There is much speculation in political circles, especially on the left, about what effect the pandemic will have on our politics, once we get through the current crisis. Certainly, these are unprecedented times that we live it, which business as usual politics was unable to cope with, in any kind of civilised manner. It is at times like these that government comes into its own, laissez-faire, neo-liberal politics has been found wanting, and a collective politics has emerged as a much more suitable vehicle for this crisis, in the UK at least.
The do nothing strategy, if you can call it that, to contain the spread of the virus, has steadily been abandoned over the last fortnight, in favour of a collective appeal to help the NHS, by most people largely self isolating, and the closure of pubs, restaurants and live entertainment of all kinds. Gradually, the instructions from the government have become more draconian, with enforcement by the police of these measures.
The political left (and some on the right) has voiced concerns over this more authoritarian approach, whilst the political right worries over ‘big state’ actions and to some extent carries over its obsession with immigration from the Brexit debate. Ah, Brexit, it hardly gets a mention these days though, after almost four years of it dominating British political discourse. The main concern for the right appears to be the adoption, by a Conservative government, and a pretty right-wing one at that, of socialist policies.
The government has, in effect, nationalised the payroll, with measures to pay 80% of public and private sector wages for those laid off by the crisis and has produced a similar scheme for the self-employed. At the same time, a volunteer pool of people has been established to help the NHS and to take on other duties, like driving food delivery vans and doing shopping for elderly and vulnerable people.
Some of this was already happening in communities anyway, but the government is accelerating this, with a call for collectivism rather than the usual individualism, bugger everyone else, me, me, me, being replaced by a more sharing approach.
Some businesses will go bankrupt, but many will survive, and some will even do very well out of this emergency, as Naomi Klein has documented in her book about disaster capitalism, ‘The Shock Doctrine’.
What we are witnessing here, is an attempt to save the capitalist system, rather than replace it, but for the neo-liberal Conservative party, this is indeed a big shift to the left, but of a Keynesian nature, rather than a truly socialist one, but even so this is very much out of character for the Tories.
This is an emergency though, so the attempt will be to move back to business as usual as soon as the crisis is under control. The Tories hope this will be greeted with relief by the public, after the lock-down has ended. The government are trying to conflate our freedoms with the normal state of economics and politics, hoping that people will be so relieved that they can go out and enjoy themselves, they will welcome the resumption of the ancient regime.
The government’s favoured analogy is that of fighting a war, when a national effort is needed to defeat the ‘enemy’, all pulling together (collectively) in this time of crisis. Indeed during in World War II, Britain came as close to socialism as it has ever done. And it was successful, but people tired of all the restrictions and particularly the rationing of food, once the war was over, and this is the feeling that the Tories will attempt to exploit.
And yet, Winston Churchill, the great wartime leader tried exactly the same tactic, but was unceremoniously booted out of office, and Labour had a landslide victory. People remembered what life was like before the war, and remembered Churchill’s politics from that time. He set the army against union members in the General Strike of 1926 and was no friend of the working classes.
The people wanted no more of that, and after all the sacrifice of the war years, wanted a decisive break with the pre-war days. I doubt the soldiers would have obeyed Churchill if he had tried to set them against the workers at that time.
The 1945 Labour government although it did great things like create the NHS and largely the welfare state, underestimated the public’s fatigue with wartime measures, and carried on rationing for too long after the war ended, which ultimately led to electoral defeat in 1951, and the return of a Tory government. Although, not of the pre-war type, as they outdid Labour on things like building council houses. The post-war politics remained in place under successive Tory and Labour governments until Margaret Thatcher destroyed it in the 1980s.
For the left, this lesson needs to be learnt, we should big up the achievements of the collective approach, and the improvements in the environment (far less pollution) but without keeping the most unpopular bits, like the draconian approach to people not being able to have fun. Once the coronavirus pandemic has passed, we should ask people if they really want to go back to austerity for most, and extreme wealth for a few?
Everything will be in play once the crisis is over, there will be a new world to fight for.