As we look ahead to 2022 – a year in which the jubilee and sporting events will prompt new reflection on our sense of who we are as a nation – the natural sense of optimism prompted by a new year is tempered as we enter a third year in the shadow of a pandemic. 2022 looks like being a year when we have to work out how to live with Covid, perhaps in endemic form for much longer.
It may also be a year when our politics becomes yet more fractious. Boris Johnson’s government had the benefit of the doubt in grappling with an unprecedented crisis. When there were gains as well as pain from the pandemic, they arose from a sense of solidarity from shared sacrifice: hence the public anger if those in charge don’t stick to the rules themselves. December’s political dramas leave Westminster wondering aloud whether Boris Johnson, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss or Chancellor Rishi Sunak might be Prime Minister by the end of the year. May’s local elections may do much to determine whether the Prime Minister can restabilise his turbulent party. Michael Gove’s imminent Levelling Up White Paper takes on ever more totemic importance as the government’s main opportunity to generate a substantive policy legacy during this parliament.
Keir Starmer’s opening New Year speech noted how the government’s difficulties have given the Labour Opposition a new chance to be heard by voters. The test of the Labour leader and his recently reshuffled frontbench team is how far they can now make the political weather as a credible alternative government with their own agenda for change.
2022 will be a year of identity. The 2022 Jubilee will be mostly a moment to look back, through the seven decades of the Queen’s service, as the longest-serving monarch in British history: a symbol of continuity in a society of rapid change. Everybody will be aware that the monarchy will, one day, need to adapt to a new future, but those important national questions may mostly be left, quietly, for another day.
It will be a year of sporting overload too, in an era when we have seen in football and cricket how much sport shapes our national conversations about identity, race and belonging. The Commonwealth Games give Birmingham its opportunity in the national and global spotlight. The women’s European football championships, hosted in England, will be the biggest effort yet to boost the profile and status of women’s sport, and to bag a trophy too. In December the men’s team travel to Qatar for the curiously unfamiliar phenomenon of a winter World Cup in the run-up to Christmas.
The centenary of the BBC and also the Unboxed Festival – which has ditched the pejorative baggage of a so-called ‘Festival of Brexit’ — will seek to engage the general public in thinking about who we think we are, and what that means for our past, present and future.
The most detailed portrait of the society that Britain is becoming will come with the 2021 census results, due to be published by late Spring. This will offer a once-in-a-decade snapshot of our changing society. Stories of demographic change can be abused for incendiary purposes. Conspiracy theories like the Great Replacement Theory seek to stoke fears and extremism, creating challenges for national and local policy-makers, and the media, to navigate.
Yet the census facts also illuminate perhaps the biggest challenge for the next decade: how to develop a compelling public vision about a changing Britain, in ways that can reach across social divides and broaden confidence about how we manage change fairly for everyone. So the census will illustrate why every major institution and sector will need to develop more confidence in how we talk about Britain’s growing diversity – and take the action needed to unlock its full potential for the shared public good.
So this must be an era to call the bridgers to action. The long Covid pandemic has been a long period of disconnection – but also one in which the appetite and need for social connection has grown stronger. It will take time to repair the disruption to education, health and the economy. As we will emerge, uneasily, into this uncertain future, work to build bridges across the divides in our society will be more important than ever.
Later in January British Future will host an online event looking ahead at how to navigate 2022 – details will be posted shortly on the events page.
A version of this article also appears in Eastern Eye.