… One has to go back a long way to find a period when a Hungarian leader was so important in European history…

“And that is because he has become the symbolic leader of the other Europe, the conservative, anti-liberal, ethnic nationalist, Christian, socially conservative Europe.

“And Matteo Salvini, Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders, are all with him.

“So he represents not just one medium-sized member state of the European Union, he represents a very important tendency in the entire European Union.”

Orban maintains that on the contrary, his conservatism is “a blessing for the European Union and even Western Europe”, because the West, he contends in his lecture, has lost the convictions which lay behind its success:

“I understood that beyond and behind all the technical equipment, novel institutions and scientific discoveries, there was also the West’s sense of its exceptionalism and mission, which gave it inspiration and confidence. The conviction that Western man has a mission in the world and with the world, and must act in order to accomplish that mission.

“Naturally, we do know that the Western mission has intellectual and spiritual foundations that should be sought in Christianity. ‘Go, and make disciples of all nations’, Matthew says. This mentality, even if in a changed form, survived in the West also during the Enlightenment, the periods of the humanist ideal of man, human rights and the discoveries of modern science.

“During a period of unquestionable development and brilliant success – despite evident mistakes, blunders and grave shortcomings – the conviction that the overall balance of the mission of Western civilisation and the West was fundamentally positive held for a long time.

“However, something had changed by the beginning of the 21st century. And this happened just at a time when the West, led by America and Britain, had scored its most brilliant victory, having won the Cold War…

“It no longer seeks meaning in its own history; instead, it keeps saying that it will end soon. It re-interprets or deletes entire chapters of its history, finding them shameful and so to be cancelled, and in the meantime, it is unable to replace them with anything else. And those who are not paralysed, but in fact very much active, are such deconstructive, negative forces that they would be better off paralysed…

“the concept of open society has deprived the West of its faith in its own values and historical mission, and with this now – at the time of the Muslim flood and the rise of Asia – it is preventing the West from setting its own mission against the rising intellectual and political power centres…”

Orban contends that in Brussels, and the West generally, “a sense of mission shared by a political community, a nation is now unacceptable, even suspicious.” Hungary, on the other hand, still has that sense of mission: hence Budapest’s disputes with Brussels.

To Garton Ash, speaking on Tuesday to ConHome, Orban’s essay amounts to “a brilliant exercise in ideological distraction”: Orban says “let’s have a really interesting intellectual conversation about the future of western civilisation”, and the disreputable methods by which Orban stays in power are forgotten.

ConHome suggested two questions arise: one is whether Orban himself is a reputable person, the other is whether it is permissible for anyone, no matter how reputable, to hold Orban’s views.

Garton Ash replied:

“You can be a Conservative nationalist party continuing to govern in a country which is still an excellent liberal democracy – we live in one.”

Orban, he went on, has instead subverted liberal democracy, by gerrymandering, by pay-offs to friendly oligarchs, by getting the media under control: “That’s the problem, that’s why I’m so angry.”

And Orban then distracts attention from his destruction of liberal democracy by reframing the whole battle as an ideological clash, so that people say “maybe I agree with him about immigration” or “maybe I agree with him about Islam”.

Garton Ash went on to say that “characterising Muslims as invaders” (as Orban has done) “is in my view beyond the pale”, and that “some of the election propaganda against Soros is borderline anti-semitic”.

He urged British Conservatives to be cautious about embracing Orban: “It’s the difference between Farage and Johnson.”

And he pointed out that while Orban attacks Brussels, he also accepts very large sums from Brussels: “Viktor Orban is a master of cakeism.”

For a long time Orban managed to keep Hungarian MEPs in the European People’s Party in Brussels, before at length they were eased out of it.

David Cameron, one may note, promised that British MEPs would leave the EPP, and at length kept that promise. British Euroscepticism, leading to Brexit, is in some ways more straightforward than Hungarian and Polish Euroscepticism.

In Hungary and Poland, with their recent history of Soviet occupation, there are still large majorities in favour of EU membership.

Orban wins elections by playing the nationalist card, but one should not imagine that this card does not exist in Western Europe. The EU is paralysed by the fear that taking the great leap to becoming a federal state comparable to the USA  would provoke a nationalist backlash in most if not all of the member states, including Germany and France.

The German Constitutional Court stands as the most reputable though so far reticent opponent of a federal Europe. Alternative for Germany, founded in 2013 by learned men opposed to the policies required to prop up the euro but soon degenerating into a xenophobic movement, is one of the least reputable opponents.

It is now 21 years since Larry Siedentop pointed out, in Democracy in Europe, that no Madison, Hamilton and Jay have stepped forward to compose Europe’s version of The Federalist Papers.

The euro remains a currency unbacked by a government. Perhaps under the pressure of some great crisis, surmounted by leaders who rise to the occasion, that government will be conjured into existence.

But in the meantime, one cannot help being struck by the persistence of the nation state as the fundamental political reality. Nations may be good or bad, reputable or disreputable, democratic or authoritarian.

Perhaps the ultimate function of the EU, towards which Garton Ash points the way, will be to keep its members democratic. But what an opportunity that offers to demagogues to blame the nation’s woes on Brussels.

Sam Hall: We should urgently wean ourselves off gas – and not give up on Net Zero

24 Sep

Sam Hall is the Director of the Conservative Environment Network.

Energy prices are rising sharply as we head into the autumn. This is causing short-term pressure on household bills, hiking the cost of living, and exacerbating fuel poverty.

The principal reason is that global gas prices have spiked, pushing up domestic prices by more than 250 per cent since the start of the year.

This is due to rising demand for gas in Asia and Europe as the global economy picks up post-Covid, and Putin’s Gazprom restricting supply through Ukraine, likely in a bid to apply pressure on Brussels to approve the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

But instead of drawing the conclusion that we should urgently wean ourselves off gas, some have attempted to blame the Government’s Net Zero agenda.

Some, for instance, claim that low wind output is driving up prices. It is true that wind speeds have been lower than normal this month. Wind is intermittent, so there will be days when wind is low which will push up prices, and days when it’s high which pushes down prices.

But price impacts from variable wind output typically last days, rather than months, and do not cause chronic price rises like we’re seeing now. Indeed power prices are already falling again, precisely because wind speeds are picking up.

As an aside, due to the fact wind turbines are getting bigger, their “capacity factor” (i.e. the amount of generation relative to generating capacity) is increasing. This means that offshore wind farms coming online now will produce electricity more consistently than their predecessors – a further example of how private sector-led innovation is driving us towards Net Zero.

Some commentators have blamed the “green levies” on energy bills. Yet there are hardly any levies on gas bills (around two per cent of the bill), and they are a smaller share of people’s electricity bills (23 per cent) than the wholesale price (30 per cent).

These levies also fund crucial fuel poverty schemes, not just legacy renewables projects. Although levies are going up as new renewables and nuclear come online, this is gradual and doesn’t cause spikes like the current one.

Offshore wind strike prices are less than a quarter of what they were in 2015. The level of subsidy required by new UK offshore wind projects is minimal, potentially even negative if wholesale prices continue to grow year-on-year. Substantial future rises in these levies from the Government’s commitment to quadruple offshore wind capacity are unlikely.

Finally, others have argued that green policies blocked fracking, which would have cut gas prices. But as even fracking companies admitted back in 2013, domestic shale gas extraction wouldn’t have cut bills.

Our fracked gas would have been traded as part of a large European market, meaning there would have needed to be an implausibly large amount of new UK gas to disrupt the balance of supply and demand in Europe enough to push down prices here.

So if Net Zero isn’t to blame, how should the Government respond? One idea gaining traction is to take environmental levies off people’s bills. Although the levies aren’t the cause of the price spike, removing them would offer some relief to consumers by delivering an immediate cut to their electricity bills in particular.

Since they are underpinned by legally-binding contracts with energy generators, the levies must be funded by other means. The Treasury could temporarily fund them out of general taxation.

But since this would be expensive, once gas prices have fallen, the Treasury could introduce a small carbon charge on gas bills to cover the costs of the levies longer term.

Gas bills currently have no carbon price, a reduced VAT rate, and hardly any levies, despite the fact it’s now a higher carbon fuel than electricity. This creates precisely the wrong economic incentive for consumers and businesses when they are deciding what new heating system to buy.

To protect those in fuel poverty, as I argued a few months ago on this site, some of the revenue from the gas carbon charge could be recycled and given back as a carbon cheque to people in receipt of Universal Credit and other vulnerable households.

Cutting electricity prices in this way would have a range of benefits. Many of the poorest energy customers use electricity for heating. They’d face no gas carbon charge and pay lower levies, so this would reduce fuel poverty.

It would also support heat pump deployment, critical for reducing our gas dependence and reaching Net Zero, by reducing their running costs relative to gas boilers. Similarly, it would incentivise more industries to switch to lower-carbon electricity, while boosting the competitiveness of those already using electricity.

Another option that the Treasury will currently be considering is simply subsidising the energy bills of the most vulnerable households. This would deliver short-term relief and would target public funds at those most in need, but wouldn’t move us longer term away from gas.

We’d risk a repeat of this problem in a few years’ time when gas prices inevitably spike again. And if the Treasury has to issue more short-term relief, it could end up being worse for the public purse.

Longer term, the Government needs to accelerate its deployment of renewables. Renewables are cheaper than new fossil fuel generation, support tens of thousands of jobs in our industrial heartlands, and reduce our dependence on volatile gas. As well as rolling out the cheaper, more established renewables, we should scale up support for nascent renewable technologies such as floating offshore wind and geothermal.

The £9.2 billion energy efficiency fund from the Conservative manifesto should be delivered in next month’s spending review and front-loaded as much as possible. Better home insulation will mean people using less gas to keep their homes warm, delivering short-term bill savings and reducing gas demand.

And, finally, we need to reform the Capacity Market – the Government’s policy for buying reserve generation capacity to ensure security of supply – so it actually brings forward new, clean, flexible storage and generation technologies, and doesn’t just subsidise existing gas power stations. This would also make us less reliant on volatile gas as a back-up for wind.

This is a worrying time for billpayers and lays bare the cost of our gas dependency. The Government should act now to relieve some of the pressure on people’s cost of living at the same time as driving forward its Net Zero agenda. The two go hand in hand.

Chris Skidmore: Net Zero will mean nothing unless we can convince the highest emitting countries to change also

11 Aug

Chris Skidmore MP was Science Minister 2018-2020 and Energy Minister in 2019. He is a Senior Fellow at the Mossavar-Rahmani Center of Government at Harvard Kennedy School.

Two years have passed since the UK became the first G7 country to legislate for “Net Zero”. Since then, over 70 per cent of the world’s surface has made a commitment to neutralise their carbon emissions by 2050. Still disagreements persist as to how exactly Net Zero can be achieved, or even how it should be defined.

With the target likely to come under increasing focus in the run up to COP26 in Glasgow, now less than 100 days away, already research is demonstrating that companies’ “carbon offsetting” strategies are not only inadequate, requiring a land mass five times the size of India to plant trees, they may also end up causing more harm than good – as the carbon emitted from the wildfires burning in US forests especially planted to sequester carbon now becomes further part of the problem rather than the solution.

With these debates raging alongside this summer’s wildfires, it is clear an effective strategy to achieve Net Zero remains in a state of flux. It’s one of the reasons I’ve decided to take up a research post as a Senior Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, looking in detail at how we can not only achieve Net Zero most effectively, but also to question whether the target is the right one, and what mitigating factors need to be put in place to account for unknowable events in the future— in the next 29 years, global change, war, natural disaster, could all sweep Net Zero off the map.

We need not only a strategy, but an insurance policy too. For every policy, policymakers must also have due regard to the fact that for every action, there will be reaction, just one of the plethora of unintended consequences that have to be guarded against. Having signed Net Zero into law as then Energy Minister back in 2019, I’m acutely aware that unless the idea of transformation and change works with local communities, the risk of a backlash to any green policies could end up causing delay and dither.

For the UK’s own Net Zero strategy, already we are witnessing the beginning of a transformation towards a green economy, with enormous potential to further regenerate post-industrial communities as a result- as has been highlighted by several contributors in ConHome’s series on Net Zero. But we all know that even if the UK achieves it’s own Net Zero ambitions, it will mean nothing unless we can convince the highest emitting countries to change also. And it will be in Asia that Net Zero will either succeed or be broken altogether.

One just has to look at the numbers to realise that without China and India onboard, the ability to tackle climate change will become a losing battle. With an estimated 70 per cent of global carbon emissions coming from cities, over 52 per cent of the world’s urban greenhouse emissions come from just 25 cities.

23 of those cities are all based inside the People’s Republic of China, with the worst being Handan, Shanghai, Suzhou, Dalian and Beijing, all with greenhouse gas emissions higher than 130 megatons of CO₂ equivalent. According to IQAir, a Swiss-based air quality organisation which works with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), UN-Habitat, and Greenpeace, 148 out of the top 150 most polluted cities in 2020 are in Asia.

Alok Shama is rightly using his position as COP26 President to call for a global end to coal, yet Chinese and Indian buy-in to this programme will be essential for its success. While pledging in 2016 during the Paris Agreement to reach peach CO₂ emissions by 2030, China built more coal power plants in 2020 than the entire world retired.

Already China has nearly four times as many coal power plants than the next largest country, India. In 2020 alone, China’s coal usage accounted for 76 per cent of the global new coal capacity, adding 38.4 gigawatts directly from new coal plants. Moving forward China is currently building an additional 88.1 gigawatts of power from coal, with another 158.7 gigawatts of power from coal power plants having already been proposed to the central government.

These are the simple facts that anyone who wishes to reduce global carbon emissions faces. The geopolitical reality facing any Net Zero strategy is that China’s growth will continue to define the 21st century. There is no choice but to work together with China to achieve joint successful outcomes to reduce carbon emissions.

Playing the blame game on carbon emissions is ultimately pointless as it achieves nothing. It is not a weakness either to recognise that we all have a shared future on the earth, and we must build partnerships that share how we can deliver transformations that can prevent drastic climate change before it is too late.

If China fails to reduce its greenhouse gases, we all fail. If ever there was a need for a “Nixon in China” moment, we need COP26 to deliver it if Net Zero has any chance of success.

David Davis: The Covid public inquiry should open in October, be held in two stages – and prepare for the unexpected

26 Mar

David Davis is a former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and is MP for Haltemprice and Howden.

While the dedicated staff of our NHS and public services have managed superbly under extreme pressure, it is clear that mistakes have been made during the Coronavirus crisis.

No, let me rephrase that piece of Blairite prose. We have made mistakes. The whole British ruling class. Government, advisers (scientific and otherwise), Whitehall, the lot. And not just this Government, the previous one, and the ones before that.

So it is essential that lessons are learnt. Not just by this Government, but by future governments as well.

So we must establish a public inquiry on the handling of the pandemic.

Needless to say, the architects of our strategy throughout the crisis are nervous about the implications for them, and unsurprisingly they are saying “Yes, but not yet.” Not before the next election, or not before they retire, or move on to their next job.

Unfortunately, that will not do. The principal aim of the public inquiry is not recrimination about the past, it is preparation for the future. Pandemics come out of an apparently clear blue sky, or seem to. They are a peculiar class of threat, one whose eventual arrival is certain, but whose timing is entirely unpredictable.

The sloppy thinkers in Whitehall tend to imagine that if it is going to happen in the next 20 years, the most likely time is in about ten, so we have time to prepare for the next one. They are wrong. There is an approximately equal chance of a new pandemic in every year. There are “wet-market” style interfaces between wildlife and urban populations in Asia, Africa, and South America, and as the urban populations expand there are new opportunities for zoonotic pathogens jumping species all the time.

As public health services expand, depending too much on antibiotics, the risk of new drug resistant bacteria continues. It is probably only a limited time before we have a really virulent strain of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, for example. We do not know whether the next threat will be bacterial, viral or fungal. We do not know whether it will be transmitted by air, by touch, or in our food. All we know is that there will be another pandemic at some entirely unspecified time in the future.

So we need to get a move on with the inquiry, and start as soon as possible. Of course the inquiry must be thorough, and must thoroughly review what went right and what went wrong in the Government’s handling of the pandemic. The public will expect it, and the Opposition will demand it. But the most important thing is that we learn the lessons and develop the template for the next crisis as soon as possible.

What is different from other inquiries is that there is a vast amount of data to design this rapid template for pandemic management, and most of it comes from abroad. Although we have had a spectacular success with our vaccination programme, and a lesser but important success with the RECOVERY programme (that delivered dexamethasone as a valuable therapy), the majority of the most successful strategies were in other countries, most obviously in East Asia.

There is a vast amount of data to evaluate all the national strategies and operational arrangements. There are reasonably accurate data on mortality, infection, recovery and excess other deaths on a daily basis for virtually every country in the world. Similarly there are accurate economic impact assessments available. Along with the genetic mutation data this allows us to track very accurately how the disease travelled, grew, was suppressed and was treated, and assess the effectiveness of dozens of different preventive and therapeutic approaches.

This argues for a two-stage inquiry. The first stage, which could start in October, should report on what the best template is within one year, giving us the best possible chance of dealing with another pandemic whenever it appears. The second stage can (and will) take years, and should review what we did right and what we did wrong.

While such inquiries are normally run by judges, the first stage of the inquiry might be better led by a leading scientist, possibly a past President of the Royal Society or some similarly recognised intellect. What it should not be is chaired by anybody who was an adviser to the Government in the crisis.

So this week the Health Secretary – Matt Hancock – announced that his Department will be setting out plans for a new UK Health Security Agency. The Agency will plan for, prevent and respond to external health threats, such as pandemics.

This is a welcome development to better protect the UK, our population, and communities from future external health hazards.

However, the Government has chosen Jenny Harries, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, to head up the Agency. I am not at all sure that this is wise. This is not a reflection on Harries, who may be brilliant. However the Prime Minister himself accepts that there were a number of missteps in the crisis.

These missteps taken by the Government were often based on questionable advice provided by the very same medical advisers who are now being handed the job of looking at what went wrong.

These public inquiries must be led in an unfettered way by an independent actor who is not consciously or unconsciously committed to the strategies that have failed in the past.

In due course the inquiry will review the errors that have plagued some of our Covid strategy. Before the current Government gets too nervous it should realise that many of the errors are rooted in the past, long before the current Prime Minister came to power, and often before the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government government took over in 2010.

So the advisory arrangements – SAGE et al – date back to the Blair years. They were first activated for the H1N1 swine flu outbreak in 2009. They frankly do not work very well. The idea of dumping all scientific advice into one committee is a bit bizarre, the sort of thing that liberal arts dominated Whitehall might do. It can often become dominated by a single strong character with a speciality that is beyond many of the members, as happened with Neil Ferguson and his poorly constructed and opaque mathematical model at the beginning of the crisis.

Similarly the Whitehall structures that are supposed to cope with crises are pretty poor too. The best demonstrator of this was the Operation Cygnus pandemic preparation exercise that was run a few years ago. This so-called command post-exercise was positively harmful, because it persuaded Whitehall that it was ready for a pandemic when all it rehearsed were the coping mechanisms – how many body bags you need, and should you have a mass mortuary in Hyde Park – rather than what you would actually do to minimise deaths. This is a generic problem, not just applicable to pandemics. Their “worst case” Brexit preparation was pretty poor too.

Some of the deep-rooted problems come a little later. The Public Health England structures were largely a product of the Lansley reforms, and they too were visibly not fit for purpose. It was their poor leadership that meant that we failed to hit the target of 10,000 test a day before the end of March, while Germany comfortably hit 15,000 a day in mid March. That incompetence denied the Government the strategies that worked so well for Germany in the first wave.

Then of course there were many decisions made on the fly during 2020. Obviously many of these were wrong, notwithstanding Matt Hancock’s cheerfully optimistic gloss earlier this week. But the public, and frankly anybody with any sense, knows that any government was making decisions based as much on guesswork as on hard data, and the public are very tolerant of that.

The primary area where an inquiry’s criticism is likely to fall is poor strategic management in, for example, the upper levels of NHS management. While their staff were doing a brilliant job, I am not too sure that the decisions on, for example, the deployment of the Nightingales and the private sector hospitals were entirely sensible.

These are the sort of things that will be unpicked over a few years by the second stage of the inquiry. The data will be complex and sometimes hard to establish, so it will take a significant time to resolve. Since it may be commenting on the decisions of individuals it is right that it takes its time. But that is all the more reason to start soon.

So my message to Boris Johnson is do not fear this inquiry: grasp this nettle soon, get the actionable insights quickly, reform and prepare accordingly, and then allow the commission to take its time doing a detailed inquiry over several years. History will judge you well for doing the right thing on this.