Over the last 40 years – during the age of neoliberalism – politicians in the West, and particularly in the English-speaking world, have arguably been involved in a systematic overstatement of the importance of economic freedoms, and an understatement of most people’s natural need for economic security.
Mostly wealthy and well-cushioned from economic uncertainty themselves – and backed by even wealthier supporters – politicians of the right and centre in Britain, the United States and elsewhere have sought to reduce the relative economic security painstakingly won by ordinary workers during the post-war period, ushering in a new “flexible” world of minimal job security, stagnant wages, and increasingly precarious self-employment; one with huge knock-on effects on the mental and physical well-being of millions of workers and their families, often expressed in chronic anxiety and depression, and additional pressures on the NHS.
Just occasionally, though, the voice of the less privileged majority makes itself heard, on matters of security and freedom; and it happened this week, when the Prime Minister’s decision to do away with the compulsory wearing of masks from July 19 began to crumble in the face of a clear public preference for behaving more safely and considerately, at a time of rising Covid infections.
Boris Johnson’s decision was doubtless influenced by libertarian voices in the parliamentary Conservative party, telling him that people had “had enough” of masks. That is not, though – according to polls – the attitude of the majority; hence the generally relieved and positive response to the decisions of devolved and civic leaders across the UK, including Nicola Sturgeon, Sadiq Khan, and Tory West Midlands mayor Andy Street, to prioritise security, and continue with the mask mandate, so far as their powers allow.
All of which matters in ways that go far beyond pandemic management; in that it raises issues about the future we all face, as we try to emerge into a world increasingly challenged by severe signs of climate breakdown.
This week, the UK government published its Transport Decarbonisation Strategy, aimed at making transport in Britain carbon neutral by 2050; but despite many statements of good intent in terms of reducing emissions by developing low-carbon technologies, at the political level its message is simply “don’t worry, we can all continue driving and flying about just as we did before, the government will continue to invest massively in road-building over all other forms of transport, and there will be technical fixes to make to all zero carbon within 30 years”.
And the problem with this headline message is that, like the UK government’s decision to end Covid restrictions, it offers false assurances based on denial of the facts. In the first instance, climate change now requires a far more urgent approach than anything suggested by this report; we certainly do not have a leisurely 30 years in which to tackle the crisis.
In the second place, many of the technologies on which the government’s sunny view depends are at best untested, and at worst still purely theoretical. And in the third place, the idea that simply shifting our transport sector to non-carbon fuels makes it zero carbon is ridiculous, in a transport culture that requires the annual manufacture and scrapping of vehicles on a heroic scale, and the constant construction and maintenance of massive infrastructure, in ways that are far from carbon neutral.
What happened during the first lockdown last year, by contrast, offered us a supremely valuable glimpse of what might be possible if we were to treat the climate emergency as an emergency, and simply stop our relentless rush to destruction through conventional “growth”.
The two main elements of that shift were an almost complete cessation in our civilisational habit of rushing about and demonstrating our mobility, even when it is clearly unnecessary; the result was clean air, loud birdsong, peaceful streets, revived residential communities, and – for many – a blissfully renewed relationship with the natural world. The other essential element was government support; a new age of muscular government backed by massive long-term borrowing, to ensure the incomes and basic security of millions, during a time of traumatic change.
And what that suggests, as we enter this new phase, is that governments that take climate change seriously will be learning from their pandemic experience; and thinking in particular about how such income-support mechanisms could be used to sustain public security, confidence and support through the massive changes involved in a genuine low-carbon transition.
Governments that do not take climate change seriously, by contrast – well, they will be reducing benefits, not considering any fundamental offer of economic security to citizens, and prioritising the need for certain industries to return to short-term profit, over the sustainable future of us all.
This week, at Pitlochry, I saw a lovely outdoor stage version of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind In The Willows, that prescient story, published in 1908, about wealthy Mr Toad, who insists on driving his beloved motor car to the destruction of himself and everything else, as an expression of his right to be free.
And now, at this turning-point in our history, the Conservatives and their ideological allies have become the Mr Toads of world politics, careering blithely towards destruction in the name of liberty. As Kenneth Grahame understood only too well, though, they are wrong, and are deluding even themselves; and unless we can soon find a way of leaping aboard and applying the brakes, their journey will end in a crash that could be death of us all.