THERE’S one aspect of human life which is not going to survive coronavirus: politics in its current form. The way we did politics in the ‘Old World’ before coronavirus won’t be same as how we’ll do politics in the ‘New World’ once it’s over.
Politics, in all its modern guises, is going to be changed utterly – as will our political presumptions. Much of what is still seen as standard operating procedure in the political realm will look very strange once the pandemic ends.
From the perspective of Scotland, the last decade has been dominated by a handful of political forces both around the world and at home: the rise of populism, predominately from the right; British nationalism in the form of Brexit; Tory austerity; the outlier socialism of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders; and the campaign for Scottish independence. These are the pillars upon which the broad debate about political life has been built.
None of these forces will be left unaltered by the time we’ve brought coronavirus under control.
If we look at each of these political pillars respectively, we’ll find that it’s impossible for any of them to remain unchanged. Each will be reconfigured, damaged, undermined or reinforced in one way or another by the time this pandemic stops.
President Donald Trump is the populist movement’s global figurehead. His administration’s response to coronavirus has been pitiful and dangerous. If we thought populism was meant to put the people on a pedestal, then Trump has shown that populism is, in fact, anti-people. Trump has placed big business concerns about the economy, and his own polling record in an election year, ahead of citizens. Similar to Trump, other populist leaders around the world have been as bad, or worse – such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. These men are playing Russian roulette with the lives of their voters. India, under the populist Narendra Modi, looks as if it’s heading toward chaos.
Until coronavirus struck, it seemed populism spelled the political future of the world. Can populists survive being on the losing side when it comes to the fight against coronavirus? If the populist administrations around the world handle the crisis the most ineffectually, it’s inevitable that this form of political ideology will start to deflate.
In turn, it now seems more than a little exaggerated to define the Westminster Conservative government, or indeed Boris Johnson himself, as populist. While the response of the UK government has been wanting on many levels – such as the length of time it’s taken to launch emergency measures like lockdown, the low level of testing, and the lack of ventilators and protective hospital gear – Johnson and his ministers have handled the crisis reasonably well.
Johnson may have rode to power manipulating a populist wave in Britain, but at heart he isn’t really populist. He’s pretty much an old fashioned liberal handling the crisis with a relatively acceptable strategy. Certainly, he cannot be accused of the same failure of leadership, decency and action that can be applied to many of the world’s populist governments.
The idea that nations should separate rather than pull together – which is Brexit’s fundamental philosophy – now seems absurd, and will look even more crazy when we get through this and arrive in the new post-coronavirus world. Coronavirus – with grim irony – has taught us the misery of self-isolation. Once this virus ends, the insularity of Brexit will look deeply out of kilter with the new world.
Brexit will still happen, though. The die is cast. But it’s a pretty good bet that the negotiations between the UK and Europe will be less bitter and hostile, less self-serving. Once we’ve come through this together as a planet, the cocky exceptionalism of Brexiteers will, frankly, seem ugly and stupid.
The Tory Party of the old world is already gone. The final dismantling came when Boris Johnson said on Sunday that “there really is such a thing as society”. The credo of Thatcherism was confined to the trash heap of history. The anti-Big State heart of Toryism has been torn out.
The Tories are also, thank God, spending money in a way that would make Marx and Engels smile, in order to save the UK from the ravages of pandemic. The party had already reversed on austerity before the outbreak – so once we arrive in the new post-coronavirus world there’ll be no turning back. Conservatism has been altered on a genetic level.
Was Corbyn right? He wanted to throw money around like a drunken sailor during the election. Nobody believed the cash was there. But Government spending shows it was there. What will people want after coronavirus? We’ll want our country rebuilt fairly. We’ve learned that a sneered-at shelf-stacker is just as important as a captain of industry – in fact, more important. The old economics of unbridled free market capitalism, and its ruthless inequalities, will have to face reformation once the pandemic is stemmed.
Once coronavirus is over, will many of us want more political upheaval, or disruption and animosity? The idea of resuming constitutional hostilities will fill many with disgust. Most of us will want stability and calm.
Coronavirus has also flattened some of the exceptionalist claims that, politically, Edinburgh is superior to London. As we know, Westminster has been slow in its response, but not useless. The UK Government has acted reasonably well – and the Scottish Government has acted broadly the same. There is little difference in the handling of the crisis between Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon. The SNP and Labour have rightly kept the UK Government’s feet to the fire in terms of failings, but it’s not as if Edinburgh is saving lives while London squanders lives.
In other words, independence would have made little difference when it comes to the path of this illness. So the debate around the constitution will be considerably altered once we get out the other side.
Invoking the ‘Overton Window’ has become a political cliché. The Overton Window is used to describe the ideas that are politically acceptable to the electorate at any given time. Coronavirus hasn’t just shifted the Overton Window – it’s smashed it to pieces.
Neil Mackay is Scotland’s Columnist of the Year