Although the US has long celebrated the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on 4 July, historians now believe that the Declaration itself was signed by the 56 delegates to the Second Continental Congress on 2 August 1776. Today, therefore, is the 245th anniversary of the creation of the United States of America.
In a world dominated by information and the communication of it, history being apocryphal or, at least, open to interpretation seems at odds with the way we now view the world. Yet, if the last 16 months has taught us anything, it is that current events are capable of being viewed differently depending on the view taken by the observer.
Today we debate the efficacy of different vaccines, masks, even our relative position to other people, with certainties on both sides. These debates, viewed by history, will be placed in a context of cause and effect. Have we shortened a Pandemic through science and behaviour, or have we facilitated a fundamental shift in societal mores for no good reason?
Inevitably, the historical analysis will be socio-economic. Changing patterns of behaviour are the essence of secular economic change. Exogenous shocks, almost by definition, do not come along that often but our reactions to them can and do have long term impacts.
It is still too close to call, but some changes appear to be taking root, at least in the UK.
The Nationwide House Price Index for July 2021 notes that home transactions worth £500,000 or more rose by 37% in the preceding 12 months compared to just 2% for the market as a whole. Within this, house price inflation was most marked in regions such as Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Yorkshire, and the Northeast, many of which recorded their strongest gains since 2005. Conversely, the South East and London, historically the engines of price gains, have lagged. The Capital has recorded less than a quarter of the gains shown in Wales.
Working From Home (WFH) appears to be a cause of this effect. A study by Nottingham and Stanford Universities, conducted in early 2021, found that 52% of respondents were WFH and that almost 80% of them would like to continue for at least one day a week even when the Pandemic had receded. The sense that we will have to “live with COVID” appears to pervade responses even now. While office life has not died, preferences for gaining access to it are likely changed. There is considerable evidence to suggest that many no longer see a commute which includes trains, underground and lifts as one worth taking. To that point, the UK has seen a near 15% reduction in new office construction in the last 12 months.
How we move about in the UK has also changed and, again, it may be more secular than many expect or would like. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the UK population has used its cars 25% less since March 2020 than the previous 12 months. However, train travel has fallen by 71% over the same period with the use of the Underground falling by 72% and even London Bus travel has halved. By contrast, cycling has increased by 19%.
In response to the Pandemic, the UK has left town, set up a home office and got on its bike.
History may record that this will signal an ironic improvement in the UK’s longevity as the stress of commuting is replaced by a healthier turn around the park on two wheels. It may record further that this exacerbated the pressure on pension funds to support retirement and prompted a “Work for Longer” extension to the “Work from Home” trend. This may result in another fillip for innovation as those working towards retirement are given a new lease of work life and purpose.
Thus, the Pandemic may have caused the UK to operate on different geographic and demographic bases. We may be more diverse in location and more flexible in working practice. If this is the effect, then the nature of our economy has altered in fundamentally.
The struggle for independence from COVID will continue and is unlikely to be over for some time.
Cause and effect.
Those responsible for the tea in Boston Harbour would not have expected to be running their own country only a decade later. When Thomas Paine published three years later, few would have expected actual Independence to require eight more long years of struggle.
In 2021, two hundred and forty-five years later, we still see change as temporary rather than transitory. We talk of return and place our life today in that context. We see this return as “next year” and “soon”. We dispute talk of “new normal”.
We continue to seek representation, without which no cost or privation is merited. Yet, it cannot be long before we seek independence. Not just from COVID but from the life we lived before.
The title of Thomas Paine’s revolutionary treatise was Common Sense.