3 – How might society change after the crisis – or not?

What will the future bring? Many of us want a better society to emerge from this emergency, but too many people seem to be talking about this as if it were inevitable.

Here’s an example,

“In these testing times and beyond, the spirit of common endeavour we have seen in the first phase of this crisis must animate what we do. Together state, business and workers must share the risk and burden we face. Even out of this emergency, we can and must build a better tomorrow”

Ed Miliband. Observer 03/05/2019 *

For me there are several big political problems that derive from the word must.

History tells us is that there is no must in political futures after crises. The post-virus world could be constructed in a variety of different ways. A lot of history argues that the centre left don’t do well politically in the sort of economic crisis that we are heading into and that historically the populist right have been much better at constructing politics during disasters. My main point here is that the power of the right is not inevitable. The future depends upon what we all actually do. But just remember that bad times have led to more openings for the right than the left.

The feeling that a better society must come out of this reduces the incentive for hard work to achieve it. The old left always believed that there was an inevitability about history. Politics and history had a set of immutable laws determining that X would lead to Y and ultimately to Z. And since those laws and history followed inevitability, progressive change must happen. But it didn’t. Turns out you can’t stand back and expect history to give you what you want. It requires agency (yours, and millions like you) to struggle to make it happen.

Another problem with the must for political futures is that we live in a society where democratic elections have a very big say in them (December 2019 wasn’t very long ago). Elections allow tens of millions of people to make up their minds on what to do. Their vote, their decision, is important to them. The fact that they have a say in the future matters not only to them but to our culture (“the way we do things around here”). If you go around saying that this or that future must happen, electors tend to react by saying, “Excuse me there is no must here. We have to have our say”

The future is there to be made. That future needs persuasive arguments that will draw on our current experiences to make the case for consolidating and continuing the changes they have taught us.. These arguments will need to defeat those others  that won the debate only a few months ago.

One of the main experiences that people have had of this emergency is anxiety.  People are frequently waking up with a jolt to realise the emergency is real and not a nightmare. They worry for the lives of their friends and relatives. Watching the news we see death and the real grief of loved ones. We fear what that might mean for us. This is not a fun time.

It’s true that there are some good moments amongst the fear. Thursday evening collective applause. More people spending more time looking after more vulnerable people. (Thanks Jonathon). A greater feeling of community.

But people really want this over.

Today is the anniversary of VE day. Watch the films of the celebrations. People in them are so happy because no-one is going to try to bomb them to death any more. And men (as they nearly all were in 1945) will come back from the European battlefield alive. It was over. We had made it.

It’s true that a sense of community had engendered good feelings. But that was over. No-one said, “Let’s go to war again because the bombing brought us together.”

The lesson I am trying to draw from this is that if there are things to learn, it cannot be assumed that an experience of greater collective endeavour will win out against the dread of the world we are living in at the moment. For that to happen an argument has to be made that the good things that happened in bad times can be used as exemplars for the better times as well.

In December 1942 – almost exactly halfway through World War 2 – the Beveridge report was published. It argued many big issues but most of them were based around the collective principle of contribution. The state wasn’t an abstract entity but made up of all of us. And if we all contributed, we would all get something back. Most of the left now forget how tough Beveridge was about this. If you were unemployed and you didn’t keep yourself, ‘fit for service’ you did not get any benefit. As in the war itself, contribution was all.

The lesson he was drawing from the war was that since we were all making contributions to the war effort we all should get something out of it.

This is an important lesson for us to learn from the current crisis.

Beveridge knew he was in an argument. He knew that the argument for collective contribution wasn’t the only one. He knew there was a counter argument that said this was not the task of the state. That collective endeavour went too far in taking rights and freedom away from the people. Enforcing contributions from rich and poor was not a universally accepted opinion.

He knew he needed a good argument to win. He knew that to do this he would have to mobilise opinion around the need for change – and he was very good at this. Every member of the armed forces received a synopsis of the report, a little Beveridge  (issued by the Army Bureau of Current Affairs on 13th Feb 1943 – my dad received his in Egypt). The Army Education Service organised lectures and debates.

During the war those organising change for a post-war future knew that they needed very good arguments and that they had to defeat other arguments to gain the support of millions of people.

And that’s where we are now.

Over the next few weeks I will try to develop some of these arguments for change around very specific issues. If a better future is to emerge from this COVID emergency we will have to mobilise millions of people in support of these arguments to defeat those arguing against change.

*Just to point out that I am not having a go at Ed Miliband in particular. This paragraph is just a good exemplar of what I see as a political problem – as icharacterised by the three ‘musts’ in its 52 words.