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Could coronavirus reinvent Britain?

A man wearing a protective face-mask walks through a deserted Trafalgar Square in London, England. The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has spread to many countries across the world, claiming over 30,000 lives and infecting hundreds of thousands more. Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

This terrible crisis can still become a catalyst for long overdue changes to the country, says JOHN KAMPFNER.

Britain may ultimately emerge strengthened from Coronavirus. With so much suffering, so many deaths and with so much of the economy about to go to the wall, that might seem a bizarre, indeed insensitive, prediction.

It comes with one huge caveat. In order to succeed, the UK will have to do something it has refused to contemplate over the last eight decades. It will have to shed the past in order to chart a new future.

In almost every respect the UK lagged behind equivalent countries in its response to the pandemic. The charge sheet is morbidly familiar – a failure to enforce a lockdown until it was too late; a failure to provide basic protection for health professionals and other key workers, and a failure to test.

That tells only part of the story. The bigger failures long predate this crisis. The present difficulties have deep roots – a failure to attract people of calibre to 
the political class (one need only to compare the likes of Dominic Raab and Priti Patel with some of their predecessors); a failure of long-term strategic planning; a failure to strengthen public services, in terms of funding and priorities; and a failure to produce a society in which all groups feel a sense of belonging.

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All countries, individually and collectively, will share similar problems as they seek to rebuild shattered societies and economies. But scratch below the surface and Britain’s are deeper rooted. They are personified in Boris Johnson.

Britain is obsessed with the glories of yesteryear. As vainglorious biographer of Winston Churchill, Johnson plays on that. The narrative Britons fall back on is either grandiloquent and militaristic, or it is plucky Dad’s Army – sending the young private off to battle, cake baked by mum in hand. At the heart of it is the notion of exceptionalism.

This island nation is like none other. It is as if we have a special calling, to teach Johnny Foreigner liberty, nobility – even science and medicine. We know better. Except, as Covid-19 has shown us, we emphatically do not.

What will the British state look like five years on? It depends entirely on whether we learn the lessons. If we don’t, we will have to console ourselves in nostalgia. Our media will hail this government’s determination ‘to get things done’. Johnson will invoke the imagery of war and defiance, choosing to ignore inconvenient truths.

The population will be told that we are all in it together, even though we are not. Why is it that nurses and doctors have been left to die unprotected? Why has a disproportionate number of those victims come from BAME backgrounds? How have the poor endured the lockdown? What of middle-class privilege seeing out Covid from second homes?

Such has been the yearning for reassurance from voters that difficult questions such as these have not had to be answered.

So far Johnson has weathered the failures – his own descent into near-mortality endearing him further. The more popular he becomes, the more this will demonstrate Britain’s descent into national self-mythology – which itself is a manifestation of decline.

The prime minister could, however, adopt the braver option and embark on a radical reconstruction of Britain, in the nature of Nixon in China – the protagonist going onto ‘enemy’ territory to sue for peace. Johnson has already shown that he can do it.

His partial rebranding of the Conservative was brazenly successful. He is now, by dint of his recent electoral coalition of traditional Tories and the so-called Red Wall, obliged to adopt the tax and spend model that was once seen as Labour’s preserve if he is to win re-election.

He has nowhere else to go. He will have to continue his re-balancing strategy, diverting investment to the north, as set out so triumphantly by Rishi Sunak in his Budget just a few weeks ago (how distant that era now feels). The numbers now are considerably higher. His aides admit that he will have to pay for it through further borrowing and taxation. Austerity has been banished. In order to be remotely effective, all of this would require an entire remodelling of the economy.

The government would have to go after the rich in a way that no administration has wanted to, or dared to, do since the 1970s.

It would need international cooperation to root out tax avoidance and tax evasion, both corporate and individual. It would need to challenge the asset base of the Baby-boomer generation in a way that would previously have been deemed politically impossible. According to Leo McKinstry, a columnist at the Sun (not a paper I usually turn to for advice): ‘In practice, we will live under a socialist system, where the government has effectively nationalised the entire economy’.

McKinstry’s analysis was, I assume, written more as a warning. To a degree it is over-stated. A more accurate example would be Germany’s social market. Throughout the era of Reagan/Thatcher ultra-free markets in the US and UK, the Germans kept plugging away in their more deliberative, community-based model.

They invested in regional companies, enabling many of the small and medium-sized Mittelstand firms to become world leaders in niche markets.

They focused on vocational training and high-end engineering. We dismissed them as hidebound and old-fashioned.

For sure, they made mistakes. The country was slow to embrace many aspects of tech; but it is catching up fast. It too had a decade of austerity (the so-called Schwarze Null, or ‘black zero’), in which important infrastructure, such as the railway network, and education were woefully under-funded. Crucially, the devolved health service ensured that it ran relatively smoothly and was preparing for all eventualities.

The Germans have been proven right. The UK will have to move onto that policy terrain, investing for the long-term, with state-directed programmes for housing, infrastructure and, in the immediate term, welfare provision.

To make a post-coronavirus economy sustainable it will need to improve productivity and research and development – areas it has traditionally been weak in.

Britain will have to find new ways of creating wealth and distributing it, while not jettisoning its strengths 
of entrepreneurialism and individualism.

All of this will require enormous amounts of social solidarity, a term that is little understood in this country. When it is used it invariably refers back to the war.

Britain emerged diminished from its victory over Hitler; it failed to acknowledge the economic toll it had taken. It will emerge even more diminished now.

It will not dare say so because the comparisons are painful. With individual nations going it alone in recent weeks, imposing border restrictions and bans on the sale of vital goods, the notion of internationalism might feel fanciful. And short-term it does. Transnational institutions have not fared well.

Yet, longer-term, the UK has no choice. The European Union is on the verge of pledging one billion euros to poorer states, in Africa and the Maghreb, knowing that a hideous death toll from the pandemic will produce a new cycle of famine, violence and migration.

No country, not even an island, will be able to cope with that on its own.

Covid-19 will be seen as a wake-up call. The many weaknesses of the British economy and societal structures – and others’ too – were always going to be vulnerable to a shock such as this.

This disease may not go away.

Even if or when a vaccine is found, the fear of a renewed outbreak or mutation will introduce new fear and circumspection across the world.

It may also be seen as a dress rehearsal for other future crises. Will society and the economy finally take heed of the global emergency?

The joys of car-free streets, quieter skies and cleaner air may prove temporary as countries gradually ease restrictions. But political room has been created for more radical environmental measures to be taken.

Britain could be at the forefront of this reconstruction. It will need to show radicalism, internationalism and dispense with hubris – something it finds desperately hard to do.

For all the suffering that has already happened, and for all the hardship that still awaits, this pandemic could be the catalyst for changes to British life that should have been made decades ago. If only we are able to break free from our self-delusion.

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