WHEN, in 1919, the useful idiot Lincoln Steffens declared of the Soviet Union, “I have seen the future; and it works” (a line he came up with before he had actually gone there), he was wrong. But that’s Marxist determination for you.

Of all the silly ideas that mankind has entertained, one of the daftest is the notion that history is subject to some law of inevitability or linear progress. The fact is that you can turn the clock back, and lots of people and regimes have done it lots of times. But there are solid reasons why prophecy seems superficially plausible, and has been so persistent.

Thirty years ago, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama published a book, uncompromisingly titled The End of History, which argued that, if historical inevitability had any substance, it was yesterday’s potatoes in the face of liberal Western democracy. Professor Fukuyama’s case, in an impressive piece of cake-eating and having, was that the eschatological approach to history and politics espoused by the likes of Hegel and Marx was wrong and, at the same time, that there was an inevitable progression in human affairs that led not to communism or the Kingdom of Heaven, but something like social democracy in Denmark in the mid-90s, than which no further advance was possible.

It turned out that he was just as wrong as Marx. One immediate proof of the deficiencies of his theory is to look around at the real world three decades on. It turns out that two countries that both have McDonald’s restaurants can indeed go to war with each other, and that quite a lot of other ones can decide not to embrace the American model of freedom, democracy, civil rights and apple pie. China’s adoption of the market, for example, has not been accompanied by the democracy and civil liberties that many claimed were essential aspects of its function.

But, however deficient the one-way pendulum model is, every so often something does happen that makes it impossible, or at least very difficult, to revert to the status quo ante. Usually it’s an invention – the spinning jenny or the atom bomb, say – and sometimes a more abstract, but pervasive, thing such as widespread literacy or religious ideology.

Quite often it’s something that doesn’t seem like a particularly big deal, but that ends up making a sizeable difference to everyday life. Try casting your minds back (if you’re old enough) to the time before you could make contactless payments on your phone. Or if you’re older yet, before you routinely made card payments at all.

Or if, like me, you’re so ancient you’ve lost your teeth and eyesight, before there were ATMs, and you had to queue for hours at banks, or to get money (the amount you could get being limited) whenever you went abroad. And yet that unimaginably distant past is only a couple of years before Professor Fukuyama had his big idea.

Less than a decade later, there was the “dotcom crash”, when tech firms lost half their value, after everyone concluded that the internet (as Homer Simpson put it, “Is that thing still around?”) wasn’t delivering on the promises it had made. About five minutes later, it did start delivering online shopping and streaming video, and all the other stuff it’s now almost impossible to imagine life without.

William F Buckley once described a conservative as someone who “stands athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!’”, a position with which I have a certain instinctive sympathy. But however nonsensical it may be to argue that political ideas or social norms are subject to inevitable trajectories, there are plenty of innovations, products and notions that, once they’ve been introduced, it is pretty pointless to rail against. They include everything from coffee to women’s rights, and globalised trade to catch-up TV. Short of adopting some sort of Taliban-style approach to government, we won’t get rid of them, and very few of us would want to.

That’s why the government’s current insistence that people should return to the office is on a hiding to nothing. You can see why they’re doing it; a lot of public services, from your GP to the passport office, have become even more useless than they were before the pandemic, and a lot of city centre private businesses, such as sandwich shops and newsagents, are finding it almost impossible to make a living.

But inefficiency or indolence in public sector bureaucrats long predates Zoom and Teams, and the possibility of your company going to the wall because public demand or circumstances change is part and parcel of being in business at all. Attempting to insist that everyone goes back to working the way that they did in 2019 is like trying to remember all the way back to this day three years ago (which, as it happens, was when Theresa May announced she would stand down as Prime Minister). If you think that seems like a different world, you’re not alone.

Rather than trying to shoehorn people’s working patterns and behaviour into the way things used to be, government should accept that it isn’t really their concern (and even if they think it is, it isn’t within their gift).

That will mean a lot of changes, of course. Even in the parts of the UK that, unlike Scotland, have a functioning rail service, at least for the moment, it will have to adapt to reflect shifts in demand. The city centre retail landscape is almost certain to contract sharply – though there may be a commensurate growth in local, independent shops, if people no longer travel to town or retail parks, but walk or cycle short distances.

Office blocks will be revamped as apartments (no bad thing, if it reduces house prices and increases supply). There will be an even greater rise in demand for delivery drivers, warehouse workers and suitable live/work spaces. Potentially the most positive change of all will be a reduction in the numbers of meetings and a huge cull of the middle managers and pencil pushers who have no purpose other than convening and attending them.

But the point about all of this is that it will happen, if it does, spontaneously, and without the need for some imaginary hand of history, or for the intervention of government. If people miss going to the office, they will choose to go back to it. If firms find out it’s cheaper and more productive for people to work remotely, they will embrace that. I may not have seen the future, but I suspect it probably works from home.

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