‘Tis the season for retrospectives of the world’s oddest year – humorous, “humorous”, or factual. This is not one of them.
I was meant to write one and didn’t – more than any other year the list of unconnected events and strands from previous decades reaching an unsatisfying conclusion refused to coalesce into a satisfying (in a purely literary sense, which is the best we can hope for) story.
We end the year almost as we started it – a declaration that Brexit is “done” belies years of hard, technical, negotiation ahead of us. Not even Boris Johnson has the balls to claim the pandemic is “done” – though the emergence of vaccines is hopeful the continuing mismanagement of measures to contain the virus (always too little, always too late) has already seen one homegrown mutation put the UK at higher risk. We are blessed with a government that sees getting to the end of a news cycle unscathed as a major achievement – the cabinet simply does not have the range to look further ahead.
But here I am, rattling on about 2020 having already offered myself the caveat that a summary of the year is impossible. We learned a new phrase in the last 12 months: “reasonable worst case scenario”, when uttered by or near Michael Gove it proved the best guide as to what was likely to come next. For 2021 I present an “unreasonable worst case scenario”. This is stuff that could happen, but probably won’t. Hopefully it will offer a little catharsis – things surely cannot be this bad. Can they?
Happy new year.
With the wheels coming off the shiny new EU/UK trade deal at speed – fishermen, farmers, and financiers are just the first among many groups to feel the pain. Emergency legislation allows for the recognition of overseas qualifications for health care, engineering, and veterinary science – forestalling three major crises, but every day brings a new issue.
For the man and woman in the street one “brexit bonus” is a rise in price and a drop first in quality and then in availability of fresh fruit and vegetables. The first articles about the possibility of rationing appear in the ever-war-obsessed Mail, leading to noisy rebuttals from the government.
In the US the Georgia run off elections are tightly contested – one Democrat and one Republican join the Senate, just in time to see Vice President Mike Pence refuse to count electoral college votes from “disputed states” and attempts to declare Donald Trump president. Constitutional scholars settle in for another painful year – it is clear that Biden will become President eventually, but the path is complex. There are violent demonstrations in major cities.
The pandemic rages on in the UK – England enters “Tier 5” en mass, with schools and universities mostly (there are many exceptions) teaching online. Those academic and teacher trade unions that have not already balloted for industrial action do so. The vaccination process is in chaos as it emerges incomplete instructions (incredibly, the last page of a pdf was corrupted) have led to many doses of the Pfizer vaccine being lost, and production at scale of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is delayed due to slow development of UK chemical safety regulations following a decision by the Science Minister to diverge from European REACH standard and a huge backlog of freight at UK ports.
One bright point sees Boris Johnson resign on 31 January. Citing continued health problems (rumoured to be long Covid) his speech in a blizzard outside Downing Street sees him luxuriate in having delivered a brexit deal and “beaten” the virus – he announces an end to Tier 5 next month.
The sunlit uplands are just over the next brow. But I am not the one to lead you there. The work has been done, now a new leader will help us reap the rewards.
Joe Biden formally becomes the 47th President of the United States, in a delayed, indoor, small scale inauguration (the first in history) following a Supreme Court ruling and a change to the 20th Amendment. Trump has not gone quietly, taking to YouTube to share increasingly bizarre conspiracy theories as Twitter finally ban his account. A sizable minority of the US population respond to his invective about the size of Biden’s crowd and his “ratings” taking to the streets as the combination of several new strains of Covid-19 and a severe winter storm make the streets a very dangerous place to be.
Storms (in particular Storm Gavin) bedevil the launch of the Conservative leadership contest too. The field is missing some notable big names – Liz Truss and Priti Patel have been “encouraged” not to stand, as rumours suggest very negative stories (eye-wateringly so in Truss’ case) are set to emerge. Sajid Javid declines to stand for “personal reasons”. Michael Gove and Rishi Sunak are the early favourites, but eyebrows are raised as Liz Truss and Esther McVey endorse the unlikely candidacy of Gavin Williamson.
There are reports of significant food shortages in some less accessible areas of Britain – the Scottish Government signs what is almost immediately described by UK caretaker PM Michael Gove as an “illegal deal” with the EU to fly produce directly to Thurso and Inverness.
Schools and universities are still online for most learners – and there’s concern at the Department for Education as a group of undergraduate performing arts students call for a judicial review of a recent refusal to countenance fee refunds in the light of an inability to perform. Gavin Williamson is on typically combative form:
If universities cannot provide high quality education to students then they should refund their fees. This is not a matter for government
It emerges that Michael Gove’s first conversation with Joe Biden went excruciatingly badly. The US ambassador confirms that there is “no appetite” for a deal with the UK, and encourages the UK to rejoin the EU and join negotiations for an “unprecedented” EU-US deal. In a speech, Biden describes the UK as an example of the fractious and divisive politics the US needs to move away from. Gove withdraws from the leadership contest.
Most of the UK is focused on the perilous state of the NHS. Covid cases keep rising, and the vaccine appears to be of only limited use against several new strains in circulation. On the eve of the Budget, it emerges that a lack of available staff has caused two large hospitals to close their doors to new patients.
Once again faced with placing spending plans on hold to deal with a new crisis, Rishi Sunak opts for radicalism, and introduces a £25 “covid charge” for GP and hospital visits, time limited for three months. The ensuing uproar nearly topples the government, and Sunak immediately withdraws the plan and stands down from the leadership contest.
Announced alongside the Budget, the government response to the Augar Report sees tuition fees reduced to £7,500 for most courses, but government support unavailable for many subjects deemed “inessential”. UCU immediately begin a strike, and thousands of students join them. Gavin Williamson’s response is typically dismissive – he introduces the Universities (Free Speech and Academic Freedom) Bill, winning positive reviews from the conservative-leaning press as he enters the members vote for the leadership in competition with Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.
Manchester and Liverpool join Scotland in securing supplies of fresh food via a deal with the EU. As most of the EU, and indeed most of the world, is seeing Covid case numbers fall, there are concerns in the European Parliament about the safety of those making the deliveries. The increasingly embattled Michael Gove declares these deals a breach of international law, and crashes the remaining Brexit negotiations out of spite, three days before the deadline. This particularly hits the logistics industry, who were hoping for an end to complex additional customs declarations made via a government IT system that is manifestly not fit for purpose.
Nissan, Airbus, BMW, and many others close UK factories.
Just two months away from his centenary, Prince Philip passes away peacefully in his sleep. The Queen is devastated – there is a national outpouring of grief and sympathy. A subdued state funeral sees one unlikely shot of the stoic and unflappable queen alongside a clearly emotional and gesticulating Gavin Williamson go viral – the internet wag who added the caption “Ooh Betty” faces death threats. “Some Mothers Do Ave Em” is quickly removed from BritBox but becomes an unlikely international hit.
This new found fame and “meme value” sees Williamson win the leadership election, and take office as Prime Minister. There is no large reshuffle – the new PM claims “Britain expects me to get on with the job.”, but Esther McVey becomes Secretary of State for Education, and Gove returns to the back benches.
Williamson’s first acts are divisive and petty – he warns the EU that future “illegal” imports will be met by military force, and sets up a “Commission on British Values” (led by the newly enobled Toby Young – Lord Young of Greater Bristols) in response to what he describes as the “out of control” liberal media, though it is widely seen as a response to the continued proliferation of Frank Spencer memes. These acts particularly inflame the devolved nations of the UK, with Nicola Sturgeon seizing the initiative ahead of May’s elections.
A dark day for Britain sees the total number of deaths with Covid passing 200,000 – with much of the recent peak attributed to the almost total collapse of the NHS. Staff are exhausted and – in many cases – seriously ill. Vaccines are effective against some, but not all, currently circulating strains – the urgent need for new vaccines is noted abroad, but at home staff at Oxford join university colleagues for a symbolic single day of the ongoing strike.
All this is eclipsed as the long-over due eruption of Mount Vesuvius sees a major international humanitarian effort as millions living in central Italy are displaced – the plume of ash grounds all flights in Europe and food and medicines are transported by sea, road, and rail. Due to the continued high level of Covid-19 infections in the UK, aid volunteered is rejected.
Those grounded flights include the “illegal” flights carrying food to parts of the UK. Some areas of Scotland, Wales, and the North of England are now facing severe food shortages – riots break out in smaller towns.
There have been calls to postpone the elections in Scotland and Wales – but the anger in both countries ensures that both continue, albeit using online voting. The results are astonishing – the huge SNP victory cements Scotland as almost a single party state, and unprecedented gains by Plaid Cymru sees them hold the balance of power in Wales. Both devolved governments seek permission to hold a referendum on independence, as does Northern Ireland – which has grown closer to the Republic of Ireland as the latter has provided food and financial support. Prime Minister Williamson angrily refuses on all three counts.
The Government is wiped out in local elections in England – Labour retains London, but the big news is the swing to Nigel Farage’s “Reform UK” party. Promising an end to lockdown restrictions, the party now controls many local authorities. It refuses to co-operate with current and future national government anti-Covid measures, citing research shared on a local Facebook group.
With flights still grounded across Europe as the Vesuvius ash cloud persists, the food situation in the UK is becoming perilous. The French decision to close the border in the light of a continued growth in Covid cases makes the UK a genuine “island nation” – Williamson, in the face of worsening food riots, introduces rationing and mobilises the Army. Currency speculation forces a devaluation of the pound – many choose to keep their savings in Euros. Matt Hancock resigns as health secretary, before disappearing in mysterious circumstances. Rishi Sunak resigns as Chancellor of the Exchequer and from parliament – he takes a job in Frankfurt.
The Eurovision Song contest is cancelled.
With the school year nearly over, year 11 and year 13 students are still expected to sit final exams despite being taught online for the entirety of 2021. McVey, backed by Williamson, postpones GCSE and A level exams until August and declares all university offers null and void until final results are known. The UKs teachers take action short of a strike and refuse to administer the exams.
In the US, an explosion in Richmond, VA during a Presidential visit is initially attributed to “Continuity Trump” forces. It is the only such event in what is widely seen as a successful first six months of the Biden administration- Covid-19 cases in the US are falling after a successful vaccination programme and the economy is finally beginning to stabilise. However it emerges that the bomb was a part of an assassination plot funded by the government of North Korea, prompting global condemnation. There is no statement from North Korea.
Though the delayed Euro2020 has now been cancelled, Europe is beginning to return to normal and flights resume – restablishing food deliveries to the areas that have signed a deal with the EU. Williamson again warns that such deliveries are illegal, but as rationing continues other international agencies (such as UNICEF, the Red Cross and the World Bank) join the scheme – delivering sorely needed food and aid to most parts of the UK.
It emerges that French President Emmanuel Macron recently described Britain as a “failed state” at a European Council meeting – this language is leapt on by pro-independence campaigners in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Each nation has opted to conduct a “non-binding advisory” referendum, to be held online on the same day in September 2020. Dominic Cummings re-emerges from a basement in Durham to lead the “stronger together” campaign.
The world is shaken as Russian President Vladimir Putin is assassinated in Novosibirsk. Again, initial assumptions that internal opposition was to blame are shattered as once again all signs point to North Korean state activity. This time North Korea does respond, angrily dismissing the charges and asking for clemency and support following the recent death of Kim Jong-Un. A power vacuum at the top of both Russia and North Korea sees Joe Biden put US forces on a state of high readiness.
The UK armed forces are still busy managing food rationing and emergency medical treatment – Covid-19 cases at last seem to be subsiding as a late summer finally sets in. The huge economic damage the extended pandemic, coupled with brexit, has wrought becomes painfully apparent, and Prime Minister Williamson seeks an emergency loan with the IMF. The terms of this loan require the full-scale privatisation of education and health provision – two systems that are now almost completely non-functional in the UK. In parallel, the EU offers an aid package including financing without such stringent conditions should the UK choose to rejoin the EU.
Williamson loses the key vote on the IMF package in the Commons, but an SNP motion on rejoining the EU also fails to pass. Dominic Cummings resigns from “Stronger together”, posting an 8,000 word blog post that describes Williamson as a “gangling ignoramous”, and quotes Vannever Bush, Eric Raymond, and General Otto von Bismark, before announcing Cummings’ attention to move to Russia.
Britain is refused permission to compete in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics – the prevalence of Covid-19 is deemed too high and the risk of infection too great. It is noted that the impact of rationing and poor health care on elite athletes would render the team uncompetitive anyway, but after a bleak six months it is seen as an exemplar of how low Britain has fallen.
As was widely predicted, A levels and GCSEs have been cancelled in England for 2020-21, but with teachers still on strike, there are no alternative measures that can be used for college and university admissions.
Eight months after Brexit and Europe looks very different. A widespread pride at the way the Vesuvius eruption was handled has driven the public mood away from the dalliances with populism seen in 2019. Continued problems in Britain has seen Frankfurt establish itself as a global financial centre. But, although both Switzerland and Norway are now applying for membership, there is concern to the east.
No clear leadership has emerged in Russia following the death of Putin. There are several regional groupings seeking independence, and the situation appears to be changing almost daily. The US has moved armed forces into both Eastern Europe and North Korea, the latter secretive state having turned uncharacteristically quiet.
In the UK Secretary of State for Education Esther McVey has declared her intention to “reset” the 2020-21 academic year. The idea is that learners at all levels (from primary to university levels) should simply retake their current year of study starting in September. No additional funding is offered for this. The university and school staff industrial action, scheduled to come to an end later this month, is extended indefinitely.
The revised Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is being distributed through the UK population by the Army. Case numbers are dropping, but deaths are still rising due to poor nutrition as rationing continues and the impact of long Covid. Farmers across Europe report that the spring Vesuvius ash cloud has caused “substantial” damage to the 2021 crop, and another poor harvest is forecast. The EU indicates it will be forced to cut back on food aid to the UK. It will be a hungry winter everywhere.
The Young Report (the “Commission on British Values”), timed to be released before the referenda in the devolved nations, calls for a list of “protected cultural symbols” to be defended in law. The proposals see the works of Roald Dahl, JK Rowling, Enid Blyton and the collected writings of Jeremy Clarkson given a special protected status, along with the Robinson’s Golliwog, school Nativity plays, the postcards of Donald McGill, Irn Bru, daffodils, bowler hats, and Carry On films. Disparaging them is to be met by fines or a prison sentence. An annex suggests that Student Unions will be required to host five speakers from an “approved list” in order to maintain charitable designation. Given the current state of basic services in the UK, the report is met with global hilarity.
Scotland and Northern Ireland vote overwhelmingly for independence in advisory referenda. Leave also wins, though less convincingly, in Wales. The three nations join together to seek negotiations with the Williamson administration, and when rebuffed each unilaterally declares independence. Northern Ireland announces it is to seek an “ever-closer union” with the Republic of Ireland, Scotland and Wales apply to a specially created “fast track” to join the EU, and adopt the Euro as currency.
England has been blindsided by what Gavin Williamson describes as a “constitutional coup”. His arguments about the referenda being “advisory” and “non-binding” fail to convince even his own backbenchers. The 1922 committee chair receives more letters than he can count, and Williamson is forced to stand down. A tearful valedictory speech sees him propose to return to his true calling in fireplace sales.
The second leadership election in a year sees few names go forward. Esther McVey is an early frontrunner, as is a surprise bid from Jacob Rees Mogg. All of this is too much for Queen Elizabeth II, who announces her intention to abdicate in favour of her son, Charles.
Amid all this, the announcement that Covid-19 restrictions will end passes almost without comment. Around 60 per cent of the UK is estimated to be vaccinated or to have antibodies against the dominant UK strain of Covid.
Disturbing rumours suggest that Dominic Cummings is pulling strings behind an ongoing Kremlin power battle that shows no signs of subsiding.
A private space mission run to resupply the international space station sees an unmanned cargo rocket explode over Siberia. Terrifying at the best of times, the disaster sees US and European military placed on the highest level of alert, and covert operations conducted in both Russia and North Korea.
The latter finds a starving and impoverished population suffering from a new variant of avian flu – shocking pictures show corpses literally lining the streets. International concern yields a statement from new “supreme leader” Kim Yo-jong, who blamed internal dissidents for the deliberate spread of a biological weapon.
Dominic Cummings is declared “interim administrator” of Russia and announces an intention to restore the house of Romanov. The California-dwelling heir to the throne of Russia, 98 year old Prince Andrew Romanov, preemptively accepts the title Emperor.
In the UK industrial action has ended, and schools and universities are beginning to return – teaching the 2020-21 academic year for the second time. Funding for this is provided by a further devaluation of the pound by interim prime minister Sajid Javid – most people in the UK now have savings in Euros or US dollars and many international agencies are expressing concerns about UK finances.
After his coronation, King George VII, indicates his acceptance of the independence of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It is seen as a constitutional novelty, but – in the absence of a fully functioning Westminster government – a necessary one. Wales and Scotland join the EU, Northern Ireland becomes an “autonomous region” of the Republic of Ireland. Aid and food flows into the nations, who end rationing. Restrictions remain in England, and the NHS has largely reopened – though it is running very low on medicines and supplies.
Jacob Rees Mogg is set to become the first High Treasurer of England since the sixteenth century, after King George’s permission removes the bar on practicing Catholics holding political power. The Church of England sees disestablishment.
The UN Climate Change conference takes place in Glasgow, in a newly independent Scotland. Rees Mogg pointedly refuses to attend. A poorly maintained oil storage facility – which saw routine maintenance delayed during the extended UK pandemic -situated off the North East of Scotland develops a catastrophic leak, endangering the coastline and marine life.
This provokes international condemnation, which lasts all of three days when it emerges that an RBMK reactor near St Petersburg appears to have developed a critical fault. Interim Administrator of Russia Dominic Cummings insists that the situation at the obsolete reactor is under control, but a plume of radioactive waste is spread by the first of the major winter storms (Storm Wilson) and contaminates the majority of arable land in north-west Europe. Thankfully a major explosion is avoided, but Russia admits that the remaining RBMK reactors should be shut down immediately.
This increases Russian reliance on gas powered generation, pausing the established trade in natural gas and plunging parts of Europe into darkness. This in turn causes the EU to end the agreement allowing the use of the IFA, BritNed and Moyle interconnectors to bring power into England- and additional hydroelectric power capacity from Wales and Scotland is diverted to the continent. A series of rolling blackouts begins in England, which now faces a severe lack in generation capacity. Most remaining factories start a three-day week.
Worrying reports of a highly infectious strain of avian flu emerge from garrisons in South Korea. Analysis finds that this is the same strain found in North Korea, and is natural in origin – not a biological weapon. The strain spreads quickly to other parts of the far east.
The year ends in darkness in England, as power supplies dwindle and food rationing intensifies. High Chancellor Rees-Mogg calls on the English people to display their customary resolve and pluck – the English people burn effigies of him and begin food raids over the Welsh and Scottish borders. King George calls for peace and tolerance – the governments of Wales and Scotland agree at his urging to send what little food aid they can to England. With the 2021 European harvest ruined rationing of some items also begins in the EU.
Borders are closed quickly as the new strain of avian flu spreads fast, but the first case reaches England (a smuggler from Spain) early in the month. The infection rips through a weakened and starving English population, with the NHS quickly unable to cope.
US astronomers spot a previously unidentified comet passing through the orbit of Mars – the shape and trajectory hid the object from most telescopes. On YouTube former President Trump describes it as “fake news”. It is estimated that there is only a 15 per cent chance that it will pass near enough to the Earth to be cause for alarm. The new avian flu pandemic hinders international action, and it is decided via a Zoom call to which England is not invited that there is no meaningful countermeasures that can be taken. It is all up to luck.
High Chancellor Rees-Mogg releases the Pearce Review of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework. Nobody cares.