Illustration by Hannah Robinson
The apocalypse jokes are wearing thin, and most of us are now settling down into a new, changed reality. It is rapidly becoming clear that the economic model that has so far – just about- sustained us, is being put under enormous, unprecedented strain.
Workers in flexible, zero-hours and insecure contracts are finding themselves at a loss. They need to work to eat- and there’s no provision for sick pay. The complacencies that have underlaid our economic model for the last 40 years, have been exposed to the clear light of day, and found to be rotten.
What is a pub landlord supposed to do when government advice forbids customers from leaving their houses? The answer: ruthlessly cut back on shifts. This leaves thousands of workers without a way of paying rent and buying food.
Rishi Sunak, the new chancellor of the exchequer (and a man I am not typically fond of) hit the mark when he announced £350 billion of emergency loans for businesses in his latest address: “Never in peacetime have we faced an economic fight like this one.” The Chancellor is right; this is an economic situation unprecedented in peacetime. But as much as this government likes to indulge in Blitz-spirit rhetoric, it might not find the end result of this crisis as much to its liking.
We have to be careful using the Second World War as our historical analogy. But it can point us towards the changes we might see in the political landscape once this has died down. The Second World War is credited with heralding a leftward shift in economic policy. The reasons for this can be boiled down to: what the government is capable of doing to fight a public evil, it must also be capable of doing to bring about good social outcomes.
Planning- what socialists had been arguing for in the 1930s- was suddenly not quite the economic bogeyman Conservatives had been making it out to be. Conservatives had no problem reaching full employment in the effort to fight Nazism. Why shouldn’t these measures be retained in peace time?
Boris Johnson has been widely derided as a depressing Churchill tribute act, and the jibe doesn’t fall too wide of the mark. Boris should pay close attention to his hero’s fate in 1945. The British people repaid their wartime leader with a crushing electoral defeat; delivering his Labour opponents a landslide victory and a Commons majority of 146 seats.
If Western governments want to make sure their economies – and the social fabric of their societies- get through this crisis intact, they will have to essentially pay people to sit at home. They will have to mitigate the impact of rent-payments on those unable to work. We are already seeing louder calls for a Universal Basic Income. Truthfully, Western governments might end up implementing something like this out of necessity. Will these ‘emergency measures’ be so easily overturned after the worst is over? Or will a beleaguered population, fatigued with 40 years of economic stagnation and injustice, demand something better?