The end of 2020 and early 2021 is likely to be a time of dramatic contradictions for the UK. While the US has now approved a COVID-19 vaccine, the UK was the first western country to approve the vaccine and begin administering it, providing much-needed optimism about the end of a global pandemic. Later in 2021, the UK will host the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow, and Downing Street is keen to convene meaningful debates on an expanded group of democracies to improve the G7. At the same time, there is a high risk of a no-deal Brexit and another collapse of talks with Brussels with potentially serious economic consequences as the pandemic and flu season continues to rage. And after an initial vaccination campaign, it will likely be a long time before millions of other Britons, including some in primary care positions, receive the vaccine.
In 2021, the UK will seek to play a global role as a middle power amid recalibration. This role will be ambitious and aim to redefine the democratic order in international affairs, to deal vigorously with climate change and to act as a moderator of the great debates on global governance. As much as Prime Minister Johnson has championed the Brexit cause, he is not an isolationist and he is well aware of the role history plays in domestic affairs. Johnson is an internationalist with a deep awe and nostalgia for applying the values, culture and national interests of Britain to the interests of others. Britain is still able to deal a blow and bolster its soft power potential once it realizes the virtues of its alliances as a ship to advance its national interest in. Johnson now has the ability to instill a newer, softer British imperialism that drives other nations to follow Britain not by the power of violence but by the power of principle.
In 2021, Britain is likely to exist in the fragile spectrum of internal, internal disputes on the one hand and convergent, alliance-driven political activities on the other. There is potential for Britain to be weak internally but strong externally as Johnson’s leadership from Westminster masks disputes and disagreements with the decentralized parliaments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Britain could do more to advance global governance and the interests of democracies abroad while its union at home struggles to stay intact. The political leaders of the UK member countries have used the COVID-19 crisis to prove themselves as champions of their regional interests. A no-deal Brexit could exacerbate pre-existing regional disparities and nationalisms and further isolate London from the continent that has struggled to understand but accept its neighbor’s varied whims.
While the UK may have mistreated the COVID-19 pandemic compared to its European counterparts, it will likely emerge as the center of the pandemic’s decline in 2021 and be responsible for the growth of a post-pandemic framework. The COP26 Summit in Glasgow will be a pivotal moment for both the UK and the Scottish Government to position themselves as leaders in the fight against climate change. The UK will also make at least one successful COVID-19 vaccine that could prove a coup for Oxford and other leading research universities. The Johnson government may wish to take this opportunity to highlight the strengths of various international student organizations in UK universities that can help solve global challenges through rigorous, science-based analysis. As Mayor of London, Johnson is well aware of the economic, social and cultural value of overseas students and the importance of their ability to study and stay in the UK after Brexit.
Johnson now has an opportunity to introduce a more compassionate conservatism to younger UK voters, many of whom have voted to remain in the EU. As the New Year begins, Britain can look outward, protect its values and take the time it takes to introspect and reassess its relationship with Europe. The argument for Britain as a European nation need not be reopened, but the argument for Britain as a nation, which welcomes Europeans in the service of Britain’s national interest and image, may well be required.
Immediately after the Brexit vote, the UK’s global image was clouded. A divisive nationalism arose which was directed against immigrant groups like Poles and led many to leave the UK and suffer discrimination. In the years since Brexit, Britain has learned the strengths and limits of its power, often based on the inclusion or exclusion of certain groups. The UK’s success as a leader in the post-COVID era will likely be due to the activation and recognition of its diverse policies, as opposed to the activation of ethnocentrism among white voters that was so critical to the Brexit vote. The coming year will see if Britain can be a nation of virtuous nationalism, proud of its accomplishments but ready to surrender its success to a people who may not always have borne the fruits of the nationalism it advocated.
2021 could be a year of demystification for Britain’s nationalist tendencies, which were brought into the world with such a violent bang over four years ago. The framework for economic recovery and global governance that emerges from COVID-19 will test the strength and global prospects of the UK beyond Brexit. The UK may not return as a great power but as a power of principle, reason and pragmatic nationalism capable of assisting those who dare to make history.
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