As has no doubt been drilled into all of our minds by this time, thanks to endless round robin emails and articles in the press, 2020 has been a year unlike any other. The spread of the coronavirus from China to the rest of the world saw governments across the globe resort to unprecedented measures in order to protect their citizens. As a result, we have seen dramatic economic decline and fast rises in the number of people out of work. And yet amidst all the doom and gloom of 2020 there have also been some glimmers of hope.
Perhaps in order to cheer ourselves up, we should start with one of the greatest highs of 2020 – and that is that we can continue to maintain our faith in human beings as a species in being able to pull themselves together in the face of adversity and adapt. Casting our minds back to the beginning of the year and the first lockdown, few (if anyone at all) were prepared for the measures that would have to come into force to keep us safe from COVID-19 as it worked its way out of Wuhan and into the world.
And yet, despite everything, people managed to pull together. Shortages of protective equipment were met by an almost war economy-type movement to produce as much as possible to keep frontline workers protected as they treated the first patients of the disease. The voluntary economy, that for so long we as conservatives have advocated, woke up and sprung into action. Society suddenly became about voluntarism – people working together to help their fellow man. From neighbours offering to pick up groceries and medication for each other, to schools and factories turning their 3D printers towards manufacturing facemasks, to the images of a hundred year-old veteran raising record-breaking amounts in support of the health service and rightfully earning a knighthood for his efforts, we as conservatives should rightfully applaud the way in which people came together for mutual support.
And it didn’t stop with just individuals supporting each other, but with nations doing the same. The European Union’s limp and slow response – which eventually forced an apology from the Commission President – meant that member states themselves were forced to work with one another on a bilateral basis. Once again showing the cumbersome EU provides an unfit model for crisis management or support, financial support is slow coming even now. Poland sent doctors to Italy, the Czech Republic sent medical equipment to Spain, Germany opened its hospitals up to Belgium. Cooperation between sovereign nation states proved more effective than the supranationalism pushed by eurocrats in Brussels.
Equally, we should be proud of the way that the transatlantic alliance jumped to action. NATO turned its logistic lines, which would otherwise transport troops and munitions, to transporting medical staff and equipment. Before this crisis NATO was facing criticism from the likes of President Macron who called it ‘brain dead’, but yet, when asked to step up and deliver, NATO did everything in its power to support its members and save lives. We as conservatives now owe it to defend NATO and remind people what it did for us during this crisis.
Of course, 2020 still took its toll in other ways. We have seen an unprecedented growth in the size and scale of the state, including the dramatic overreach of those in charge when it comes to enforcing lockdowns. While it is hard to argue against the effectiveness of lockdowns, it is easy to make the claim that the way in which they were enforced was a step too far. Police in many countries were given outrageous powers to investigate people in the privacy of their own homes, as well as the means to track citizens.
Or perhaps even more worrying still is the rise of national borrowing and debt on a scale unseen in peacetime. The economic catastrophe that has followed the lockdowns, and will continue beyond the pandemic, will test the strength of our markets to breaking point. Especially as entire sectors such as retail, travel and hospitality have been decimated – with massive job losses and closures. The go-to solution for governments has been to borrow, but borrowing cannot last forever, especially as one way or another those debts will have to be repaid.
As conservatives there is a responsibility to ensure strict fiscal responsibility, both on a national level and on a European level. We all know that real growth cannot come when the tax and debt burdens are high – it comes when the state steps out of the way and allows people to build their businesses freely and in a competitive market.
This problem is perhaps best exemplified by another of the low points of 2020 – the negotiations of the Multiannual Financial Framework of the European Union, or in plain English, the EU Budget. Despite one of the EUs largest economies leaving over cost – there has been an insistence on increasing the budget and expanding spending. Ultimately this will have to be funded through more borrowing and higher taxes.
However, this did see an interesting positive emerge. Many EU member states fed up with the out of control spending have spoken up. The so called Frugal Four (The Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Austria) pushed back at the wasteful way in which the Union goes about spending money. For conservatives this is a good sign that there is a growing movement to force the EU to live within its means. Fiscal conservatism could yet make a comeback after a year in which public spending has gone out of control at the expense of the taxpayer.
This leaves us the question of what we have to look forward to in 2021 as conservatives. Given that the current situation is set to continue until at least Easter in many countries around the world, not much. However, as conservatives we have a duty to be optimistic and stoic, and so there are of course things we can hope for next year. For one we can expect to see a growing push back by people against state control, and against irresponsible spending as the recession bites. Equally, we are likely to see an increase in Euroscepticism as the EU continues to flutter rather than act on key issues whilst people’s lives are at stake. Finally, there are always elections to look forward to with conservative prospects. With every election comes the chance for new conservative movements to break through.
Either way 2021, like 2020, will be one of challenges and opportunities, and it is for conservatives around the world to seize every opportunity for growth.