JAMES BALL: There is no turning back for Britain after the coronavirus
PUBLISHED: 15:00 26 March 2020
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The COVID-19 crisis represents an opportunity for positive change that could span decades, according to JAMES BALL.
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Boris Johnson is almost certainly not a fan of the man who coined the phrase “there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen” – it was Vladimir Ilyich Lenin – but even he would struggle right now to deny its truth.
After all, his government has in the last week enacted a left-wing manifesto which in at least some respects goes beyond anything dreamed of in Jeremy Corbyn’s 2019 manifesto. For at least a portion of workers, the government will pay welfare benefits of up to £2,500 a month.
Sickness benefit, while still meagre, has been extended to cover more people and start more quickly. Thousands of private hospital beds – and their accompanying workers – are now at the disposal of the state, at cost price. Hundreds of billions of pounds of loans, tax breaks, and other funding has been made available to businesses small and large.
On Monday, virtually without anyone noticing, the Conservative government casually renationalised the UK’s railways.
This is, of course, all intended to be temporary: the UK, like the rest of the world, is facing the spectre of coronavirus and trying to avert its devastating potential to cripple healthcare systems across the planet, leading to the death of millions.
Preventing the NHS being immediately overwhelmed – there are only around 5,000 intensive care beds across the country, and only limited ability to flex this number upwards – requires the government to shut down much of the normal function of the country, to stop, or at least slow, the spread of coronavirus.
The result would bankrupt swathes of businesses and result in millions of job losses, teaching even a laissez-faire Conservative government that there are some crises markets simply cannot handle.
Markets may be precise and intricate machines able to deliver, for example, London with the huge variety of foodstuffs its population demands each day, with minimal waste. But like most precise and intricate machines, they are also delicate – and only government is capable of stepping in when the worst occurs.
There should be absolutely no doubt that the huge public spending announcements of recent days – if not those in the budget itself, which was barely two weeks ago – show the sheer futility of austerity. Any benefit to public finances granted by a decade of government-inflicted pain, largely on the weakest of society, has been undone entirely. Truly, the UK has wasted a decade.
Before we swing too far the other way, though, this also doesn’t mean that the government can always spend hundreds of billions without consequence. The UK economy was set to flatline, with devastating effects. The package of measures announced by the government are the economic equivalent of adrenaline in the veins, CPR and then a defibrillator shock to the country. When that’s what you need, it’s exactly the right treatment – but it would be deadly in normal times.
There will come a hangover to the measures the government has taken, either in the foolish form of a new, sustained round of austerity, in punishing inflation rates and thus surging prices, or else some form of international effort to manage the new national debts taken on for coronavirus.
But despite that, a Conservative government has embraced one of the oldest economic principles of the left – that of Keynesianism, the economic principle that when the market falls behind, government should expand and spend to sustain demand; and when the market booms, the state should spend less and calm the animal spirits.
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Rishi Sunak has arguably unveiled some of the most left-wing welfare provisions of any chancellor in British history, but there is no doubt that the Conservative government will want them to be strictly limited to the duration of the crisis.
If anything, given the scale of the crisis we face, the seismic measures are too small – the government has little to offer self-employed or freelance workers, its mechanism to support furloughed workers misses out people laid off by their short-sighted bosses before help was announced, renters face crippling debts as the crisis passes thanks to only limited support, and numerous others fall through the cracks.
But the popularity of the measures expanding the UK’s welfare safety net is certainly coronavirus-related: everyone can see that millions of people are, through no fault of their own, suddenly unable to work. They can see that businesses, even previously well-run and well-liked ones, will fail without government intervention.
The problem for a right-wing government is that people will still know this can happen once coronavirus passes. The UK’s welfare safety net dwindled to the harsh and meagre system we have today because most working people were sold on the idea it wasn’t for them – it was for people who didn’t want to work, layabouts, scroungers.
People have now had a glimpse that their lives are not so secure as they once thought: that through no fault of their own, they could suddenly lose their ability to earn. That usually comes upon us one by one, after an accident or illness, or to local communities as a major employer shuts down. For it to hit a whole nation – indeed, nations across the world – all at once is close to unprecedented in living memory.
People’s sense of invulnerability, once penetrated, doesn’t return all at once. It will likely prove impossible to keep the extraordinary measures for furloughed workers in the long term – but other measures extending the state’s safety net might find much less resistance than once they did.
Similarly, people who never thought it would be them having to live on the measly £94-a-week offered to the long-term sick or to the unemployed will feel very differently about benefits as they return to work post-coronavirus.
Simultaneously, it is much harder to talk about the infallibility of markets and the uselessness of government when most of the UK’s major businesses will only still be standing thanks to government intervention – and when government has had to take huge action at short notice to prevent people losing their homes and missing their bills.
The truth is that we simply cannot return to business-as-usual whenever coronavirus becomes a troubling memory rather than our disturbing reality. Even if we keep its toll to a minimum, the way we look at the world won’t be the same – we will have lived through the kind of crisis people who lived through Spanish Flu or the Second World War did. We may not have had the degradations of the latter, but we have now felt the world turn upside down in a period of weeks.
It is times of great crisis that lead to changes in the social order: it is no coincidence that the NHS and modern welfare state was born out of the aftermath of the Second World War. People saw the government was capable of far greater enterprises than they previously had thought possible, and came to expect it to be able to deliver for them in peacetime, too.
Our expectations can similarly shift in the coming months, too – though nothing is ever guaranteed. Getting the most out of the opportunity presented by the coronavirus crisis will require sustained campaigning, political pressure, and a list of asks that appeals to our new circumstances and people whose views have recently changed.
Some coronavirus policies will almost certainly not be reversed no matter what – it would be a stubborn and short-sighted government that reintroduced rail franchising, for example – but other reforms will need fighting for.
For campaigners, policy experts, and opposition politicians looking for something constructive to do during the crisis – other than looking after the vulnerable people around us now – working out how best to seize the moment is perhaps the best possible way anyone could spend their time.
These are tough and fallow weeks for many of us – but if we get it right, they could have positive consequences that span decades.
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