Brian Monteith: Coronavirus is changing the way we live - but we still get to decide the future
The way we are now having to live will make us all ask questions about how we lived before – and some of the new ways we are adopting, or may yet adopt, will replace the old think, becoming the new normal.
The introspection and reassessment that temporary forced change shall undoubtedly generate could be a force for good – but only so long as a proper debate is had and people’s voices are heard. What we must avoid is vested interests that tend to be well connected, well financed and well organised rushing us into judgements that we later come to regret and serve no useful purpose in dealing with future pandemics.
The lockdown may yet get tighter if the current regime is not deemed to be having enough effect; greater restrictions on our liberty may follow, more limits to our economic activity may be put in place, some truly dystopian scenes may yet develop that we thought were only likely to be found in science fiction movies.
This is not alarmist; we need to be prepared to adjust – but we also need to remember that what might be required as short-term measures are indeed temporary and should be repeatedly reviewed. On that note we should be glad that the UK Government accepted the requirement for a sunset clause in its emergency powers Act so that measures introduced must be reviewed in September before carrying on.
Nor can we simply say that because the state has now found it necessary to take actions that we have never judged desirable or even possible before, that they should therefore be carried on. The most obvious example is the vast extension of public sector spending that is required to ensure we have an active economy left to go back to. It should not need to be said but I believe it necessary to remind people that it is the economic activity of the private sector that finances the economic activity of the public sector. Spending huge amounts of money through borrowing is a tax on future generations that have had no say in our decisions – it is essentially generational theft.
Such an extreme form of borrowing is only justifiable in such times as these when our ability to live through a threat to the lives of tens, or possibly hundreds of thousands of people threatens the very existence of future generations in the first place. Such circumstances require immediate financial burdens that would otherwise be impossible to take on through the self-defeating policies of higher taxation (that few could pay) or printing money (that debases the currency).
Wars are an obvious example of such an off-the-scale economic challenge, and provide the lesson that the UK only managed to repay its massive borrowing from the United States during WWII in 2006 – and its older debt for WWI in 2015. Seeking to base our future economic policies when we are past the Coronavirus pandemic on the exceptional spending now being undertaken is the stuff of fantasy and requires politicians to be honest with themselves as much as with us the voters.
I am at the stage in my life where I am enjoying seeing my grandchildren arrive and grow – but I have no wish to burden them or their children – and subsequent generations – with economic decisions that have not been thought through and are selfish beyond belief.
Other changes that are already being mooted are for the introduction of identity cards in the UK as if this is some form of inoculation from future pandemics. I see no reason why having an identity card is either necessary or desirable to fight the spread of disease; we are not in a war where the enemy is other humans who might be among us (and would undoubtedly have false papers anyway) – nor do I understand why proving who I am will stop a future virus moving through the land.
Just as it is no respecter of borders a virus does not discriminate between people with identity papers or not. The belief that the NHS needs such paperwork prior to treatment is laughable when it does not currently take any trouble to establish the bona fides of the people it treats (essentially because it does not need to bill patients).
As a regular traveller I would normally have my passport on my person and practically always carry my driving licence – yet with the exception of passing through customs or hiring cars, which for both processes they are required, I am never asked for them. Even when I lived in France for ten years, before returning to the UK, I found the Gendarme were willing to accept my bank card on the sole occasion proof of identity was demanded.
It is irrelevant changes to our lives like these that we need to be on full alert for and be ready to repudiate when those that incrementally (always incrementally) wish to exert greater control of our lives use a new but temporary panic to force through their case. Identity papers were required during WWII but were abolished by Churchill only in 1952 when he was returned to power.
By contrast significant shocks to the way society does things can bring good results. I have no doubts universal suffrage would have arrived in Britain over time but its progress was accelerated by WWI and the need for women to work in factories and other means of war production – making the argument against granting the vote indefensible.
There will undoubtedly be similar outcomes from the changes we are now willing to accept to get us through the challenge of Coronavirus; shorter supply chains in industry, greater priority given to preparedness for further pandemics (possibly requiring statutory levels of resilience and back-up supplies), an accelerated growth in home delivery further damaging our high street retailers, more acceptance of home working (which must create heightened demand for better broadband capacity) – and ironically more value given to local suppliers who have the skills to supply their communities from local producers.
We cannot say where the changes in dealing with Coronavirus shall take us – but they are likely to be as significant as they are unforeseen.
Brian Monteith is Editor of ThinkScotland.org
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