There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about Britain’s longing to rediscover a tangible national identity. The peoples of this island, it was often suggested, missed a sense of solidarity, security and belonging. Both sides in the acrimonious Brexit struggle, or at least elements on both sides, agreed that this deficit had something to do with Britain’s rejection of the EU; the disagreement was over its root causes and how it should be addressed.
The Covid-19 crisis has ended that argument by radically changing the premises. It is clear that this threat will be addressed at the level of the nation state, and so the near unanimous call is for the British people to pull together and support one another through whatever may lie ahead. Solidarity no longer seems a vague ideal, but an immediate necessity.
The Queen’s recent broadcast, in which she recalled the hardships the nation faced in 1940, gave definitive expression to a narrative which has been building for several weeks. It is the same narrative Boris Johnson invoked in his Easter Sunday address, an extended paean to the National Health Service and the sacrifices Britain was making to protect it by observing social distancing (“the British public,” he said, had “formed a human shield around the country’s greatest national asset”).
Britons are being told to think of collective moral fortitude as the hallmark of their history and institutions, and to show themselves worthy of that history by demonstrating loyalty and sacrifice. The parallels to the “Blitz spirit” of the Second World War have been unending, invoked by broadsheet columns and tabloid headlines, by religious leaders and talk-show hosts, by manufacturers and, of course, by a government that has rapidly accrued new powers and responsibilities to itself. The wartime analogy has felt natural in large part because the NHS, which was already the nation’s most sacrosanct institution, is a common possession in need of defence. (Hence “protect the NHS” has increasingly assumed logical and moral priority over “save lives”).
It has been fascinating to see the brute force of emergency bend the parameters of moral discourse in this way. It has equally been very moving to see the public rise to the challenge. I could mention countless examples, but a handwritten sign in a tailor’s window saying “Free for NHS workers” struck me as especially poignant for some reason.
But many commentators have been unable to resist a further suggestion: that the solidarity fostered by this crisis has, like some god-sent miracle, provided the solution to our earlier troubles. Writing in the Observer recently, Alan Rusbridger pointed to the prestige of the BBC and NHS as evidence that “we’re rediscovering utopian hopes of a connected world.” The Financial Times’ Sebastian Payne has found in our “national sense of togetherness” the belated realisation of David Cameron’s “big society.” Maurice Glasman of Blue Labour, meanwhile, points to the paradox that “community has been rediscovered through enforced social isolation,” glimpsing therein the seeds of “a renewed social democracy.”
Much as I understand the temptation to find in this tragedy some lasting redemption, I remain sceptical. Societies often pull together at moments of emergency because people are both scared and focused on an immediate challenge. As the wartime analogies tacitly recognise, such solidarity is more often a product of resignation, or the desire to make the best of a bad situation, than the sign of a profound conversion. If the goal which unites us is a return to normality, then we are seeking to rid ourselves of the very source of our togetherness.
Could we not try to maintain some of the amity awakened by this crisis? I hope so, but that is not as easy as it sounds. As I wrote some weeks ago, the social and economic fallout of containing Covid-19 will, in the medium term, lead to severe and inescapable political conflicts (a point which, in fairness, Glasman acknowledges). Resolving these conflicts by ensuring that all parties are heard, and by reaching compromises that are bound to leave many unhappy, will require a very different notion of solidarity to the one we are celebrating now.
More immediately, we should be wary of the pressures we are unleashing. Solidarity is not, after all, just a matter of goodwill and camaraderie. It also allows us to demand certain obligations from one another, and to present those obligations as a test of loyalty. In the context of an emergency, this can be a slippery slope.
Sebastian Payne demonstrates one risk when, in the piece mentioned above, he contrasts the virtuous majority to those who have engaged in “selfish acts like stockpiling.” This echoes the trend of vigilante shaming in recent weeks, whereby self-appointed coronavirus cops have tried to enforce the government’s social distancing rules by publically calling-out deviants, often accusing them of disloyalty.
Put aside the fact that, in most cases, such claims about traitors in our midst have proven to be flimsy. If it becomes acceptable to shame people not because their actions risk harm to others, but because they are transgressing against solidarity (a subtle but important distinction), we are potentially hampering our ability to handle problems we will be confronted with later. There may come a time when, for poorer people confined to cramped homes especially, the lockdown simply becomes unbearable. There probably will come a time when we have to make difficult decisions about which containment measures to relax and when. In these scenarios, it will not be helpful if any challenge to social distancing can be countered with claims of weakness or betrayal.
There are similar risks with respect to the incentives we are creating for our leaders. As the rising approval ratings of governments around the world suggest, there are significant political dividends to be had from emergency solidarity. But the steps that leaders take to secure those rewards will define the limits of political possibility for years to come. The centralisation of power, bound up with the paternalistic role the state has claimed for itself, will not be easily undone. Our politicians’ Faustian pact with the health service, whereby unconditional praise takes the place of an honest conversation about the taxation it requires, has deepened further.
Before this crisis, I was receptive to the idea that more solidarity would be a good thing for Britain, and I still am. None of the above is intended as an argument against solidarity as such, and nor am I predicting that all of the negative possibilities I have discussed will appear.
I am just suggesting that we should remain aware of the contingencies of our situation. Our exceptional circumstances mean that the solidarity we see now is not what we were hoping for in the past, and it is not what we will need in the future. And while I don’t doubt that appeals to loyalty and sacrifice have been necessary, it’s worth trying to think through the moral and political pressures this may generate. For any ideal which is summoned into a messy reality will have unintended consequences.