Britain is entering a parallel universe

Niall Ferguson

In Philip Pullman’s series of fantasy novels, “His Dark Materials,” we enter a universe containing an infinity of parallel worlds. In the most important of these worlds, which is similar to ours in many respects, evolution and history have had subtly different outcomes. Human beings have visible souls — small, semi-autonomous “daemons” that take the shapes of animals. And the Reformation has failed, leaving Europe still under the dominance of an obscurantist and oppressive “Magisterium.”

The home of the indomitably mendacious young heroine, Lyra Silvertongue, is an Oxford in which the nearest thing to physics is “experimental theology.” The Scientific Revolution has not been fully achieved and the Industrial Revolution looks equally incomplete. Lyra’s is a world that remains in many ways early modern. There are no planes, only balloons and airships. There is a primitive form of electricity but “anbaric” light is a luxury. The social order too lags behind our own. Servants rather than machines still perform most menial tasks. There are priories full of nuns. Politics remains an aristocratic preserve.

You are unlikely to have read “His Dark Materials” unless you have children, but perhaps you saw some of the recent HBO adaptation, notable for an unexpected and not wholly convincing appearance by Lin-Manuel Miranda as the Texan balloonist Lee Scoresby. If you’ve never even heard of Pullman, educate yourself. For he is not only as significant an author as that other great Oxonian C.S. Lewis (in many ways, the initial book in the series, “The Golden Compass,” is the atheist’s answer to “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”). Pullman also seems unwittingly to have written an intimation of the post-pandemic world.

There are a great many of us who still want to believe that at some point this year we shall all get back to normal — meaning life will resume more or less exactly as it was at the end of 2019. I am sure that by the summer it will feel in most developed countries that the worst of Covid-19 is over, thanks to a combination of mass vaccination and naturally acquired immunity. I am also confident that there will be a protracted global party to celebrate the reopening of bars and restaurants and the easing of at least some travel restrictions.

I fully expect a bout of rapid economic growth to ensue: Consumers have accumulated a vast sum of forced savings, a large proportion of which they are poised to spend — even before governments add fuel to the fire in the form of yet more fiscal stimulus.

Nevertheless, I am doubtful that our near-term future is going to revert entirely to the pre-pandemic normal. First, the SARS-CoV-2 virus is mutating in ways that few people foresaw a year ago, becoming more transmissible or more vaccine-resistant.

Second, the dominance of vaccine nationalism over global inoculation, combined with significant “anti-vaxxer” sentiment in countries that will soon have more vaccine shots than they require, will leave the virus with plenty of time and space to evolve further, especially in the Southern hemisphere. The elimination of Covid seems a distant prospect. A more likely scenario is that it will become an endemic, seasonal disease, requiring annual shots and causing recurrent waves of excess mortality.

Third, the hypermobility of the pre-pandemic era is highly unlikely to resume any time soon. Many countries that have managed to suppress the disease (e.g. Australia and New Zealand) will maintain travel restrictions. Few large businesses will return to their previous volume of corporate travel: Many meetings that would previously have necessitated long-haul flights will continue to happen over Zoom. A significant proportion of relatively high-skilled people will continue to work from home at least part of the time. And will you throw away all those masks? Will you resume hugs and handshakes of people outside your innermost circle? I know I won’t.

Fourth, Covid-19 has exposed how very poor our preparedness for disasters of all kinds has become, the central theme of my forthcoming book, “Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe.” There is a consensus that the next disaster we shall have to contend with will be related to climate change: That is Bill Gates’s story. Yet there are other disasters lurking out there to which we attach much lower probabilities. The eruption of Mount Etna last week is a reminder that the world has not seen a really large volcanic eruption since Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815. It has been two centuries since the annual amount of sulphate aerosol injected into the atmosphere by volcanic eruptions exceeded 50 million tons. We have forgotten how severe volcanic global cooling can be.

There’s a pervasive darkness to Philip Pullman’s worlds that I cannot help suspecting may characterize our world in the years ahead. Much of “The Golden Compass” is set in “the North,” including the frigid Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. Texan readers are discovering that the weather of the north can now reach a lot further south than we are used to. In “The Subtle Knife,” we encounter a beautiful Mediterranean country where specters hunt down adults and suck the vitality out of them — where only children are oblivious to and safe from the danger. It is remarkable how Pullman anticipated our ageist pandemic. In “The Golden Compass,” kids are cruelly separated from their daemons. In the Covid world, they are cruelly separated from their friends.

“The Book of Dust” depicts Lyra’s Oxford devastated by a disastrous flood. Those who live there can easily imagine such an inundation, having seen the Thames so often burst its banks and submerge Port Meadow in recent years.

Nowhere does the future look less like the recent past and more like Pullman’s parallel universe than in his own country, England. True, 2021 has got off to a much better start for the U.K. than 2020 did. Thanks to world-class research at Oxford and elsewhere, bold procurement decisions led by Kate Bingham, head of the government’s task force, and the experience of the National Health Service in mass vaccination, the U.K. has surged ahead of the European Union in the vaccination race.

The European Commission has handled the vaccine challenge so badly — simultaneously centralizing procurement and slowing it down, then lashing out at the U.K. with empty threats to close the border between Northern Ireland and the South — that even the most ardent proponents of Brexit can scarcely believe it. (“I understand Brexit better now,” a pro-EU source at the drug company AstraZeneca told the Spectator last month.) Close to a quarter of the U.K. population has now received at least once vaccine dose, compared with 12% in the U.S. and less than 4% in Germany.

However, this success story comes after an annus horribilis. Excluding tiny Gibraltar and San Marino, the U.K. has the third-worst Covid mortality rate of any country in the world, exceeded only by Slovenia and Belgium. The country saw two of the world’s worst waves of excess mortality, in April last year and again over the Christmas holidays.

The U.K.’s gross domestic product shrank by 9.9% last year, the worst performance of any major economy apart from Spain, according to the International Monetary Fund. The last annual contraction larger than that was in 1709, when economic activity was steeply reduced throughout Europe by the “Great Frost,” the coldest winter in five hundred years. This has been attributed by modern research to the exceptionally low sunspot activity known as the Maunder Minimum, as well as to volcanic eruptions in the two preceding years at Mount Fuji, in Japan, and Santorini and Vesuvius, in Europe.

The worst years in English economic history, according to the Bank of England, were 1629, when the economy contracted by 25%, and 1349, when it shrank by 23%. The 1340s were the decade of the Black Death. I still cannot work out what went wrong in 1629, a year best known to political historians as the beginning of Charles I’s 11-year “Personal Rule” without a parliament.

A contraction of nearly 10% turns the economic clock of a country back around six years. Also turning the clock back is the effect of Brexit, which formally came into effect at the beginning of this year, after four and half years of divorce negotiations. As I warned back after the June 2016 referendum, Brexit was always going to be one of those divorces that takes a lot longer and costs a lot more than the exiting spouse imagined at the outset. Sure enough, now that Britain has its decree nisi, the true costs of splitting up can no longer be glossed over. The U.K. has opted to phase in border checks on EU imports gradually until July 1, whereas U.K. exports to the EU have faced the full suite of new restrictions since Jan. 1. The Road Haulage Association has reported that U.K. exports to the EU have fallen by more than two thirds, though the government does not accept this claim. 

    (To be continued)

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. 

Source Bloomberg