We shall go forward together. The road upwards is stony. There are upon our journey dark and dangerous valleys through which we have to make and fight our way. But it is sure and certain that if we persevere – and we shall persevere – we shall come through these dark and dangerous valleys into a sunlight broader and more genial and more lasting than mankind has ever known.
It was pouring with rain and I envied my baby brother in his pram. My mother had walked us a couple of miles to see him and I was standing amongst all these excitedly chattering women when he arrived. There were few men around those days. He was sitting in a big open-topped Rolls Royce and, as he passed, he looked in our direction and gave a V-sign. The women cheered and my brother slept on.
Nearly 80 years later, we discussed our childhood together and he didn't remember. Of course, he was only two years old at the time. Or perhaps it was my false memory, so I searched online and found that Churchill had indeed visited Leeds on 16 May 1942. There was a photograph of him, exactly as I remembered, in the Rolls Royce. I was a few months from my fourth birthday. The words above were spoken by him on his visit. Sound familiar?
We had only recently left Liverpool to stay with my grandmother in Yorkshire and to avoid the bombing which had been our nightly experience until then. It was a refuge for us, but the nation was far from safe and the adults spoke of invasion. There were blackouts, food and clothes rationing, queues, air-raid warnings, tin hats, even gas masks, fear of the doodlebug (V1 rocket), no holidays for six years. But Churchill was right; better times lay ahead, a long way ahead and owing not only to him but to the post-war reconstruction of the country initiated by the Attlee Government.
There is no doubt in my mind that Churchill's oratory was an inspiration and his tactical sense was vital during the War, but his rejection in 1945 resulted from people's memories of the 1930s and their desire for a better and fairer world. That is what my mother told me when I asked why Mr Attlee had won.
I keep looking back to my childhood because I believe there are lessons to learn from collective hardship, but it's hard to learn those lessons if you haven't experienced it. None of today's British politicians has. When they ape Churchill, they make fools of themselves; we see they are men and women of straw. Europe was economically and physically close to destruction, millions had died, and the legacy and debt lasted decades but we did recover, and we united against war and for our collective economic benefit. And then along came Reagan/Thatcherism, the 'no such thing as society', the 'every man for himself, greed is good' culture. Vast fortunes were made and didn't trickle down, an underclass developed and expanded, politicians made unjustified promises in order to further their selfish aims, the under-educated in England were persuaded to vote for a glorious future as an independent nation, and Brexit and COVID-19 hit us simultaneously.
And now, as the UK ship sinks, steered by a government of millionaires, we are persuaded to leap into a lifeboat called Scottish independence; I hope it is watertight. Nevertheless, I accept that achievement of what I believe is necessary may be easier if organised in an independent Scotland than in a severely divided UK. On the other hand, Scotland's effects on issues such as the climate or Europe's economy is necessarily a small fraction of the UK's.
The sound of hooves
Desperate times require tough solutions and tough solutions require a happy combination of head and heart. The head must look at the evidence, plot the course, while the heart can have its vision. Churchill expressed his vision in 1942; what is ours, yours and mine? Can we hope for a broader, more genial and lasting sunlight ahead? What can we do personally to help achieve it?
I have written before of the four modern horsemen of the apocalypse: epidemics, warfare, economic failure and climate change. Individually and collectively, these threaten the coherence of society and have the potential to destroy civilisation. It is perhaps easier to appreciate this now than it was a few years ago when I wrote of it, since we now see that failure of the Western economic model has led to Brexit and Trump, and is leading to fission of the UK and a resurgence of right-wing ideologues across Europe and USA.
It is also now accepted that climate change is affecting the lives and security of many even in the UK, is accelerating and becoming more costly. As this worsens, so people are displaced and borders are crossed, leading to migration disputes and war. Epidemics start in crowded cities and are transferred easily with modern patterns of travel. These horsemen ride together; the consequences are foreseeable and preventable, but this needs coordinated action on a national and international scale. It also requires action from every one of us on the three overriding priorities, the immediate one of the epidemic and the longer-term two, the economy and climate change.
Vaccination and safety first
The first vaccine has been developed and approved in record time and we are promised that it will shortly be available for a start to be made in what should eventually be immunisation of almost the whole population. The WHO has plans to try to eliminate it by worldwide vaccination, as it has with smallpox and almost with polio. This is extremely ambitious, especially for a new virus that is capable of mutating, but it is a laudable and humane aim, presumably based on the assumption that the virus will become endemic. It will obviously take many months for any one country and require several different vaccines; there may well be distribution issues but, ultimately, we could achieve herd immunity and banish the virus at least from our shores.
It amazes me that we can already think in these terms, only a year since the virus appeared, and I would caution that this does not mean we can relax our public health measures. Hand washing and wearing of masks in busy places has been commonplace in the East since the SARS outbreak and we can expect further pandemics in future, so let's not take our guard down.
Moreover, the devastating impact of the virus on our country has shown how poorly prepared we and our politicians were when confronted by crisis. Our public and occupational health systems had been decimated over decades and when the pandemic struck scientific advice concentrated too little on classical public health, aerosol physics and virology. These provide the first principles on which actions should have been based, supported by mathematical models and evidence from studies of other populations for predictions. An example was the reckless opening of restaurants and pubs and encouragement to go to them as the first phase waned – my heart sank when I heard this exhortation, an invitation to the virus that ensured its persistence at a point when it could have been suppressed. Another was the failure to institute effective contact tracing at that time.
For the future, we need to restructure public health back to where it was, locally-based with experienced public health directors and laboratory support. This is gradually happening on local initiatives and will be seen to be effective, in contrast to wasting billions on incompetent companies run by politicians' fellow members of the rentier class.
Two major lessons can be drawn from the pandemic. First, like good businesses, we as a nation must be prepared. Never again must we allow politicians and their supporting news media to portray health and safety as the enemy of enterprise. On the contrary, they work hand in hand and if neglected the losses, as we have seen, can be devastating. The second lesson is the importance of science and scientific collaboration and having leaders who can communicate it. The corollary of this is the danger of leaders who do not understand or are driven by self-interest as we have seen in USA.
There are now few outright deniers of climate change though some claim that mankind is not wholly responsible. Nevertheless, the evidence of the role of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide and methane, is very strong and increasing. What worries me is the positive feedback – as the world and oceans warm, the mechanisms for regulating these gases progressively weaken and the process accelerates to a point at which warming becomes unstoppable without destruction of civilisation. These feedback mechanisms are now clearly visible to us; melting of glaciers, death of trees and desertification, ocean acidification with loss of coral and plankton, melting of permafrost and release of methane. There are many others and, each year that passes, the process becomes more difficult to stop.
This explains why COP26 (the United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties) in Glasgow next November is so important. There is little doubt that this will call for extraordinary efforts worldwide to eliminate use of fossil fuels and to reform agriculture, the two main sources of greenhouse gases. But international agreements, although necessary are far from sufficient. The action will be required from all of us, from Prime Ministers and Presidents down to you, me, and our children. If you haven't made a start, it is not yet too late.
In 2011, I wrote two articles on climate change which explained the issues then and gave a guide on what needed to be done. More detail can be found in my book, Farewell King Coal
. The problems have worsened noticeably since then, but the solutions are the same. I shall not repeat them other than to give here a short guide to personal action:
• When outside the home, try to use the lowest carbon method of travelling; walking, cycling or low carbon public transport.
• If you drive, aim to go electric and drive sensibly within speed limits, using the smallest practicable vehicle.
• Avoid unnecessary travel for business, conferences, etc, and fly as infrequently as possible. Trains are more efficient than aeroplanes.
• At home, make sure the house is well-insulated and keep the temperature as low as tolerable. Consider solar panels and geothermal energy if possible. Invest in local energy cooperatives if the opportunity arises. Favour green energy suppliers.
• Reduce use of electricity where possible. Switch off everything when not in use and avoid unnecessary lighting. Think before using hair dryers, dish washers and clothes driers – there are often greener alternatives.
• Be thoughtful about your diet and limit the amount of red meat, which has a particularly large carbon footprint. Favour local and fresh products. If you are able, try to grow some of your own food or plant a tree or two. Avoid covering green areas with paving or concrete.
• Think when you go shopping. Everything you buy has a carbon footprint. Avoid plastic as far as possible and try to ensure that all wrapping is both necessary and recyclable. But also remember that there is a carbon cost to recycling, so don't buy things you don't need!
• Donate unwanted clothes and other items to charities and others who need them.
• We all budget carefully for holidays; include consideration of the carbon cost.
• Do not be afraid to discuss the issue of climate change with friends and colleagues.
A new economy
Looking at the above list, compiled before COVID-19 arrived, it is apparent that we are taking some of these actions already in response to the pandemic. Our lifestyles have necessarily become simpler and more efficient. In addition, the UK Government, or rather the Prime Minister, has announced that serious action on addressing climate change will become policy. Despite his track record, we must believe him and hold him to it.
In addition, should you be contemplating voting for independence, ask how Scotland could address the climate issue, perhaps as part of the EU. What are our natural and human resources on which to base a climate-friendly economy which can no longer use oil, coal or natural gas? We have water, the sea and the wind (and a little sunlight) for energy, agricultural and arboricultural land in plenty, and several world-class universities. We still have expertise in engineering, electronics, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, and a host of other areas of expertise such as finance, law, design, food and drink, and tourism which can take advantage of the new world ahead. But we can no longer continue to abuse the Earth's resources. Our future economy must be based on a progressively more simple, less extravagant lifestyle, using our own resources to produce what we and others need rather than want.
Many younger people are now looking at a rather bleak future, but a third lesson of the pandemic has been the growth of individual enterprise. Young people are very adaptable, understand what is happening and are the key to national success in the next few years. Opportunities will spring up in the green economy, from building energy efficient houses, electrifying the transport system, designing and constructing green energy projects, electronics and communications, improving power storage and distribution, and reshaping agriculture. And we shall continue to need the performing arts, teachers, medical and care workers, and those who support them. A future thriving economy should include re-training those displaced from old jobs for the new green jobs.
The most important immediate economic problem is obviously financial, as it was in 1945. This requires radical action in relation to taxation and the redistribution of wealth. The current neo-liberal philosophy has failed and now, as the pandemic slowly wanes, is the time for politicians to offer an alternative. If that is not based on a green and circular economy, it is likely to fail, whether on a UK or independent Scottish basis. We can borrow for so long but, ultimately, we must pay our own way in a new and dangerous world. We need the spirit and the perseverance that Churchill enunciated and the post-war governments facilitated.
Anthony Seaton is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Aberdeen University and Senior Consultant to the Edinburgh Institute of Occupational Medicine. The views expressed are his own