We just don’t know what kind of Britain will wake up from all of this | Martin Kettle
IIf there is one thing that all those living with the Covid-19 emergency agree, it is that it is unprecedented. Everyone is surely right about this. But what about the politics, economics and social behavior of this recognition? There is no deal there. There are some wartime resemblances, of course, but Britain never went into near wartime lockdown. There are also echoes of past plagues, but these afflictions have not brought normal life to such a total halt.
And these are only the first days of a long process. Politicians are no better than anyone at adapting to radical change. As Boris Johnson’s uncertain initial message illustrates, adjustment takes time. The worst of the crisis is also to come. Covid-19 cases and deaths have yet to peak. The epidemic may last longer than we have yet realized, or it may return. Pretend to live could be back to normal by Easter, as Donald Trump does, is delinquent. If the 1918-19 influenza pandemic is any guide, the Covid-19 virus could be with us for a year.
This length and seriousness mean that none of us yet know what the final toll of the Covid-19 crisis will look like. But we can say that we will probably live with some of the consequences of the pandemic for years to come. There are many problems that could persist. They begin with the shared experience of having the shadow of death above our heads. They further include the impact of the massive public health emergency itself, the many transformations in daily life, the mobilization of the state to defend the economy, and general concern about the future that is laid bare in an Ipsos-Mori survey this week. None of these are likely to be gone by Christmas, let alone by Easter.
Faced with an extraordinary event, it is natural to think that it will also have extraordinary consequences in the long term. Still, much of the speculation about it is struggling to adjust. Her feet are still firmly rooted in the past. It is largely conditioned by previous political divisions such as Brexit. In some cases, the pandemic only justifies what the thinker believed in the first place, before the outbreak began. The pandemic only made them believe more than ever.
There are three obvious problems with such an approach. The first is that he assumes the pandemic will knock the scales off the eyes of those who do not share it. But that may not happen. The second is that it ignores how the mood of the public will change once the pandemic is over. And it will be. The third is that she avoids questioning herself.
Both left and right are currently guilty of acting as if nothing has really changed. Those on the left who believed before Covid-19 that Britain was collapsing under the weight of social inequalities, a lack of Keynesian demand management or Brexit madness looked at the crisis and concluded that , yes, the pandemic proves they were right all along. Yet those on the right who believed in advance that the economy was run more reliably in their hands, that borders needed to be a bit more tightly controlled, and that nation states should make their own decisions also feel justified. .
Likewise, when it comes to attitudes towards individual politicians, Johnson’s admirers admire him more than ever, while his detractors denounce him with even more outrage. It seems obvious to his detractors that Johnson is not the right man for the crisis and just as obvious to them that he is handling it so badly that he could be toppled. But the polls don’t say so. Many people elected Johnson in December and even more thinks he’s doing a good job now.
Everyone in these debates could use a little humility and a dose of openness. This is true on both sides. This is true for all of us. The right has been forced to relearn the paramount importance of the state as a guarantor in times of emergency. It is accepting the irreducible responsibility of the State towards the most vulnerable. He may also have learned that what a health service can achieve reflects the investment that has been made in it, although no health service has been or could have been fully prepared.
But the left also has lessons to learn. Many 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 all it takes in a crisis, but at other times health services spending is as long as a piece of string and there has to be a threshold, if not than to allow spending elsewhere. Loans that may or may not save the economy from recession in a crisis will also need to be paid after the crisis is over. People can trust Johnson with powers they wouldn’t want Jeremy Corbyn own.
We are sailing in the dark towards an unknown future. Britain’s mood after World War I and the influenza pandemic has been described by the historian Richard Overy like “the morbid age”. It was, Overy said, 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 his most optimistic motto. No one can say which of these moods, or which other mood, is likely after the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead of insisting that the pandemic confirms everything we thought before, it would be better to start thinking about all the unwanted changes the pandemic could bring in the coming decade.
Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist