Big picture lessons from Covid.

What if we could have argued that not wearing a mask was ‘unEnglish’?

We will just let the dust settle on number 10’s “War of Johnson’s ear”. It will be a while before we know whether the battering style of Government that I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to understand and communicate to my loyal readers was among the things that departed along with Dominic Cummings and his box.

Given a summer of Covid incompetence it’s going to be hard for the Government to change its political style. Let’s see if there is to be a move away from the kind of politics that uses announcements as a means of communicating emotions to a supportive section of the electorate, to a more old-fashioned kind where we examine policies to see if they actually work.

We are now a few months into Covid and there are some very big picture issues to think through. There are, for example, a set of questions for the UK (and for that matter the west as a whole) to answer about the relative failure of our approach when compared to the approach of say, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam.

China is in a very different category. It’s not just a world power but a very rich one (that will become richer) and also a communist autocracy. There are so many differences between China and the UK that I wouldn’t know how to draw any lessons for us from them.

I also think we need to move beyond the simplistic Chinese rhetoric which says enlightened autocracies automatically beat chaotic democracies. The whole point of voting in a democracy used to be to give every adult a say. The idea was that having that say would mean everyone would feel that the end result, when the votes were counted, was in some way a collective decision. (This was of course before the losers began saying that the election had been stolen). Nonetheless one of the points of democracy was to gain collective agreement for actions.

However we do need to think why countries such as South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam have achieved so very much more in resisting the impact of Covid than the UK. Their economies are currently smaller than ours but in 20 years’ time I expect ours to have been overtaken.

They are very different from each other. South Korea and Taiwan have both been formed by a powerful, decades-long anti-communist struggle.  Their boundaries and the meaning of their nations derive from actual anti-Communist warfare. They have elections and are democratic in the sense that we know it.

Vietnam too is a nation created as a result of a long war. But it is also very different from the others because in its case it is a communist inspired nation that won a war and became a bigger nation because of that war. Vietnam does not have elections as we know them.

British Exceptionalism makes simply thinking about these comparisons very difficult. Whilst I don’t think many of my readers think we are exceptional when compared to other countries, many will agree that we are certainly different.

One of the main differences between the three aforementioned countries and the UK is the level of trust in their governments. In countries where people trust their government, they follow the rules.

It might be easy but it would be insufficient to make snide references to the current government that undoubtedly squandered a lot of the trust that was already there. It hasn’t understood how precious trust is and how difficult it is to rebuild it once it has been lost. But I think in 2020 we started from a much lower level of trust.

Some of this is deep culture. Confucius was mainly interested in how to bring about social order and harmony. It is a philosophy – with different amounts of influence in the three countries in question – that thinks all the time about how an individual’s duty to the collective. And even more significantly about how they can achieve very little without the collective.

It is almost as if the philosophy was made for a society facing a pandemic. The duty to look after your own health will only work if at that same time you recognise that you are looking after someone else’s health. (And that they are in return looking after yours).

This is not just a powerful philosophy of the collective (the way in which Communism thinks it appeals to a public) but is one that weaves individual actions and responsibilities into collective ones.

The main collective philosophy that the British government has appealed to is a set of national characteristics and their history. Whilst this matters a bit such an appeal has not reached into the way in which individual actions can help create collective security. Wearing a mask is in one way a little thing, in another a big one. There is a section of English society that sees them as an oppression of their individual rights.

It would have been interesting to see the government appeal to the collective nature of Englishness by making an argument in favour of wearing a mask. To argue that it is actually “unEnglish” not to wear one. But the very fact that those libertarians NOT wearing a mask make the same argument in favour of their position, demonstrates the weakness of a national appeal for collective action in our country.

The collectivism of the three eastern nations has also created a set of technological investments that we don’t have in the UK. Whilst many of you will live in technologically-enabled homes where the internet of things makes our lives so much easier, none of us live in the “intelligent cities” of the Far East where collective investment has been made to ensure that collective relationships are much easier.

Our nation has invested in personal technology – the Far East nations have also invested in a collective technology that enables individuals to live in a collective.

We have learnt that, during a pandemic, cities can be dangerous places where infection is rife. Investing in ways in which technology can create better and safer relationships has been a bellwether of resilience.

I don’t think these national issues lead us to simple cross-country lessons. England will not embrace Confucianism. But it might understand the necessity for a greater set of relationships built around social solidarity.

And that’s something we will be exploring in future posts.

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