Think you know how coronavirus will change Britain? Think again | Martin Kettle | Opinion

If there is one thing everyone living through the Covid-19 emergency agrees, it is that it is unprecedented. Everyone is surely right about that. But what follows in politics, economics and social behaviour from that recognition? There is no agreement there. There are resemblances with wartime, of course, but Britain never went into almost total lockdown in wartime. There are echoes of past pestilences too, but these afflictions did not bring normal life to such a totalising standstill.

And these are only early days in a long process. Politicians are no better than anyone else at adjusting to radical change. As Boris Johnson’s uncertain initial messaging exemplified, adjustment takes time. The worst of the crisis is also yet to come. Covid-19 cases and deaths have not yet peaked. The outbreak may drag on for longer than we have yet grasped, or it may return. Pretending that life could be back to normal by Easter, as Donald Trump does, is delinquent. If the 1918-19 flu pandemic is a guide, the Covid-19 virus may be with us for a year.

This length and seriousness mean that none of us yet knows what the final accounting on the Covid-19 crisis will look like. But we can say that we are likely to be living with some of the pandemic’s consequences for years to come. The issues that could endure are many. They start with the shared experience of having the shadow of death hanging over our heads. They include, additionally, the impact of the massive public health emergency itself, the many transformations of everyday living, the state’s mobilisation to defend the economy, and the general anxiety about the future that is laid bare in an Ipsos-Mori survey this week. None of these is likely to be gone by Christmas, never mind by Easter.

Faced with an extraordinary event, it is natural to think it will have extraordinary long-term consequences too. Nevertheless, much of the speculation about this is struggling to adjust. Its feet are still firmly planted in the past. It is largely conditioned by earlier political divisions such as Brexit. In some cases, the pandemic is merely vindicating whatever the thinker believed in the first place, before the outbreak began. All the pandemic has done is make them believe it more strongly than ever.

There are three obvious problems with such an approach. The first is it assumes the pandemic will cause the scales to fall from the eyes of those who do not share it. But this may not happen. The second is that it fails to take account of how the public mood will change once the pandemic ceases. And it will. The third is that it avoids self-questioning.

Both left and right are currently guilty of acting as though nothing has really changed. Those on the left who believed before Covid-19 that Britain was collapsing under the weight of social inequality, a lack of Keynesian demand management or the folly of Brexit have looked at the crisis and concluded that, yes, the pandemic proves that they were right all along. Yet those on the right who believed beforehand that the economy was more reliably run in their hands, that borders needed to be rather more tightly controlled, and that nation states must make their own decisions feel equally vindicated.

In the same way, when it comes to attitudes towards individual politicians, Johnson’s admirers now admire him even more than ever, while his detractors denounce him even more indignantly. It seems obvious to his critics that Johnson is the wrong man for the crisis and equally obvious to them that he is mishandling it so badly he may be overthrown. But the opinion polls don’t say that. A lot of people elected Johnson in December and even more think he is doing a good job now.

Everyone in these debates could use a bit of humility and a dose of open-mindedness. That’s true on both sides. It’s true for all of us. The right has been forced to relearn the prime importance of the state as guarantor in a period of emergency. It is having to accept the state’s irreducible responsibility to the most vulnerable. It has also, perhaps, learned that what a health service can achieve reflects the investment that has been made in it, although no health service anywhere has been or could have been fully prepared.

But the left has lessons to learn too. Many of the takeaways from the Covid-19 crisis may seem obvious. But what is true during a crisis is not necessarily true or desirable when the crisis is over. The NHS needs whatever it takes in a crisis, but at other times health service spending is as long as a piece of string and there has to be a cut-off point, if only to allow spending elsewhere. The borrowing that may or may not save the economy from recession in a crisis will also have to be paid for when the crisis is over. People may trust Johnson with powers they would not want Jeremy Corbyn to possess.

We are sailing in the dark towards an unknown future. Britain’s mood after the first world war and the flu pandemic has been described by the historian Richard Overy as “the morbid age”. It was, Overy says, an era of fear and paranoia about a dystopian future. Few put their faith in traditional politics. Britain after the second was very different. “Never again” was its more optimistic motto. No one can say which of these moods, or what other mood, is likely after the Covid-19 pandemic . Instead of insisting that the pandemic confirms everything we thought beforehand, it would be better to start thinking about all the unwelcome changes that the pandemic may bring in the decade to come.

Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist

Source link