As governments everywhere declare themselves up for the ‘fight’ against COVID-19, the wartime analogies have become inescapable. Long before the pandemic reaches its expected peak in Britain, the events sweeping us now are already being compared to those which swept us eighty years ago during the Second World War. Just as we speak of ‘pre-’ and ‘post-war’ Britain, suggested historian Lord Hennessy, the current era will eventually be seen in terms of BC and AC – before- and after-corona.
Despite obvious problems with the analogy (coronavirus is not fascism) it reminds us of one of history’s more reliable lessons: crises on this scale invariably change the way politics is done. The war effort against fascism fostered a new political consensus. Not least, it showed that an expanded state could be a force for good in citizens’ lives; politics was different for decades thereafter, with both Labour and the Tories more or less committed to a National Health Service, comprehensive welfare state, and government intervention in the economy as a means to ensuring full employment. What sort of political shifts might follow the current crisis, then? Or to put it more optimistically, can we hope for an end to the political and social disunity of pre-corona Britain, and perhaps even for something like a ‘post-corona consensus’?
We might well worry that the political prognosis is bleak. Rather than fostering consensus, in many ways, the pandemic seems ready-made to further divide a country that remains deeply split by Brexit, and in which hostility exists not only towards ethnic minorities and immigrants, but also the BBC, Parliament, and the EU, along with ‘experts’ and anything else conceivably thought of as part of the ‘establishment’. The pandemic could simply fuel these sentiments, the paradox being that whereas adversity usually brings us together – in munitions factories and trenches, in the queue for rations – a successful response to the virus demands the very opposite – isolation and caution of others. Trump’s calculated use of the term ‘Chinese Virus’ is evidence enough of how all this can be used to strengthen populism and entrench division.
Boris Johnson, our very own populist, is yet to blame the spread of the virus in Britain on any minority group. And, in fairness to Johnson, as PM he has seemed unlikely to revert to the kind of divisive language he used so cynically during his campaigns for Brexit, the Tory leadership, and the general election. In light of the recent series of racially motivated coronavirus-related attacks, it might seem that this new-found restraint is not being replicated.
But there are some reasons to be optimistic that the war against the pandemic has the potential to heal some of Britain’s post-Brexit, pre-corona wounds. For one thing, this remains a shared experience despite the fact of physical isolation. As Lord Hennessy pointed out, COVID-19 is no respecter of social status, economic class, or ethnicity; privilege provides no insulation from a virus. As the Queen reminded us, the Royal Family will have to change its ‘normal routines and regular patterns of life for the greater good’ just like everybody else – even if it does get to do so from the confines of Windsor Palace. There is something to be said, then, for the argument that adversity will naturally bring the country together.
This is also the time for our much-maligned institutions to step up and win back some of the trust they have lost in recent years. For example, the crucial role the BBC intends to play in the crisis by disseminating news, providing resources for home-schooling, and helping coordinate care for the elderly and vulnerable, should be a reminder to those on both the left and right that it is above party politics and ideology.
More importantly still, the Government’s economic response to the pandemic is the opportunity to hold Johnson to his pledge that the era of austerity is over. Though the prime minister knows that those who lent their votes will not stand for another decade of spending cuts, the danger has always been that his conversion is more a matter of political expedience than a genuine rejection of Thatcherite small-statism. For the time being he has no choice but to keep his promise, as shown by the remarkable sight of a Tory government committing hundreds of billions to business loans, good old fashioned Keynesian fiscal stimulus, and wages for workers hit by the economic fallout of the pandemic.
Of course, these headline-grabbing measures are welcome. But to ensure that Johnson really does ‘send austerity packing’ along with COVID-19, the smaller numbers are just as crucial. The sort of figure that should stick in our minds is the £2.9 billion magicked up for social care. That money will provide community care that spending cuts have hitherto denied to elderly and vulnerable patients who need it – patients who have thus had to remain in vital NHS hospital beds quite needlessly. After years of austerity, even this modest funding feels like the exception. It should be the norm.
If the wartime analogy has a use, it is to remind us of the inescapable post-war logic of 1945. If everybody was in it together during war, it was asked, then why should things be any different in peacetime? The same logic must be reasserted over the coming months. If the Government can make sure we are all in it together now – if it can fund social care, if it can take the side of employees as well as employers – then it can do so in post-pandemic Britain too.