Now Britain stands at the crossroads. Will we choose dread or hope? | John Harris

Boris Johnson may be calling for a return to offices and hoping for a return to “significant normality” by Christmas, but the feeling of dread hanging over this strange, uneasy summer is becoming inescapable. A second wave of Covid-19 now seems to be a racing certainty. And a gathering avalanche of numbers attests to an economic disaster that is probably already upon us.

An economic model in which people work in shops to spend money in other shops has now surely been tested to destruction. April saw national output drop by a chilling 20.4%, and although economists were reported to be anticipating growth of 5.5% in May the actual figure turned out to be an anaemic 1.8%. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, another big coronavirus outbreak in the UK could result in an unemployment rate of 15%. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that 650,000 people have lost their jobs since lockdown began, and vacancies are at their lowest level since records began two decades ago. Up to 3m UK jobs are now reckoned to be at risk from companies’ unsustainable debts; in response to calls for the government to consider a programme of bailouts, Rishi Sunak – whose furlough scheme is set to close in October – has so far said no.

For all the noise it generates, politics is failing us. The government presents a spectacle of absurd displacement activity, purging the higher ranks of the civil service, doubling down on Brexit, and floating plans to yet again reorganise the NHS. If you want a conclusive symbol of conservatism’s passage into the politics of grim surrealism, consider that £705m is about to be spent on a “Brexit border” centred on a vast lorry park in Ashford, Kent, where hauliers will play out the futile stupidity of our exit from the EU on an hourly basis.

The left, meanwhile, has its own problems. Even if the Labour party seems to be in the early stages of reconnecting with the electorate, its reaction to the defeat of Corbynism has so far been a pronounced policy inertia. And beyond Westminster, the most vocal elements of supposedly progressive opinion seem to have more to say about so-called cancel culture and letters in high-end American magazines than they do about a social and economic disaster that could be worse even than that of the 1930s. As symbols of the myopic smallness of politics in the face of gigantic challenges, the right has its very odd campaign against face masks; my side has month-long arguments about JK Rowling.

How, then, to get over a mounting feeling of fatalism and fear? Last week, I immersed myself in the latest writings from Anthony Barnett, the veteran thinker and activist whose work goes back to the watershed of 1968. His expansive, ideas-filled book, The Lure of Greatness, was by far the best treatise on the politics of Brexit. Now, in an extended online essay cheerily titled Out of the Belly of Hell, he has turned his attention to the Covid-19 crisis, and what it means for the way in which many countries have been run for the past few decades. What is compelling about what he says is its ambitious historical sweep and sense of possibility: the gift of coronavirus, he insists, is that it “makes it clear that the future of humanity is a matter of our choice”.

Globalisation, as Barnett sees it, has two increasingly irreconcilable aspects. It embeds “profit maximisation and marketisation” but also a generalised capacity for people to become citizens, with expectations of rights and protections. Millions of us might be exploited, but we also have a deep awareness that “we share the same planet … at the same time as each other”. In ensuring one of these aspects has clashed with the other, the pandemic has commenced a new era, so far manifested not just in the politics of the virus itself but in what has swirled around it: the Black Lives Matter upsurge is the most obvious example, and there will soon be more.

Everything changed when economies were effectively suspended to save lives: as a result Covid-19 “has precipitated an ideological breakdown”. But breakdowns are not the same as revolutions: “You can recover and be strengthened by the experience or just go back to how you were … The outcome is decided afterwards and has to be achieved, it is never inherent in the crisis.” We are now faced with the “incompatibility between the economic market dogma that claimed to shape the wealth creation of the world, and an expectation of the right to life that, it turned out, accompanied its growth”. The two key questions of our time are whether a more human, collectivist way of thinking can finally be pushed to the fore, and what a different kind of economy and society might look like.

If the absence of these big themes from the mainstream conversation around coronavirus is frustrating, the solution is surely to begin talking about them anyway, and thinking on a scale commensurate with that of the crisis itself. In the short to medium term, we may soon have to move to a partially directed economy, whereby we embrace the logic of a green new deal, and shift labour and resources from parts of the economy fast being left behind to more sustainable ones. By way of putting people to work and beginning to move against the social conditions that have exacerbated Britain’s experience of the outbreak, we need a huge public housing programme, partly focused on repurposing the town and city centres that are now in urgent need of reinvention. The line between paid work and voluntary activity and care ought to be blurred by a basic income. The way we collectively deliver public services should be reshaped by what Barnett calls an “explosion of empathy, social awareness and networking”, recently seen in the way that spontaneous community action has helped people affected by the virus.

Which brings us to what kind of state we should want. As I have written a lot recently, England’s handling of the pandemic proves that its creaking, centralised system of government, full of ossified practices and institutionalised prejudice, needs to be thoroughly localised and democratised. This is the best way to safeguard against future pandemics and outbreaks. As opposed to the Johnson-Cummings model, whereby regeneration is somehow to be dropped on places from on high, it is also how new economic futures can be shaped by the people who will deliver and benefit from them.

The 21st century’s digital blur means we tend to think that truly historic events are things frozen in black and white, or chronicled in epic documentaries. But make no mistake: more than any other period in most of our lifetimes, this a time of massive significance, bringing with it a sense of both crisis and opportunity. Amid constant detours and distractions, all of us need to think about the future before it hits us like a hammer. The problem with dread, after all, is that sooner or later it becomes self-fulfilling.

John Harris is a Guardian columnist


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