This article was first published in The Times on 16 March 2021.
The lengthening days and progressing vaccine roll-out combine to bring a sense of March optimism in short supply during the dark days of January lockdown. But talk of a ‘new normal’ seems to have been banished with an increasing awareness of a dynamic flux of world events that presents the nation – and us all – with major uncertainty. In addition to managing COVID towards a hoped-for end game, the deep economic and social shock of the pandemic, the fallout of Brexit, the escalating climate crisis and the loss of western leadership in global affairs through the Trump era and with the rise of China all represent seismic shifts in world affairs that need to be urgently and effectively negotiated. Crucially, this is not just a laundry list of major challenges but a set of inter-connected crises. With a global economy operating beyond planetary boundaries the conditions are not just set for warming but for both the spread of pandemic disease and greater competition over resources and influence.
In the context of this complex knot of challenges I see the UK government decision to reduce its commitment to international development aid – which was due to reduce in line with our reduced national income anyway – as symptomatic of exactly the wrong sensibility with which to address these events. While some may see this as prudent housekeeping at a time of great economic threat, this move – with its inevitable erosion of influence - serves to position the UK still further to the margins of world affairs. Black Lives Matter has drawn attention to the longstanding legacy of colonialism in the structures of power that – over generations - enable the wellbeing of some and disable that of others. Given this, our further marginalisation can perhaps be viewed an appropriate comeuppance, signalling the final end of Empire. But if there was ever a time for a British, and particularly Scottish, contribution on the world stage it must be in the next five years. And while the self-confidence of seeing national values as an appropriate moral compass for the world may have been irrevocably (and justifiably) eroded, I’d suggest that there is much that the nation can and should influence in the untangling of the climate-trade-security-health super-knot. I want to highlight two areas in particular.
First is science. For all the terrors and failures of the last year in the face of COVID, science has emphatically shown itself capable of producing tangible solutions to problems and – with suitable investment and coordination – within unprecedented timescales. The current political wranglings regarding vaccine roll-out notwithstanding, this has been a global effort emphasising the cross-national nature of science collaboration. And within the cross-national networks of science the UK is – by every meaningful metric – a global superpower. Within Scotland itself, there is global leadership in biomedicine, digital technologies, clean energy etc. which connects our universities and economy to key areas of innovation worldwide.
Second is civil society. The strong communitarian spirit of Scotland not only represents a key national asset in bolstering our resilience to face the turbulence ahead. Our voluntary sector organisations, faith groups and charitable activity sustain transnational linkages with communities worldwide. In addressing issues from social justice and rights, through work on food systems and trade, to education and health they are not only contributing to local solutions, but to cross-national movements shaping shared understandings.
The trials we face as a nation in the coming months are part of a nested set of global challenges that require cross-national linkage and solidarity to solve. While the nation’s engagement in multilateral processes through the UN – and focused initiatives such as the CoP26 climate conference – will be crucial in this, we have additional non-governmental means of influence and assistance available to us. Science and civil society collaboration, in particular, represent important mechanisms of connection across nations that can serve to sustain the country’s valued place in the world though a turbulent period.
Prof Alastair Ager FRSE is Director, Institute for Global Health and Development, Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh and Professor of Population and Family Health, Columbia University, New York. He served as Deputy Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Department for International Development from 2017-2020.