We lead the world in some of the most exciting sectors of the 21st century – from biosciences to artificial intelligence to financial services and tech of every description. We need to keep pace with developments on the west coast of America and in the Pearl River delta. We need the Brexit-given chance to turbo-charge those sectors in which we excel, to do things differently and to do them better.
That takes me to the second big success of the last week. In the dying days of 2020 a beacon of hope has been lit in the labs of Oxford, with the invention of a new vaccine against Covid, a vaccine that can be produced cheaply and on a vast scale and that can be distributed at room temperature, and is therefore of potential benefit to billions of people around the world.
In the genesis of that vaccine there is a lesson for this country and our way ahead, because it is a brilliant collaboration: between state activism and free market capitalism. That vaccine would not exist without government intervention – indeed it was thanks to government scientists that Oxford partnered with the British firm AstraZeneca (the lineal descendant of Brunner Mond and ICI) and not with a rival American firm. It was thanks to Government cash that the vaccine was developed.
But it was thanks to the commercial savvy and drive of Astra Zeneca that we have a UK-made vaccine that is good to go into people’s arms less than a year after the pandemic began. So the lesson is that you need both – both public and private sector.
Sometimes we will need to regulate differently or better, and that may mean taking advantage of Brexit’s freedoms; and we will also need the state to lead, to make the investments in infrastructure, education and technology that will create the framework for business to invest; and whether that is through new freeports, or stimulating jobs and growth in parts of this country that have felt left behind for too long, there may also be ways in which we will take advantage of this freedom – a freedom that is born today.
We must face the reality of the challenge ahead – the bitter economic consequences of being forced to fight covid with lockdowns. We know that many people have lost, and will continue to lose, their jobs – through absolutely no fault of their own. We will continue with our measures to help business and protect jobs and livelihoods.
But we also know that there is no country on earth that is so fertile in creating new employment, in conjuring up new ideas and new industries where none existed before. When I look at the battery technology of the West Midlands – in which we lead the world – or at the extraordinary and growing wind farms of the Dogger Bank, I see not only a UK leading the world in making green energy and tackling climate change.
I see the creation of hundreds of thousands of high-skill high wage jobs that will last for a generation; and though state activism may be necessary, it is almost always the private sector, and private initiative and enterprise, that is actually creating those jobs.
When I look at the vaccines rolling off the production line in Wrexham – and believe me, there was nothing like that factory when I tried to get elected next door almost a quarter of a century ago – I can see how much Britain has changed and is capable of change. With a great Brexit deal, and with a cheap and effective UK-made vaccine, we are creating the potential trampoline for the national bounceback.
The moment is not yet come; and I cannot stress too much that the next weeks and months will still require courage and patience and discipline. But with every jab that goes into the arms of the elderly and vulnerable, we are changing the odds: against Covid, and in favour of the human race.
In the distance and through the darkness we can see the brightly illuminated pub sign of our destination – the normal convivial life that we have been forced to leave behind and that is so vital for our economy. We are not there yet, but we are not far off; and most importantly, we can see with ever-growing clarity how we are going to get there.
Happy New Year!