Nothing will ever be the same again, they say. Everything will change. The Covid-19 outbreak raises the hope that Britain has learned its lesson. The shock of a long lockdown and the horror of morgues in freezer trucks should shake sense into us, surely? The prospect of dying alone among 4,000 strangers gasping for air in the ExCeL centre ought to jolt us into better ways. I hope so, but I dont know so.
I have lived through plenty of nothing will ever be the same again events social shocks to the way we live, feel and think. Some great upheavals led to positive change: look how the Attlee government emerged from the deprivations of war. Aged five, I stood at the school bus stop in the great London smog of December 1952: no sunlight, fog so pea-soup thick we couldnt see the bus to flag it down. Though as many as 12,000 died, good came of it. The Clean Air Act cured my wheezing winters of pre-penicillin bronchitis. But the lesson wasnt learned for ever: 40,000 people a year die now from preventable air pollution in the UK.
The lessons seem blindingly clear: never again leave the public realm so perilously weak. We rely on it for life itself
Nuclear disarmers thought the Cuban missile crisis would be a never again learning moment, as Soviet ships steamed towards Armageddon but it wasnt. Instead, it was used as proof that mutually assured destruction works. Defeat in Vietnam should have taught the west that napalm and infinite firepower cant win an asymmetrical war against weaker countries guerrillas. But they went on trying, with Afghanistan and Iraq repeating the same western nation-building fantasies.
The great bank crash of 2008 was absolutely destined to end the financial greed and political hegemony of Thatchers 1980s big-bang city boys. But no. Bankers pay continued to rise, Sir Fred the Shred only lost his title. The price was paid by everyone else during a decade of austerity and voters backed it in four elections. The result was an incapacitated public realm, naked in the blast of this epidemic. It wasnt just the NHS and social care that were left unprepared, but every service crippled by cuts: public health, police, local government, the army and Whitehall all denuded.
Surely this time the lesson is well and truly learned? Dont shrink the state, local or national, when nothing else stands between the people and penury or even death. Coronanomics shows all private commerce relies on the state in the last resort, and that borrowing on a gargantuan scale is not, after all, impossible when most needed. When even Boris Johnson proclaims there is such a thing as society, surely he cant backtrack?
But after a lifetime of disappointments and bitter political reverses, who can be sure this surprise Tory spending splurge will break the stranglehold of austerity thinking once and for all? So far, each time the Daily Mail logic has seemed vanquished by its own contradictions, it has weaselled its way back.
But we have to live in hope or not live at all. Coronapolitics should guarantee the NHS returns to adequate funding: who would dare repeat the throttling it suffered in the past decade? After the BBC has proved itself most trusted for information, after its great resourcefulness in providing for locked-down children, and offering fitness classes, high culture and an archive of entertainment, who would dare threaten to whack it now?
Beyond those national treasures, newly nationalised rail looks unlikely to return to its failed franchising. The Brexit transition must surely be prolonged, and the deal eased. Companies avoiding their fair share of tax look set for tougher treatment after these bailouts, likewise those businesses cheating on national insurance by using bogus self-employment, while cash-in-hand tax-avoiders have found out the hard way that they get no help in times of need.
Meanwhile, those who have long advocated a universal basic income for the first time have a genuinely solid case, as emergency support schemes and the faulty benefits system leave too many starving. Expect the epidemic to force a fast solution to the festering social care crisis after a do-nothing decade.
How about the climate? Now we see the air clear across the world and Venice canals turn blue, a life without car, cruise ship and air-traffic pollution looks suddenly possible. As Extinction Rebellion calls off its planned spring actions, the virus makes its case instead.
But pause your optimism there for a sobering thought. The other side is investing in its own coronapolitics too, with the libertarian right ready to pounce, especially on the climate crisis. The Global Warming Policy Forum of Nigel Lawson uses the virus to call for immediate cancellation of 15bn worth of climate-saving energy costs, such as the renewables obligation and the climate change levy. Just watch whos tweeting and re-tweeting blame-the-EU and blame-the-UN messages. Brexiters relish the EUs early failure to help member states. The Taxpayers Alliance, a perennial enemy of the overseas aid budget, has called for it to be diverted to corona work. Despite the crippling 40% cut in local government funds, it wants corona cuts in council tax, as it always does. Deregulators are having a field day as inspections and regulations in all sectors are abandoned: suspending physical inspections of livestock in the Red Tractor scheme pleases the farmers. Now Farmers Weekly has called for footpaths to be shut down across their land, for fear of infection.
Under cover of the virus, all manner of things may be done that may not be undone. In the Times, Mark Littlewood, the director of the Institute for Economic Affairs, sees a silver lining in the waiving of the working time directive, driving-hours limits for lorry drivers, a pause in the 5p plastic bag charge and competition law suspended so food companies can collude. Perhaps they should become permanent features of our regulatory landscape, he writes.
So the virus is an easy pretext to double down on familiar agendas. No surprise that the Jehovahs Witnesses gleefully announce this pestilence proves we are living in the final part of the last days.
The lessons seem blindingly obvious: never again leave the public realm so perilously weakened as we rely on it for everything, including life itself. Never again let this grossly under-taxed and unequal country tolerate an economy that leaves half the population unable to weather storms. Lets hope enough people are shocked by the social deficits this virus has revealed. But then, looking back on past times when crises seemed to augur a better future, remember that old football fans adage: its the hope that kills you.
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