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 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.