Photo by Ezra Bailey
Artillery Row

Learning from History

Despite Coronavirus, some things will never change

‘I was right all along.’ ‘As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted.’ ‘Everything has happened as I forecast it would in my report/book/broadcast of 2008.’ ‘I have been fully vindicated.’ ‘The world after Covid-19 will be transformed, and in the ways I have always advocated.’

There does seem to be a common thread running through much confident discussion of our current crisis. Commentators talk up its lasting impact in order to get just what they have been demanding for years; or, in some cases, for decades. 

Some target ‘neoliberalism’ and denounce ‘austerity’ with the phrase ‘never again’; others point to steadily expanding individual choice since 1979 as the only way forward.

Some call for a kinder, more caring ‘society’, rescuing us from ‘the cult of the individual and the hollowing out of government’; others point to the effective charitable work of individuals, like Captain Tom Moore. Some invoke the individual and patriotic self-sacrifices of 1940; others hark back to the idealistic international collectivism of 1945. 

Some demand more pay for public sector workers, financed by inflation, and an unprecedented partnership between unions, managers and government. Others see in this a return to the 1970s and urge that only more competition and smaller government will deliver growth and rescue the UK from a vast debt burden. 

Some point out that only nation states are really addressing the pandemic; others urge that only supra-national bodies have the resources to deal with an international problem via international co-operation. Some call for the exit from the EU on 31 December to be adhered to. Others demand that Brexit, as ‘suicidal idiocy’, be delayed indefinitely. Some EU politicians call for a sharing of debt via coronabonds; others stand their ground on the fiscal responsibility of member nations.

For all the rhetoric about a shining new world, this does seem embarrassingly familiar. I have my own preferences among these options, which need not be explored here. But I notice that in all the talk about a transformed new world emerging from the ruins of the old there is rather little original thinking and rather a lot of angry restatement.

Might we at least explore an alternative model of social and economic change? It would place more weight on mass responses to shared problems than on reports and speeches by politicians or commentators with their visions, five-point solutions and five-year plans. It would point out that economies adapt, and that markets adjust. They do this sometimes thanks to, but more often despite, the best intentions of the planners.

People will meet each other less, and keep their distance more, as they have gradually been doing for decades

As with wars, social and economic changes may be speeded up by the Covid epidemic, but are seldom diverted into wholly new channels. Indeed, ‘the new’ is hardly noticed until it is already old. Everything is impossible until it becomes inevitable. The Suffragette movement was fully formed before 1914, but confidently resisted; after 1918 its success was scarcely controversial. Neville Chamberlain’s reforms to social services were an uphill struggle in the 1930s; after 1945 they were quickly extended and adopted as the welfare state.

So today the gig economy, and working from home on the internet, have been spreading as fast as fibre broadband, but in the face of bitter denunciation; after Covid they may become the new normal. High Street shopping has been steadily declining; online shopping may now turn the page on the vast concrete and glass shopping malls of the last five decades.

Already the effects of globalisation and the lengthening of supply chains have encountered criticism; after Covid its practicalities will have their effects without central government legislation. If AI finds new drugs, it will be hailed as a great gift to humanity; if robots reduce dependence on Chinese imports, they (rather than trade unionists or company directors) will be given OBEs.

Before 2020 Euroscepticism and populism had begun to make major inroads in continental European politics; after 2021 the public health and financial failure of the EU in the face of the pandemic will be a lesson silently learned by millions of voters.

Universities, those epitomes of national society, have already been coercing their academics to teach more courses online (it saves the administrators money), but the academics objected; with Covid the pressure to comply will be irresistible.

Meanwhile, most other things will remain the same. Individuals will still have the capacity to be kind, and to be unkind; generous, and mean. ‘Society’ will still be an attractive ideal, and will still let you down when you need it most. Governments will still try to pick winners in the economy, and will end up backing vanity projects like HS2. Yet markets will adjust, even to the mistakes of governments.

In general, people will meet each other less, and keep their distance more, as they have gradually been doing for decades (think of the declining memberships of political parties, trades unions, and leisure clubs). The extent and permanence of such changes will have everything to do with public opinion, little to do with official guidance. Lives will adapt.

Even so, the texture of social life, of courtesy and aggression, warmth and coldness, loyalty and self-interest, will go on much as before: these things depend on an ancient bedrock of inherited values. Social life as we know it currently co-exists with mortality on a much larger scale than anything caused by Covid-19. Just under one per cent of the UK population dies each year, about 650,000 people: however much a shrinking minority of theists think of each individual as a being of infinite value, for most of the population death (of other people, of course) is a statistic. 

As with the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, the survivors will just carry on, convinced that they were right all along, but never quite managing to build Jerusalem.

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