Hands up who’s heard of Busan? Probably not that many! Until I visited South Korea I hadn’t either. Well, Busan’s a bustling port city with a population of about four million people. Its significance? In addition to its prominence as a thriving business and tourist destination, it’s the country’s alternative capital city.
Seoul is only 50km from the border with the North. The erratic and ruthless regime of Chairman Kim could easily use artillery and missiles to decimate the metropolis. Busan, meanwhile, is 325km from Seoul on the Southern coast. It’s closer to Fukuoka in Japan than it is to the capital, however you can get to Seoul in just two and half hours on their amazing 400kph bullet trains. This makes it a great deal more resilient in the event of an attack from the North Koreans. Many public sector and infrastructure businesses have already co-located their HQ between Seoul and Busan. The local stock market operator, KRX, has its head office in Busan. In short, it’s a viable alternative capital city.
What can we learn from this? I think a lot. If London was engulfed by a catastrophe, would the UK be able to function? Unfortunately, I doubt it. In 1953, the GDP per capita of Korea was $153. Barely measurable. In South Korea, it’s now $32,000 and fast catching up with countries like Italy. The country has rightly been lauded for its response to Covid-19, but, alongside their many other accomplishments, the ability to re-think and behave strategically surely lies at the heart of their long-term success.
When the issue of a post-mortem review of the Government’s response to the pandemic is raised the most frequent response is “now is not the right time”. It took the 9/11 Commission in the US almost two years to produce its final report. With its impact on the whole of our society and its international aspect, the inevitable inquiry could be a similarly long and convoluted affair. If it’s to be concluded and acted upon before the next general election, it needs to get underway.
So, yes, let’s build – however, we should also have a Busan strategy. Here’s a few ideas.
Designate a city as the alternative centre of UK government. The country is hugely over-centralised. London dominates. We need to be more like Germany with its multiple capital cities. Manchester gets my vote.
Abandon the refurbishment of historic Parliament. Instead, build two new facilities – one in London and one in Manchester. The Palace of Westminster can be re-purposed as a heritage centre. We all agree that it’s a wonderful building, but it’s completely unsuitable as a modern workplace. It’s also the most disabled-unfriendly facility I’ve ever visited. We need a fully digital building optimised for local and remote working. It should be hugely accessible and be as green as possible.
Create The Department of National Resilience. Locate it in Manchester. Its aim should be to design, build and operate a resilience plan for the entire country. Not just the Government – all aspects of society.
Create an NHS Reserve. And model it on the military reserve model. All retired doctors and medical personnel should be enrolled, trained and paid.
Review our unwritten constitution. For a short while, the Prime Minister was gravely ill. It was never clear whether the First Secretary of State, Dominic Raab, had taken the throne. If there had been a national emergency while Boris Johnson was in intensive care, how would urgent decision making operate? Who was in charge of the nuclear launch codes during that time?
Mr Johnson’s hero – Sir Winston Churchill – won the war, but lost the subsequent election. Despite the epochal Beveridge Report being issued in 1942 – in the midst of the war – the public didn’t trust the Conservatives to deliver the new society they wanted. I don’t want the same thing to happen once again. With more than four years before another election, there is now an opportunity to win both this battle and the next election. However, we have to start now.
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This piece was written for our website.