Last weekend, which now feels like a lifetime ago, I nervously attended what will probably be my last social gathering for several months. Despite a general mood of uneasiness, at least one of my friends was hoping that there would be a silver lining to the looming Covid-19 epidemic. Did I not think, he asked, that confronting this challenge together might finally instil some solidarity in our society?
I heard similar sentiments being expressed throughout last week. In a BBC Newsnight interview, the Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggested that “We are going to come through this… with a much stronger commitment to helping others,” adding that it was “probably the lesson we needed as a country.” Some of those rushing to join community aid groups have expressed similar optimism. Even on social media, the shared experience of confinement has given rise to something of an upbeat communal spirit.
Solidarity is obviously welcome, and action to help the vulnerable is more welcome still. I am as hopeful as anyone else that little platoons will play their part in this emergency. But we should not fool ourselves about what lies ahead. Though many commentators have been drawing parallels to the Second World War, the emerging consensus among economists is that the shock now underway will dwarf that of the early 1940s. The blow to demand dealt by social distancing measures points towards a spiral of business contraction and redundancies simply unprecedented in modern history. The forecasts flying around in recent days vary considerably, and are of limited use given how quickly the situation is developing. But I have yet to see any evidence that the swiftly approaching economic crisis will not be brutal – and that is before we consider the effects of the financial crisis unfolding alongside it.
This means that our efforts as individuals and communities ultimately pale by comparison to the responsibility which now rests on the state. Only the state can manage the gargantuan tasks of coordinating healthcare, propping up collapsing industries, and mitigating the financial damage in the population at large. As the multi-hundred billion pound measures announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak last week attest, we are undergoing a transformation of the government’s role in the economy on a scale not seen in living memory. And we are only at the beginning.
What is more, it’s becoming apparent that the flag around which many of us have been rallying in recent weeks – the necessity of aggressive containment measures to ease the stress on our healthcare system – will only take us so far. At the moment, our priority is to slow the virus’ spread by reducing interpersonal contact as much as possible. But if, as is widely suspected, any attempt to return to normality will only cause infections to rise again, then there will be truly horrendous trade-offs between ongoing economic damage and the likely deaths resulting from interaction. (The dimensions of that dilemma may become clearer in the coming days, as the Chinese authorities begin to relax their brutal lockdown of Wuhan province).
All of this points to inevitable and legitimate political conflict in the coming months and years. The fissures which have threatened to emerge following each of Sunak’s announcements last week – between homeowners and renters, between businesses and workers, between employees and the self-employed – are just a glimpse of what lies ahead.
As the state rapidly expands into a Leviathan, acting as insurer of last resort for much of the population, it will assume responsibility for the survival prospects not only of thousands of individuals at risk of illness, but of entire sectors of the economy. There may be hopes of a swift “bounce-back” recovery, if the government’s attempts to flood the economy with borrowed and printed cash manage to shore-up demand, but we should not delude ourselves that we can somehow just resume where we left off. Countless businesses and careers that entered this crisis as perfectly viable will needed ongoing targeted support to survive, and the state will need to decide which are most worthy of that support.
In other words, whatever the settlement that emerges from a prolonged period of extraordinary state intervention, there are bound to be winners and losers. As the aftermath of the 2007-08 financial crisis taught us, a perception that bailouts have been distributed unfairly will lead to toxic resentments. A deep source of political turmoil during the past decade has been the grievances of those who feel that opportunities and influence are not being fairly distributed. The coming recession has every likelihood of compounding these tensions. As a recent report by the Resolution Foundation pointed out, the sectors being hardest hit by the downturn are disproportionately staffed by those with low incomes, with little or no savings, and without the option to work from home. One can already imagine a scenario in which handouts to firms deemed too big or strategically important to fail coincide with a sense of powerlessness among a burgeoning population of underemployed workers and debt-laden small businesses.
There is no doubt that in the short term, our efforts must be directed toward mitigating a public health emergency which, sadly, has yet to reach its peak. I accept that this will entail seeking political conciliation wherever possible, so as to focus on the challenge at hand.
In the medium-term, however, we need to think about what solidarity really means in these circumstances. It should, surely, involve an acknowledgement that the careful mediation of political disputes will be essential to riding this crisis out. That will require, above all, a framework in which competing interests can make their claims without the resulting conflicts becoming too incendiary.
Such a framework precisely what our political culture has already, in recent years, shown itself to be lacking. In a strange throwback to the “grand bargains” that characterised mid-20th century politics, the government has promised to consult with representatives of business and the unions going forward. But trade unions today represent barely a fifth of the workforce, with memberships skewed towards older, well-paid public sector workers. Like many other advanced economies, modern Britain is a patchwork of groups whose economic interests appear to align, but which lack the social cohesion necessary to realise and articulate those interests. They exist only as statistical entities.
It is crucial, therefore, that we think about the role of institutions in channeling some of the solidarity that is generated by this crisis towards conflict resolution. This should be an opportunity for the Labour Party to address the problem of who in modern Britain is most in need of its representation, and to provide constructive opposition to the government on that basis. It should be an opportunity for the media to break out of last decade’s culture wars and identify on whose behalf the government should be held to account. We will also need new institutions to represent those socially dispersed interests who will struggle to be heard in the halls of power during a new era of corporatism. Could community aid groups, or the professional networks which are already springing-up among the unemployed, gradually morph into such bodies?
Admittedly it seems perverse to talk about the necessity of conflict at a time like this. Yet if we suppress the political fallout from this crisis, we will only be storing-up demons for later.