Looking back to my posts from the beginning of the Covid crisis, my first take on them is that last March feels like a very long time ago. In those 10 months so much has happened to all of us that less than a year ago now seems like another world. It’s also one of those very unusual political periods where a big historical event is actually involving everyone. Many crises only have secondary impacts on most of the population, but over the last 10 months, every single person’s life has been affected by the crisis.
Of course those people who went into the crisis with more assets have had it easier than those with less. Most graphically for mortality – if you had lived a life in economic and social conditions that had seen you avoid having a long-term condition that impacted on your health – the threat to your life from the virus was smaller. BUT the virus has still been dangerous for everyone.
This really has made it a universal crisis. One where “No one is completely safe unless everyone is completely safe”.
As we now know as a result of our experience over the summer – just a few infected people can keep the infection going. Giving people a financial incentive to go out and eat with other people in August failed to recognise that an infection crisis needs a different set of policies. We needed to understand how the infection could be carried by anyone and passed on to everyone. Even when not many people had it.
Even last March it was clear that this particular Government would find it very difficult to implement genuinely universalist policies. Fair enough, it did not come to power promising to extend Universalist policies. Yet in March it was confronted with an infection crisis that required policies that would have a practical impact on everyone. Not just a few. Everyone.
And the point I made last March was that an infection crisis needs interventions that are NOT simple ideology. Saying ‘we are all in this together’ would not be enough. Ideology on its own would not be sufficiently strong.
We now know for sure that not ensuring poorer people got sufficient sick pay to self-isolate would meant fewer of them did – thereby increasing infection.
As I said in March,
“This is not just a matter of ideology. “We are all in this together”. Infection means that this must be a matter of implementation. Practical universalism in action must be the way in which all policies work. When they don’t they endanger the entire nation.
This is a major political moment for all those that believe in universalism. The Government is not choosing to do this. Infection is driving them to do things that two short months ago they didn’t believe in.
People will be very relieved when this crisis is over. We will all ‘want to put it behind us’. How we argue that infection taught us we were all equal will, in the future, decide who wins the afterwards argument.”
Today I want to develop the issue of the way in which the last year developed the population’s collective experience of universalism and its implications for the politics of the future. And next week I want to write about the coming year and how the promise of a return to as it was before is a bit premature.
My first point appears pessimistic for progressives. Because we have been through a universal experience, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the politics of 2022 and into the future will be dominated by the politics of fairness. This analogy, drawn by many from the example of the Second World War, is much too simplistic. The war was much longer and had many more people than those working for the NHS having the experience of being very active in ‘the front line’.
The collective experience of millions of people working very hard together for five years to beat an enemy, is different from the current experience of fear of infection in isolated households. Millions of people are not spending hours talking about a new future together in their army barracks, their air raid shelters and their munitions factories. This past year much fuller mainstream, and powerful social, media gave millions of people much more national knowledge than during the war. It’s not the same as the daily ferment of discussion about a new future that eventually swept Churchill from power. The post-war pressure to move on from the stark inequalities of the 1930s and to build a much more collective world developed in part through the material experiences of working together as a collective during the war.
Over the last year what has impacted most on people has been their daily experience of the Covid crisis that has taught as all a great deal about surviving separately. Whilst the media tries to make us reflect about a wider society, our personal experience is much more atomised.
Yet there have been some moments of what I think are collective experiences that have cut though this atomisation. During the first lockdown Dominic Cummings’ ability to get away with flouting the rules that the rest of us were living by, felt significant for millions of people. This significance could only have any purchase if there were a public expectation of fairness. The unfairness of there being a rule for us and another for them, is only meaningful if the mass of people were expecting fairness in the first place. And I think the mass outrage demonstrates that they were.
The very recent photographs of the food parcels sent to people in lieu of free school meals has also cut through to a great many people. Someone put that food in a box and sent it to a parent saying “feed your child on this for a week”. By doing so, they demonstrated a disdain for both the parents and their love for their children. It leaves people wondering how anyone could do that to a parent.
The pictures made other parents think about only having that with which to feed their children for a week. This use of social media then becomes amplified by the mainstream media’s use of the pictures to broadcast them to many more millions of people.
As a spur to more egalitarian politics, both these examples only work if there is a basic belief in fairness. And my main point is that the fact they have worked in a big way means that somewhere, deep down, most people do actually believe in fairness.
A politics for a post-Covid world based upon greater fairness, has a real chance of success if it’s developed in such a way as to touch people.
The idea behind the practical politics of the Covid crisis “No one is completely safe unless everyone is completely safe” could build on that fairness to create a new politics of the future.
Next week I want to develop this idea by looking at how our experience of this coming year might unfold.