There is a collective spirit woven through this crisis

There is a collective spirit woven through this crisis

John Harris writes:

Last week, Boris Johnson stood on a set of stairs inside 10 Downing Street and spoke into a smartphone camera. Towards the end of a two-and-half minute monologue about Covid-19 and the national response to it, he said something striking: “One thing I think [the] coronavirus crisis has already proved is that there really is such a thing as society.”

The words, if anyone missed the reference, were an allusion to an infamous few sentences from Margaret Thatcher, published in an interview in Woman’s Own magazine in 1987: “I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it … They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.”

Though Johnson may well have cited what she said to create a useful distraction among political journalists, what he said nonetheless highlighted something undeniable: that Conservative politicians used to following Thatcher’s example are suddenly having to behave in ways that will be causing some of them no end of unease.

In the spectacle of the chancellor Rishi Sunak’s huge economic interventions and the government’s sudden veneration of the public sector, you can discern Tory shibboleths being suddenly thrown overboard. But things are perhaps more complicated than they appear. Coronavirus will force shifts in policy of a scale no Tory politician would ever have foreseen, but they also chime with underrated things that have been present in post-Thatcher Conservatism for years. When David Cameron was in charge, there were periodic fits of interest in a more socially minded Toryism, and the idea of the Conservatives somehow becoming a “workers’ party”. Before she was waylaid by Brexit, Theresa May spoke about the need for an activist state. Just before the arrival of Covid-19, when all the talk was of big infrastructure projects and helping places in the so-called “red wall”, cabinet ministers were doing much the same.

Of course austerity went on, inequalities were still ignored, and our exit from the EU quickly proved to be a huge distraction from the dire state of our social fabric. But in the midst of a sudden, unprecedented crisis, that is not quite the point. What matters right now is that much of the political groundwork has been done for Johnson and his allies to move away from free-market dogma, and in any case, they have no choice.

As and when we start to emerge from the coronavirus period, I would imagine we will be hearing a great deal about a new kind of Conservatism, and the supposed end of a Tory approach to governing that lasted 40 long years, from 1979 to 2019. This may not be nearly as benign as it might sound: from increased surveillance to the closing of national borders, there are things lurking in this moment that play to the authoritarian part of the Tory soul, and they need to be closely watched. But make no mistake: a new political common sense will emerge from the crisis, and it will surely mark the start of a different era. [Continue reading…]

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