The coronavirus doesnt respect national borders, political ideologies or conventional thinking. As governments scramble to try to contain the pandemic and mitigate the fallout on economies and societies, the previously unthinkable is suddenly transformed into the essential. Policy ideas that were decried as madness yesterday are being redefined as the only sane response to this emergency. Positions once held to be immutable are being tossed into a great bonfire of discarded orthodoxies.
This is an especially bracing challenge for politicians of the right, they who have been animated for decades by the belief that the only good government is a small one and that there is no problem to which the market cannot supply the answer. A philosophy rooted in the conviction that individualism and competition are the wellsprings of healthy and productive societies is found wanting when confronted by a crisis that can only be endured and resolved by rediscovering the virtues of collectivism and solidarity.
You can see some of the tensions this creates in the strained and exhausted face of Boris Johnson whenever he appears at the now daily news conferences. This instinctive libertarian, who used to earn his living by penning newspaper columns ridiculing the nanny state is being impelled to introduce social controls of a kind not seen since the Second World War. Some of the constraints go further than that time of national trial. They didnt shut the boozers during the Blitz. He finds himself, and clearly hates having to be, the prime minister responsible for taking away the ancient and inalienable right of every freeborn Englishman to go to the pub.
As the beer taps are closed, the spending spigots are being turned up in a way never seen before. The Tory leader who only recently won an election in part by attacking Jeremy Corbyn as the last of the big spenders will now preside over the most dramatic escalation in government expenditure since the 1940s to try to save the economy from being ravaged by a depression.
For government and voters alike, this crisis is a rushed tutorial in the case for the active and well-resourced state. Only government can take the exceptional measures required to curtail human activity in the hope that it will curb the spread of infection. Only government has the capacity to effectively perform as an insurer of last resort for the huge number of companies facing extinction unless they receive state aid. Only government can provide a safety net for workers deprived of the ability to earn their living because they are ill or trying to do the right thing by isolating themselves or because their employer is in trouble.
Welfare is bad. Balance the books. It is not the role of government to bail out failing companies. All those beliefs long worshipped in the churches of conservatism are being sacrificed in the fierce urgency of the now.
When events are moving at such an extraordinary pace, it can be easy to lose appreciation of the boggling scale of this transformation. Rishi Sunaks first budget was just 10 days ago, but already feels like an artefact from another era. There was a bit of a collective swoon among Tory MPs at the 12bn he initially allocated to dealing with the virus. What he then called unprecedented intervention now looks like small change. Just six days later, he was back to announce a package of tax holidays, grants and business loans worth 350bn, almost 30 times as much as he had originally proposed. The chancellor declared this to be proof that the government would do whatever it takes only to be told that it would take a great deal more to see us through this crisis. The clamour came not just from opposition politicians, trades unions and charities.
Forced to decide between Tory doctrine and food riots, Mr Sunak made the right choice
One of the arresting tableaux of the past few days has been Bernard Jenkin and other representatives of the Thatcherite right adding their voices to those of more centrist Tories such as Greg Clark, the former business secretary, to demand much broader help. Under that pressure, Mr Sunak came up with what was effectively his third emergency budget in less than a fortnight, when he announced higher welfare payments and a mammoth programme to subsidise the wages of workers who would otherwise be facing redundancy. This is not a time for ideology and orthodoxy, remarked a man once known as a fiscal hawk as he dispatched another barrow-load of Tory sacred beliefs on to the bonfire of orthodoxies.
He presented a confident face designed to mask the profound fear within government about the consequences of not taking the extraordinary step of making the state responsible for much of the economys wage bills. The alternative was to see a massive and rapid surge in unemployment that would have overwhelmed the welfare system and threatened serious civil disorder. Forced to decide between Tory doctrine and food riots, Mr Sunak made the right choice.
Similar things are happening around the world as governments battle to prevent an inevitable downturn from sliding into a deep depression. Donald Trump is even talking about sending a cheque from Washington direct to every American.
This emergency differs in key respects to that of the Great Crash of 2008, but some useful lessons can be drawn from the last global crisis. One is that governments and central banks have to act quickly, decisively and at scale to give confidence to markets, households and businesses that the state has their back and that it is possible for people to plan for a future when the crisis is over. Near-zero interest rates, quantitative easing and bank bailouts, the tools used during the financial crisis, did avert a repeat of the Great Depression of the 1930s, but it was only slowly that people came to appreciate the negative social consequences that stretched wealth inequalities and stoked a wide and deep public alienation. The spectacle of shameless financiers walking away unscathed from a wreck of their own reckless making and then going on to further enrich themselves fed a righteous rage among the less affluent folk who felt the squeeze of subsequent austerity. We all remember what happened in 2008, Mr Johnson remarked last week, alluding to the debates within his cabinet about the dangers of a massive public backlash if the government is seen only to be looking after big business. Time and again, he tells companies that the government is standing by them so they can stand by their employees.
There are critics who say that the gargantuan amounts of government spending being fired at this crisis are too scattergun. Money will end up in the hands of badly run or badly behaved companies. Money will go to some who dont really need it. Money will be wasted. To which we can only say: so be it. There is no time for government to develop sophisticated schemes with complex delivery mechanisms. The need is to make financial assistance available as simply and swiftly as possible. This crisis calls not for the snipers rifle but the bazooka.
The hope it can be no more than a hope at this stage of uncertainty is that a sharp dive in the global economy will be followed by a strong bounce-back when restrictions can be lifted and millions go back to work and return to spending. But that can only happen if there are still businesses left standing.
Ministers and officials cannot say how much all the emergency measures will cost, because they cant know. We can safely say that the sums will be huge. Robert Chote, the director of the Office for Budget Responsibility, would normally have something very chiding to say about a government prepared to let the deficit rip in such a staggering fashion. Now he observes: When the fire is large enough you just spray the water and worry about it later.
Fiscal disciplinarians on the right are largely swallowing it on the grounds that there is no alternative. Libertarians of the state-shrinking and welfare-loathing disposition are reconciling themselves to measures that theyd normally hate with the thought that they are temporary impositions that will be lifted one day. Once the virus is brought under control, either by the production of a vaccine or other measures, then politics can go back to business as usual.
I rather doubt that. While it is far too early to make any confident predictions about the longterm ways in which this crisis will reshape society, it has already upended many of the assumptions that have governed politics here and elsewhere for decades. It is hard to believe that a once-in-a-century event will not have some once-in-a-century consequences.
Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer
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