ON Twitter, a discussion is in full swing about the terrible impact of the current crisis on The Archers, Radio 4’s long-running ‘everyday story of country folk’.
In normal times, the last fortnight should have been a big one for The Archers, with a major explosion at the local hotel, a central character fighting for her life, and the latest fiancé of a much put-upon female character exposed as a villain operating his business on slave labour.
Yet in truth, every one of these episodes – playing out to a captive audience locked down in their homes – now sounds like a message from a different world; a place where people could go to the pub, visit hospital wards, drive round to see one another, or discuss their imminent holiday and wedding plans, without even a second thought. And as with The Archers, so with the news that fills all the corners of our day, and has changed utterly over the last month.
Just weeks ago, for instance, our torrid 21st century celebrity culture was still in full swing, with major culture wars breaking out over Prince Harry and his wife Meghan, and their decision to step back from royal duties; but like dozens of other famous and glamorous folk, they have now dropped from the headlines like stones, to be replaced by the earnest faces of serious epidemiological experts, and the fraught ones of Italian doctors begging us not to repeat Italy’s early mistakes in dealing with the virus.
As for our fervent consumer culture – the perpetual sofa sales and special offers, the overheated property market, the cruises, the long-haul holidays to Thailand or the Caribbean, the rows over Airbnb and hyper-tourism – it has all melted into irrelevance, as consumers who just a month ago were dreaming of fitted kitchens or fairytale weddings end up down at the supermarket, fighting over dwindling supplies of pasta and toilet roll. The coronavirus crisis has been so sudden, and so extreme, that it has forced us to relearn in days what human beings have always known about what really matters; love and family, food and shelter, warmth and water, and – oddly – the internet, which has morphed in two decades from a luxury to a basic utility, across the developed world.
The crisis has made us aware, in other words, that for many decades now, too many of us in the wealthy west have been frantically busy doing nothing; nothing, that is, that really conduced to our happiness and wellbeing, except by keeping the wolf of poverty from the door. What we were doing, with greater or lesser success, was serving an economic and financial system which increasingly was not really serving us; it was progressively destroying our natural environment, leaving too many people behind in poverty and insecurity, and imposing ever higher levels of stress even on those who managed to stay afloat. Hence the spasms in the system that led – among many other phenomena – to the election of Donald Trump, to the UK’s 2016 vote for Brexit, and to the emerging sight, even before coronavirus hit, of a British Tory government abandoning 40 years of neoliberalism to pivot towards a surge in public spending. And now, even that moment has been overtaken by events, with the Chancellor’s budget boosts in spending, announced just over two weeks ago, increasingly dwarfed by the impending government bailout of companies and wages, across the economy.
So which of our old political preoccupations and stories will rebound with extra vigour, after the crisis, and which will fade away for good? On the perennial constitutional issues of Brexit and Scottish independence, the jury remains out. On one hand, the effect of the crisis is to emphasise the key role of sovereign national governments, and their responses; for better or worse, we in the UK are stuck, for the duration of this crisis, with Boris Johnson’s government, its decisions, its mixed messages, and its dishevelled daily press conferences.
Yet on the other hand, there is more than a possibility that when the full story of the crisis becomes known, it will only highlight the dysfunctional quality of governments in Washington and London elected on a tide of populist feeling that was dangerously misdirected against fantasy enemies; only this week, Boris Johnson bizarrely refused to join the EU procurement scheme for vital crisis medical equipment, and the United States scuppered a major G7 plan to fight the coronavirus crisis by demanding that it be re-named “the Wuhan virus”, in an infantile anti-Chinese gesture.
In an age of politics driven by junk-fiction “narratives”, in other words, coronavirus is clearly a reality check; a reminder not only of the importance of expert knowledge, and of a well-funded and resilient public sector, but also of the sheer nonsense of the fiction that our closest trading partners are our enemies, and the richest one per cent are the only important “wealth creators” in our society. After this crisis, workers in low paid and supposedly “unskilled” areas from health and social care to food production will have a new knowledge of their worth, as the “key workers” that keep our world ticking over; and it’s not impossible that that new knowledge could transform our politics for a generation to come, perhaps even demanding a fundamental shift in a global financial system that is now manifestly unfit for purpose.
And with a shift, if we are lucky, will come a chance to fight for a new global system that is also more environmentally sustainable. The opposite could also be true, of course; as the crisis abates, we could see the memory of birdsong in central Delhi, or clear blue skies above Beijing, swept away in a suicidal rush back towards perpetual economic “growth”. Yet there will be opportunities in the forever-changed political landscape that will emerge from this crisis, as well as mighty threats. And the prize, in terms of lasting power in the 21st century, will go to those at every level who have both the insight to grasp those opportunities to create a more just and sustainable world; and the political will and organising skill to seize the moment, and begin to make that world a reality.