16 April 2020
By Robert Kilconner
In a competition of foolish platitudes, the notorious “Brexit means Brexit” is gradually being overtaken by the assertion that “after Covid 19 things will not go back to where they were before”. Of course they won’t, and, of course, they should not. Attitudes and social structures are driven by cumulative experience and the Covid epidemic has added to that pool with a vengeance. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls tells you what happens if you ignore the warnings of fate and it doesn’t end on a particularly optimistic note.
So where do we go next? Back to laissez faire capitalism trusting the efficiencies of a lightly regulated free market to take us further? Certainly it has produced a considerable increase in living standards over the last forty years or so, but its extension has brought with it a “winner takes all” inequality which has become increasingly unsatisfactory. To see the younger generation weighed down by debt and unable to buy their own homes is heartbreaking and, with the efficiencies brought to business by the new technology, the extent to which profits move away from small operations into the pockets of the big players has become disturbing. It is not always efficient either. Is it really sensible that top academics and officials should so often be driven by the need to generate sufficient monies to safeguard their retirements when, if they had adequate pensions, they could relax about that and focus on their work?
But the road back to higher taxation and an interventionalist state doesn’t look so good either. Of course the approach has had its triumphs, the creation of the NHS for one, but no one who remembers how depressing Britain was in the mid 1970s will want to go back there again and the experience of Eastern Europe is hardly a great advertisement.
No, the way forward must be a new approach, drawing from both these economic traditions and from others too, and it is the task of the political class to work it out. Of course that will take time and it will only be successful if we keep away from the doctrinaire, the mindless attempt to apply simplistic theories across the board, and look instead at solutions on a practical case by case basis.
How equipped are we to do this? It is not very easy. How simple for the not-so-bright member of the political class to turn to his or her party manual (free market economics, communism, or far right authoritarianism, as the case may be) and to blindly apply the mantras. Any fool can do that but to see parts of the economy with open eyes and to nurture them into healthy growth, that is more difficult. Also how much headroom have they got? Is a Tory leader free to raise taxes? Can a Labour one denationalise? Both have happened from time to time but it requires strength of character and independence of thought.
Perhaps it is lucky then that at this critical juncture the two main parties are led by men without much political baggage. Johnson only took over from May last year and has been surprisingly successful in freeing himself from association with her administration: “Austerity? No, that was the previous administration, austerity is dead”; “The North? A disgrace how that has been left behind.” Also the pandemic has given a new freedom in relation to some of his less wise election pledges. “No of course we were elected on a platform of no tax rises but that was before all this happened. New facts justify new policies. Needs must when the devil drives… etc, etc.”
And Starmer taking over at Labour is in much the same position. The outgoing leadership was discredited and, although he has committed to a number of their policies as part of the process of winning his position, he can afford to strike out on his own account, his freedom to pick and choose increasing as his grip on the party tightens.
How will all this new freedom be used? Will the two leaders depart back to the comfort of their parties traditional positions, saying much but listening rather less, or will there be a more constructive engagement? At the moment the signs seem hopeful. Starmer has said that he wants to lead a constructive opposition and his record as DPP shows him to be a serious-minded and intelligent man. Johnson, too, seems fairly free from political bigotry and one would not expect him to restrict his thinking to traditional party lines. Between them can they rise to the occasion and bring in the period of constructive politics we all need?