09 July 2020
Clearing the Decks
For the great push.
By John Watson
The offer of UK visas and ultimately British citizenship to some 40% of the population of Hong Kong ramps things up on a number of levels. Internationally it is a slap in the face for the Chinese authorities, reciprocating the breach of their undertakings about Hong Kong’s self government with a breach of our own undertaking not to offer citizenship to Hong Kong citizens. Domestically too it has an impact beyond the obvious practical difficulties of accommodating more people on our small island should a substantial number decide to come here.
A lot was said at the time of the Brexit referendum about how one of the drivers behind the “yes” vote was anxiety about immigration, and yet here we are with the proponents of Brexit in government and looking at possible new wave of Chinese settlers with apparent equanimity. That isn’t to say that it is a particularly Tory initiative; no doubt Labour would have done the same, but it does demonstrate a pleasingly international approach as we move towards the end of our transitional arrangements with the EU.
As the coronavirus fades, governments throughout the world have the opportunity of rebalancing society, of establishing new equilibria. Much will be destroyed and that will make room for new growth. It is their role to ensure that the new growth is stronger and healthier than what it replaces and nowhere will the destruction and the opportunity for change be as great as in the UK where the dislocation due to the virus will be augmented by the end of our participation as a member in EU markets and institutions.
When we start the New Year, making the perhaps rash assumption that that will be when the virus will be contained worldwide, we will have the task of building a new Britain and it is likely to be a forbidding one. We will be excluded from EU projects. Our continental trading will have been badly disrupted. We will need to take over many of the controls which are being applied from Brussels. It is quite a list but in the end it will just have to be done and we will need every ounce of determination, agility and resourcefulness in order to do it. We will also need a sense of optimism and that is why it is good to see us taking a firm and optimistic line on Hong Kong.
Still, in the end, hope and optimism are not going to be enough. We are going to have to make fundamental social changes, reallocating resources to create opportunity for young people. Businesses will need to rethink the markets. Society will have to become more inclusive. To achieve reforms on the scale needed we will have to increase the quality of our administration.
Military strategist will tell you that when war is declared the first thing to do is to sack all the generals. That isn’t because they haven’t done a good job up till now or because they do not have useful experience. It is because command in wartime requires different qualities from command in peacetime and new young talented aggressive officers are essential if campaigns are to be conducted successfully. Different objectives require different men. It is as simple as that. By analogy, then, the rebuilding of Britain after the shocks we are sustaining will require a new generation of top civil servants. Young talented men and women must come through. The older generation, hopefully moved to places with their experience can still be tapped, are no longer the right people to lead the charge. That is why we are seeing a number of changes at the core of the civil service at the moment and why those who understandably cry out against the squandering of so much knowledge and experience are missing the real point. Whichever politicians, Tory or Labour, govern Britain in the next few years, we are embarking on a period of reform and to come through that successfully we will need a great deal of confidence, many new brooms and a good deal of luck. Hopefully the move regarding Hong Kong is a sign of confidence. Hopefully the moves in the civil service will bring in new brooms. We will just have to pray for the luck.