Lesley Riddoch: Pandemic shows us all what is really essential and what is not
Weekend opinion polls indicate a boost in support for incumbents, with majority backing for Boris Johnson across the UK and Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland, suggesting that a rattled, worried and traumatised public wants stability and civility right now, with no accidental pricking of the delicate confidence bubble or undue rocking of the political boat.
That might be an unwise conclusion to draw.
It certainly has been breathtaking and impressive to behold the mobilisation of society, the protection of wages, the overnight construction of field hospitals, the mass switch to working online and Boris Johnson’s Damascene conversion to the necessity of state intervention and a command economy. But the penny is slowly dropping.
A Conservative Government that wasn’t able to fix Universal Credit, left gig economy workers to sink or swim and couldn’t get elderly people out of hospitals has suddenly found it can do all those things. How come?
Since most formal democratic checks and balances have been lost, broadcasters have become the unofficial opposition, enlisting straight-talking surgeons, nurses, hospital managers and foreign civic leader to problem solve impressively while the usual rota of weary, defensive politicians are given a backseat. Experts have been reinstated after the demonisation of the Brexit years and audiences have caught a tantalising glimpse of non-partisan, committed and truly informed public debate. Is anyone ready to go back to the old world of bland assurances, evasion and ultra-polite, worshipful questioning? I suspect not.
Above all, the last revolutionary fortnight has demonstrated that “stuck” problems in British society can rapidly become unstuck when faced with total meltdown. Suddenly there is a magic money tree whose laden branches creak with reserves that dwarf every “profligate” spending plan proposed by Jeremy Corbyn in December.
Labour’s General Election pledges now look timid, but even though the party was on the right side of the spending equation back then, it can’t easily press home a moral advantage now without sounding offensively opportunistic. It’s hard also for the SNP to question the UK Government’s failure to participate in the EU’s joint ventilator ordering scheme without sounding disloyal and pernickety.
But the suspension of party-political business as usual doesn’t mean seismic change is not afoot.
Many analogies have been drawn with wartime. And though the Dunkirk and Blitz spirit are commonly invoked, the wartime spirit was far from worshipful and obedient, as historians like Jane McArthur have worked to reveal.
Witness the movements against conscription and unscrupulous landlords during the First World War in Glasgow. Lloyd George’s promise of a land fit for heroes, wasn’t taken for granted by soldiers who formed their own union demanding better food, equipment and housing after demobilisation. The change in public mood, along with the extended franchise, also prompted the most substantial land reform package of the last or any century.
After the Second World War the creation of the welfare state created a social contract between workers and the British State which has helped keep a rickety United Kingdom glued together. Progress arose from social conflict during and immediately after war – from what historian Adam Seipp has called a “crisis of reciprocity”, where the state was perceived as failing in rewarding wartime sacrifice.
Ring any bells?
Yesterday Scots actor James McAvoy donated £275,000 to a crowdfunding appeal to buy masks, visors and gloves for NHS staff. The fact that “frontline troops” in the current pandemic must battle without proper kit has alarmed and enraged citizens across the political spectrum and may have contributed to the signal lack of sympathy last week when Boris Johnson tested positive for Covid-19.
So, despite his unprecedented employment support package, a “crisis of reciprocity,” still looms for Boris if he fails to reward coronavirus sacrifice.
Maybe not immediately, but as soon as any let-up in the health crisis creates safe political space for dissent.
There’s a pattern.
The radical peacetime settlements which transformed British society in the last century arose from the disputes, not the subservience of people during wartime.
So, what might the Covid-19 peacetime dividend look like? With any luck, it will end undue deference towards and undue influence exercised by the rich and powerful, especially in the management of public services.
Richard Branson, Tim Martin, and other self-seeking billionaires have disgraced themselves by calling for bail-outs and sacking staff, while care workers, NHS staff, shop workers, police and scientists working on vaccines, entrepreneurs creating 3-D printed surgical masks and local activists have all swung into gear with a selflessness that’s shamed these titans of industry.
Prince Charles’ extraordinary inability to read public reaction in Scotland to his rule-breaking flight to Balmoral and queue-jumping coronavirus test may have further damaged his reputation in Scotland as heir to the throne.
In 2018, a survey found fewer than half of Scots supported the monarchy, compared to a majority south of the Border. Scotland was also the only nation where a majority didn’t see the monarchy as a unifying force after Brexit.
Even amongst monarchists, a January 2020 poll found 45 per cent want the succession to skip a generation when the Queen dies. If that poll was rerun today, the result in Scotland could be positively Republican.
Citizens now expect vigour and problem-solving, not evasive hand-wringing from government and, whilst scared and stressed, have a better idea of their own capacity to manage crisis and withstand hardship.
Political leaders in Westminster and Holyrood should realise this quiet impetus for substantial economic and social change will only continue to grow.
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