Post the Covid-19 war, can we win the peace?

May 17, 2020
Harold Goodwin

This week’s Economist (16-22 May) points out that even before the pandemic globalisation was in trouble, weakened by the financial crisis in 2008/9 and the Sino-American trade war, now it is “reeling from its third body blow in a dozen years.” The lockdown has resulted in sealed borders, even within the Schengen area, xenophobia and populism are on the rise and Britain looks set to crash out of the EU and become reliant on WTO rules. The Economist reckons that 90% of people live in countries with largely closed borders and that many countries will open up only to countries with similar health protocols. As the Economist says: “The underlying anarchy of global governance is being exposed.”

My friends in Africa are asking how is it that it is in Europe, the US, Russia and parts of Asia that the strongmen are coming to the fore – it used to be Africa. There is a crisis of governance in Europe revealed by the pandemic. Many countries in the Caribbean have had almost no cases. In South Africa there are to date 14,355 confirmed cases and 261 deaths. That is 261 deaths to date, we lost 170 just today, and 181 deaths in hospitals yesterday in England. Do the maths. As the Economist has pointed out the government has stopped showing the slide tracking UK deaths against other European countries at the daily press conferences. It was last shown on May 9th when Britain was the highest in Europe.

Many are now using the language of war to describe our response to Covid-19. It is therefore appropriate to look back to WWII, these are dark days for the UK. The Economist reports a poll published on April 25th, voters judging Britain’s government to have performed worse than those of China, Germany, France, South Korea, Japan and Australia. By May 5th, Italy and Spain had joined the list. In Europe, Britain’s early dismissal of lockdown was seen as reminiscent of the government’s disregard for the risks of leaving the EU – if the Economist is to be believed our reputation abroad is at a low ebb. It has been hard for several years to explain why we are leaving the EU, I am now asked why we have dealt the Covid-19 so badly.

The Daily Mail reports  that “Some 39 per cent of the nation are supportive of the Government's handling of the crisis, down nine points on the 48 per cent recorded last week, while disapproval rose from 36 per cent to 42 per cent.”

The post-WWII settlement, Keynesianism, the NHS and the Welfare State lasted until the mid-seventies, Thatcherism and neo-liberalism followed. While the Labour Government is credited with the implementation, the consensus which made it possible was generated by the traumatic experiences of the inter-war depression which resulted in fascism and World War II. Most analyses of the Weimar Republic and the rise of fascism in Germany point to the weakness of effective democratic opposition.

Thankfully we are not yet in a comparable situation, but we do have a weak opposition, the four nations of the UK are beginning to tackle Covid-19 differently, there is a significant risk of a major depression, and in parts of Europe the radical right is gaining popularity and taking power. It was not all bad in the inter-war period. In the 1930s, when money was cheap to borrow as it is today, there was a national housing effort. Between 1920 and 1930 about 1.5m houses and flats were built in Britain, by the outbreak of war one-third of all houses in England & Wales had been constructed after WW1.

The post-war consensus endured for 30 years, followed by a return to neoliberal policies which culminated in the 2008-9 economic crash. The banks were bailed out, and austerity followed. That is again a risk. The Conservatives won the last election gaining northern seats, where electors were frustrated by the failure of successive governments to address the decline in transport infrastructure and employment in the North. The current government has begun to focus on regional development, reversing the ending of regional policy under Thatcher.

If Britain is to change as a result of Covid-19 we shall need beyond to unite beyond individual campaigns for change, a broad movement for reorientation and reconstruction will need to emerge. Short-termism bedevils UK politics. Time was when policy changes occurred when there was a change of government, in recent years policy changes happen with monotonous and damaging regularity, whenever the minister changes.

How as the post-WWII consensus formed?  This is from Peter Sioman’s The Liberal Party and the Economy. 1929-1964 p.114

The opposition parties are weak. NGOs, unions, think tanks and lobby group are about their business and all power to their elbow. But we need to find a way to unite and engage with the law makers and those who determine budgets.

Can we use the Select Committees to create a consensus for change?

What are the three core elements of a new post-covid-war settlement?

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