from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Five Giants

Lord Hennessy

June 23.  This week, BBC Radio 4 is running programmes under the heading of: “Re-think.  People’s Hopes and Dreams for the world post-corona.”   It launched the series with a talk by Peter Hennessy on yesterday’s World at One programme.

Peter Hennessy, Lord Hennessy, is, for those who do not know his work, the leading historian of modern politics in Britain.  As a Times journalist and later an academic, he has written widely and authoritatively on the practice of government in Britain since the Second World War.  His views repay attention.  This is what he said:

“It is possible that out of our experience of a cruel, capricious and deadly pathogen something of real and enduring value could emerge.  That out of tragedy could come possibility and purpose.  Is there a usable piece of our past to guide us, to give us hope?  I think there is.

The Covid 19 experience has sharpened our sense of the duty of care we have one for another, that a state has for its people, all of its people, to a degree we’ve not felt collectively since World War II and its aftermath.  We heard it week after week on Thursdays at eight when we clapped, cheered and rattled our pots and pans in salute to the NHS front line and other key workers.  It was the sound of people, rediscovering themselves. 

There are too many differences between six years of total war and the likely length of the Covid emergency for easy comparisons to be made, but what we can learn from those war years is just how powerful and beneficial a never-again impulse can be if it is poured into the making of a new deal for the British people.  The great World War II coalition led by Winston Churchill and Clem Attlee began to plan for exactly that on the back of what was and still is the most remarkable report ever produced for a British government.  In late 1942, Sir William Beveridge, the leading social arithmetician of his day, identified what he called five giants on the road to recovery, and he put them in capital letters: Want, Ignorance, Idleness, Squalor, Disease.  The report was a best-seller. Beveridge’s great insight was that all five giants had to be struck simultaneously if the hard crust of deprivation was to be shattered.  After the war, governments of both parties were fuelled by a Beveridge-ite consensus for over thirty years. 

Through the grim Covid weeks and months of 2020, can we see the possible outline of a new Beveridge, a new post Corona banner we can all rally round, a banner emblazoned with the heraldry of a new consensus?  We can. I think there is a hard edged, not a fudged consensus to be crafted, using five priorities.  Social care.  Something must be done, and fast.  A big public-private push on social housing.  Getting technical education right at last after a hundred and fifty years of trying.  Combatting and mitigating climate change.  Preparing our country and our people for the full impact of artificial intelligence on our productive capacity and our society.

If our politicians could pick up this new consensus and run with it, finding the right tone and pitch of language in which to express it, the early twenty-twenties could be one of the most creative and productive patches of our history and a worthy memorial to the Covid fallen.  It has taken a pathogen for us to find and refresh our shared duty of care, but rediscover it we have.”

More tomorrow on this vision.  Others may wish to comment on his optimism, and on the five giants he has chosen to slay.

Add Mss (2)  May 21 Being Local.  “The NHS has decided to write its own track and trace programme, rather than install the simpler and operational Apple / Google app.  To no-one’s surprise, it is already in trouble and missing deadlines.  At this level, the bespoke solution is a mistake.”  Thus it transpires.  The only comfort is that in spite of the words spoken at the launch of the project, a computerised app seems no longer to be crucial, whoever designs it.  A voice on the phone, preferably from the locality of the infected person, is what you need.  And we have had telephones since 1875.

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: Sunday night and a project

May 31. I don’t like Sunday nights. Maybe this stems from my years at boarding school, when Sunday nights were the pits. Maybe it was the long weeks remaining of term time, or the sad girls coming back from exeat, or struggling over an evening meal of brown vegetable soup, or the sound of weeping after lights out.

And this Sunday night, the last night of May 2020, it seems the world is not getting better on many levels. I planned to write a blog about how we all hoped for an improved quality of life emerging after Covid-19. I would amass the feel-good stories of people being kind and resourceful and imagine how this might carry forward.

Instead, tonight the TV news was about the USA cities on fire with protests as the country is saddled with a president who fails on every count of decency, honesty and moral leadership. Next came the news about the virus: we have reached over 6 million cases and 370,000 deaths of Covid-19 world wide and that is surely a significant under-assessment of the real numbers. These numbers are rubbery, certainly not overstated. The virus spread continues – without much check in densely populated countries.

My husband and I are in the cohort of the elderly in need of ‘shielding’ (as the Guardian suggests). The over 70’s. As my friend, James, said, it’s a bit like being back at boarding school. There are certain similarities: that feeling of nothing to look forward to, an awareness that you are being controlled by the system. This sense that tomorrow is like today.

But hold on! We have so much more we can do. We baby boomers have, in general, lived a charmed life in the West. Better education, better health that ever before. So, we have lived longer than the generations before us. We are a bridge between the old world and the new one of our grandchildren and we are in a position to remember the lives of our parents and the stories that came down through them of our grandparent’s lives. We might have snippets, or long stories; we might have old black photos albums or diaries. But I am sure we have something – and that something is of value.

My father was born in 1911, my mother in 1920. They were strong people and valued their backgrounds. I learnt of my grandparents and their birthdates go back to the 1880’s. I have stories of the Boer war, of the Kimberley’s diamond mines, of a great uncle dying in the Gaza desert in the 1st WW; of an uncle shot down in the Dieppe Raid, of my father fighting the Italians in the mountains of Somaliland in the 2nd WW and of my mother driving an African man mauled by a leopard to a hospital in Tanganyika. And so it goes.

The thing is, our kids are too busy, our grandchildren are too ignorant – at the moment to ask, to remember, to value this. We have a debt to pay, to record what we know of the past: to keep our family stories alive for the future – whatever form that takes. We are the shaky bridge between the past and the strange post Covid-19 future.

It’s not a repeat of a boarding school exercise, but it is a serious project to take on board during Covid-19. No exams to fear, no pass or fail, just a challenge to record your past as a gift for your future generations.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: the bad news and the good news…

May 19. Last week two differing visions of the post-covid19 world were published.

The first was by the distinguished political philosopher John Gray in his ‘Unherd’ blog (thanks to my friend John Naughton for this).

https://unherd.com/author/john-gray/

He answered the question in his title, ‘How Apocalyptic is Now?’ with a resounding affirmative.  The pandemic fitted into an established pattern.

‘history is repeatedly punctuated by discontinuities in which what was gained is irrecoverably lost. Whether because of war or revolution, famine or epidemic — or a deadly combination, as in the Russian Civil War — the sudden death of ways of life is a regular occurrence. Certainly there are periods of incremental improvement, but they rarely last longer than two or three generations. Progress occurs in interludes when history is idling.’

After dwelling at length on the millions of lives lost after the Russian Revolution, ranging from civil war to state-induced famine, he reached the modern day full of pessimism:

‘Much in the way we lived before the virus is already irretrievable … More than government-enforced policies, public attitudes will prevent any reversion to pre-Covid ways. Covid-19 may not be an exceptionally lethal pathogen, but it is fearful enough. Soon temperature checks will be ubiquitous and surveillance via mobile phones omnipresent. Social distancing, in one form or another, will be entrenched everywhere beyond the home. The impact on the economy will be immeasurable. Enterprises that adapt quickly will thrive, but sectors that relied on pre-Covid lifestyles — pubs, restaurants, sporting events, discos and airline travel, for example — will shrink or disappear. The impact on the “knowledge classes” will be far-reaching. Higher education operates on a model of student living that social distancing has rendered defunct. Museums, journalism, publishing and the arts all face similar shocks. Automation and artificial intelligence will wipe out swathes of middle class employment. Accelerating a trend that has been underway for decades, the remains of bourgeois life will be swept away.

By contrast, the American writer Rebecca Solnit wrote a long op ed piece in the Guardian. 

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/14/mutual-aid-coronavirus-pandemic-rebecca-solnit

She listed multiple examples of how the crisis had been met by community action in different parts of the world, including Britain, and looked forward to a transformed society:  ‘I sometimes think that capitalism is a catastrophe constantly being mitigated and cleaned up by mutual aid and kinship networks, by the generosity of religious and secular organisations, by the toil of human-rights lawyers and climate groups, and by the kindness of strangers. Imagine if these forces, this spirit, weren’t just the cleanup crew, but were the ones setting the agenda.’ 

As with Gray, she viewed the crisis as a turning-point in history, but with a quite different outcome:

The pandemic marks the end of an era and the beginning of another – one whose harshness must be mitigated by a spirit of generosity. An artist hunched over her sewing machine, a young person delivering groceries on his bicycle, a nurse suiting up for the ICU, a doctor heading to the Navajo nation, a graduate student hip-deep in Pyramid Lake catching trout for elders, a programmer setting up a website to organise a community: the work is under way. It can be the basis for the future, if we can recognise the value of these urges and actions, recognise that things can and must change profoundly, and if we can tell other stories about who we are, what we want and what is possible.

Take your pick.  What may be said is that such speculation, though understandable, is premature.  The Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai is said to have replied ‘too soon to tell’ when Richard Nixon asked him whether he thought the French Revolution was good thing.*  So also with our present drama in this third week in May 2020.

What may also be said is that Gray’s determinism seems out of place.  Post-modernism has taught us to mistrust cyclical views of history, the notion that liberalism, imperialism, capitalism, the proletariat, Corbyn’s Labour Party, must eventually prevail, irrespective of individual intention.  Gray’s negative version of this trope, that all plans for progress will regularly be overthrown by versions of the apocalypse, belongs to that tradition.  If a more benign vision is to transpire, it will be the outcome of conscious, determined action in the aftermath.   The coronavirus by itself will not guarantee progress.

*In their tedious instinct to overthrow a good story, historians have now suggested that the exchange was a translation error.  Zhou Enlai, speaking in 1972, may have thought the question was about the French Days of May of 1968.  More likely, less fun.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury: children of the aftermath

May 13.  As much as we are all wondering how we will get through to the end, we are also contemplating how we will be changed by the experience.  From hospitals to universities, managers of complex, rule-bound organisations are astonished at how behaviours set in stone for decades have been transformed in a matter of weeks, and are speculating about how long such a metabolism of change can continue.

There is another way of considering the aftermath.  I have a new great nephew, born on May 1st in a village on the shores of Loch Lomond, a great niece due next month in York, and if all goes well I shall have a new granddaughter, born to my son and his wife towards the end of August in East London.  The brave post-pandemic world will be the one in which these children will take their first steps, and form their identities and ambitions.

In this regard, I have a shared experience.  I was born early in 1949, when Britain was still in the midst of reconstruction after VE day which we have just celebrated.  The bomb damage in the major cities was yet to be cleared.  Rationing was to continue for a further five years.  Whilst we now celebrate the heroic construction of the welfare state, life in those years was hard.  The winter of 1946-7 was one of the coldest on record, causing and compounded by serious fuel shortages.

Looking back, what strikes me most about my childhood was how much my perspective was cast towards the future.  This was partly because my own family had not suffered greatly in the war.  There were no fatalities, no battlefield injuries still blighting civilian life.  It was partly because I spent my early years in parts of the country which had not experienced physical damage (in Stoke-on-Trent, where my father’s family came from and which we frequently visited, the story was that the Luftwaffe had flown over the city, concluded that it had already been bombed, and passed on). 

And it was partly because as a small child I was the direct and immediate beneficiary of the Welfare State.  I was conceived in the same summer that the NHS began its life.  My father was a junior civil servant, seconded to Blackpool after the war to work on planning the new system, then promoted to run the first office of the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance in the north midlands town of Banbury and then in Oxford.  I was in every possible way a child of the new provision, and I can still remember walking with my mother to collect my welfare orange juice from the clinic and my reading books from the children’s library next door.  Later came free education all the way up to my Cambridge doctorate.

If I have hope for the new members of my family, it must be based on two aspirations.  Firstly, that they should be lucky in the homes into which they are born, as I was in mine.  Where there has been death from coronavirus, where the outcome of the pandemic is of embittered lives, undermined health, shattered finances, long-term unemployment, it will be so much harder to form confident, optimistic identities. 

Secondly, that we do in fact create a new world in which, once more, the wellbeing of every child, physical and educational, is front and centre of our collective action.  It is a matter of addressing the inequalities which continue to disfigure our society three quarters of a century after the reforms of the 1945 Labour Government.  And is a matter of ensuring, by signs and by facts, that each child feels itself the most important and cared-for person not just in its immediate family, but in all the places in which it develops as a person.  I had that sense in my beginning.  I grew up looking forwards, learning about the Second World War and its suffering only much later, mostly through history books.  Whilst as adults we must never forget what we have lived through this year, these growing children should never be held back by it.

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: cute and clever they came …

beware the curise ships …

May 5. Soon after the virus arrived and we were in isolation, jokes and memes flooded the internet. Whatsapp, Instagram, Youtube, email and Facebook, all carried these humourous and charming commentaries on our situation. Then the home singing and entertainment videos started. No sooner had you received one, than you found people to send it on to – to keep us lighthearted. We needed to be light-hearted and amused and to feel that others were contacting us to share this emotion. Many, too many, images and videos addressed the need to have another drink to keep you going in the circumstances. We were promised that ‘the whole world will dance again’; shown cute animals apparently freed of the presence of humans and shown clips of Trump being stupid (not difficult). All this interspersed with advice on how to survive, how to bake bread at home, how to sew your own face mask and how to mix your own hand sanitizer.

Through it all the official news from our TV and newspapers keeps us informed on the real numbers. It’s a numbers game, it appears. Numbers positive, numbers in hospital, numbers dead.

The most endearing message of our times arrived this week. It’s a video purportedly from sometime in the future when Covid-19 is a distant memory: a period of history almost forgotten. A father lies in bed reading stories to his young child and the sleepy kid asks for the story about the VIRUS. The father then tells his child how this virus effected the world in terrible ways BUT we all learnt a lesson and the world became a better place: kinder, less acquisitive. It’s called ‘The Great Realisation’, by British artist and poet ‘Probably Tomfoolery’. 

A world of waste and wonder. But then in 2020 … the people dusted off their instincts and …the earth began to breathe … remembered how to smile … good news was in the making … we all preferred the world we found to the one we left behind. Old habit became extinct … made way for the new. Why did it take a virus to bring the people back together? … who knows if you dream hard enough, some of them may come true.’

The internet is ecstatic … 2.9 million views on Youtube and growing. We feel this touching video is the way we might go, living in our first world countries we can especially appreciate a warm glow of hope.

But what do you think will emerge from this period of Covid-19? What is the reality of the direction the world is heading?

I am going to think of the possible outcomes (don’t you love the word ‘outcome’), positive and negative, before my next post.