By Trevor Smith
It is universally acknowledged, that this sudden and world-wide viral outbreak prompted a deluge of unprecedented disasters many of which have been predicted to have a long-lasting momentum. But four are immediately clear.
First, are the widespread economic consequences that have shattered any prospects for growth and prosperity: trying to minimise the degree and incidence of impoverishment has become the major imperative. Government budgets and previous programmes have all been rendered completely obsolete and restructuring with massive state grants, loans and tax reductions are being swiftly implemented. “Lockdown” means just that: a serious curtailing of productive activity and physical interaction. At the 2019 General Election, Jeremy Corbyn's Labour manifesto was derided for being unrealistic and too left-wing. It was a very pale reflection of what the present Conservative cabinet is implementing. Vladimir Lenin would be smiling at this hour!
Second, extensive nationalisation and state ownership is returning with a vengeance, although attempts to avoid such descriptions will doubtless be attempted. The British rail network has been taken back by the state for, it is said, six months. While such measures are described as short-term, temporary expedients, they are most likely to endure for much longer and possibly become permanent. Not least because private capital will eschew further investments in what have proved to be very risky sectors in both the national and world economies.
Third, there will be corresponding and deleterious effects for democracy. Choice between options, which forms the very basis of democracy, will not exist over a wide range of major activities. Ironically, the arch free-market capitalist Margaret Thatcher proclaimed of her policies “TINA – there is no alternative”. This is anti-democratic. The expression revealed her true political instincts and should not be confused as prescience on her part- quite the reverse - but TINA inadvertently has now become very much the order of the day.
Fourth, attempts to respond to the spread of the virus have been to minimise the effect of Brexit in as much as the members of the EU have all re-asserted their former nation-state features. This can be seen most clearly by EU members in closing their borders and restricting internal movements within them. Pan- European Unionism has taken a back seat. Further advances by Brussels had already suffered opposition in Hungary, Poland, Austria, the Czech Republic and elsewhere too. It is unlikely that Europeanisation will come to the forefront in the near future, though it could in the longer run. But the UK will still suffer from being isolated and no longer being more closely allied with other states. The stark new realities also mean that closer ties with the USA and/or the Commonwealth are much less feasible. The lessening of integration within the EU offers no consolation for the UK; it would have been much better to have remained within a now much looser EU. The Vote Leave spectre that seeks to control the UK should now acknowledge this and take the opportunity of a u-turn on Brexit, saying its newly loosened character no longer needs the UK to stay away. As the Sunday Times has portrayed at the weekend, the Cummings/Johnson mind has done a dramatic reversal in prioritising people over profits and it should now do the same and ditch Brexit.
Among others, the biographer of many prime minsters Sir Anthony Seldon, has raised the possibility of a formal Coalition government to deal with all the difficulties that now beset the UK. But this would be more symbolic than substantive in that the erstwhile party system has already been overtaken by events. All the portents indicate that a future UK will move politically closer to the model of modern China. That is to suggest an essentially one party state, pursuing a series of ‘TINA’ policy recommendations, in response to changes as they arise. But lacking in the power and size of China, it will actually be rather more like Macao – a small, off-shore island seeking to survive internationally as a tax haven, and running a multitude of gambling casinos to provide some sort of prosperity. Not an enticing prospect, least of all for progressives on the left.
The only hope of avoiding such a despairing scenario is for a group of MPs to emerge possessing the political imaginations and intellectual capacities characterised by the likes of Michael Heseltine, Kenneth Clarke, and Gordon Brown. In their different ways, their lateral thoughts enabled them to identify some of the wider correlations and interconnections that prevailed in the contemporary politics of their times on which they could shed light and formulate new policy options. Do any successors exist? We can but hope, but I’d start with figures such as Daisy Cooper, Caroline Lucas, Nicola Sturgeon, and Yvette Cooper.
Trevor Smith is a retired Liberal Democrat life peer whose memoirs are entitled
“Workhouse to Westminster”, The Caper Press.