All entries for Sunday 12 April 2020

April 12, 2020

COVID–19: When This Lousy War is Over

Writing about web page https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/coronavirus-what-happens-war-won-21852580

Nigel Nelson, political editor of the Sunday Mirror, was kind enough to quote me at the end of his article Coronavirus: What happens when war is won as UK stands on crossroads as in 1945, in this morning’s paper. Here’s the notes I sent him last week.

Do you think Boris Johnson will come out of this crisis as the hero of it or could he go the same way as his great hero Winston Churchill?

World War II fuelled a desire for change in British society, with more social provision for those people who faced the greatest risks that no one could control – sickness, old age, and unemployment. Churchill was (and for many still is) the hero of the war, but the voters still tossed him out afterwards because he did not sufficiently identify with the turn to a welfare state. Attlee and the Labour Party went that way and took the voters with them.

In a time of national crisis, it’s natural that people rally round the leader, and the polls suggest a degree of rallying around Boris Johnson right now. That may not last. Whether Boris keeps hold of the halo afterwards depends on whether he “gets” the swing of the popular mood and is able to go with it.

How are British values changing (clearly we put a new value on the worth of NHS staff and key workers who have been undervalued for so long)?

Our society is going through a severe shock. Lots of things we took for granted have suddenly been taken away: jobs, schools, incomes, easy shopping, foreign holidays, contact with friends and family. There is risk to life – of our parents and friends. There is fear of a rather cruel way to die. It’s natural to suppose that we will come out of this with a much greater desire for security against these risks. We will look to the government to “do something” to give us that extra security, so we will have greater expectations of the government than before.

There were signs of this before the coronavirus struck. The new Johnson government already did not look like an old-style Conservative free-market austerity administration. Whoever won the election was going to pay more attention to public services, infrastructure, and levelling up. These trends will be reinforced by the coronavirus emergency.

If that is correct, then we should expect that key workers and care workers will be paid more, social security will become more generous, and public services like the NHS will be allowed to build a margin of spare capacity in order to be able to respond better to emergencies. So cost-cutting and “efficiency gains” will go out of fashion. Meanwhile the taxpayers will be under much greater pressure to pay for all this – as well as for servicing our much larger public debt. Putting it all together, there will also be some levelling of inequalities.

Once we come through the crisis, not everything will go right. Mistakes will be made, and some measures will be taken too far. Some people will find they enjoy bossing others around in the name of the community, and they will find ingenious ways of defending their authority. Efficiency will be neglected in public services, even when it would benefit everyone. This also happened after World War II. Britain did not have to have food rationing for nine years after the war, but that’s what happened.

And more broadly will our attitudes to what is important be permanently changed by what we've been through in the way they were after the war?

The crisis has already shown that most people are thoughtful and sensible, they balance self-interest with concern for others, and they put a high value on community. Three quarters of a million of them have already volunteered to help with the NHS and care support. There are other people who might try to be like that, but they are also thoughtless or behave in ways that are divisive. A tiny minority are selfish and take advantage of the situation to exploit others. This won’t change.

What seems likely is that for most people community will feel a lot more real than before. We don’t have a foreign enemy, but we do have a common cause. Faced with the coronavirus pandemic, none of us can be excused. Those who serve in health care are in deadly danger. To help protect them, others stay home. The sacrifices may not be equal, but everyone contributes something. We all depend on each other for survival. These are important lessons, and they could last for a generation.

After that, it will probably be time for another change of direction.


I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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