James Kirkup

Could coronavirus change British politics?

Could coronavirus change British politics?
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Even if the Covid-19 coronavirus does not become a mass killer on the scale of, say, the Spanish Flu in 1918, the mere possibility of such severity still carries huge weight. Just the potential for a disastrous pandemic demands a response whose seriousness and nature will have political and social implications.

Even in this first week of the full UK response, some of those implications are clearly visible. And some of the inferences and lessons that can be drawn from this week are, to my mind, quite positive - small points of light in a dark and threatening sky, if you like.

1. The State matters

Small-state libertarians have always been a little group disproportionately over-represented in bits of the media and politics, and their influence over the Conservative party took a major blow at the general election: Johnsonian Tories might not love the state but they very definitely want to use it to do things, which will, eventually, mean funding and staffing it.

Responding to a pandemic will only strengthen that trend. It will be public bodies to which Britons look for advice and support and care in the nervous weeks ahead. Arguments about the need to 'shrink the state' will become even harder to make. That state, under Conservative management, will play a bigger part in our lives, economy and imaginations.

2. Experts are great again

Michael Gove will forever be misquoted about 'experts' and Brexit but the thing people think he meant still taps into an essential of recent politics, which is the decline of authority. Too often in online political conversation, what someone knows is given less value than which side they’re on: expertise and evidence that supports my argument is credible and good; that which supports contrary views is worthless and has suspect motives.

But this week, we’ve listened to the experts, to Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer and other boring (I mean that as a compliment), rigourous, disciplined and dispassionate pointy-heads who are led by evidence, not emotion. Whitty, who may yet become a significant figure in public imagination, is himself evidence suggesting that when the chips are down, Britain prefers people who know stuff to people who just believe stuff and argue for it with noisy eloquence.

3. Politics doesn’t have to be stupid and nasty

For several years, Britain has sustained a polarised, poisoned discourse where anything — including terrorist attacks, allegations of bullying and harassment, passport colours and breakfast choices — could be sucked into the hate-hoover of binary politics. Yet this week has seen Tories and Labour largely managing to talk about serious things in a serious and sometimes even sensible way. Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, has grumbled a bit about earlier years’ cuts in public spending, but on the central matter of the measures possibly needed to contain and manage the outbreak, he has signalled he’ll support ministers following medical advice. Ministers have largely responded in kind. Most importantly, no-one has questioned the other side’s motives.

Labour may well criticise and scrutinise some aspects of Government action here, which is what an opposition should do. And the government can and will respond to that scrutiny. That’s the way things should work. What has been pleasantly lacking from that dialogue so far is any suggestion that the other side is acting in bad faith.

All of which is a reassuring reminder than the people we ask to lead us can, when they put their minds to it, work together instead of performatively gutting one another. And that it is possible to disagree with a person or to criticise their actions without considering them a bad person.

4. The BBC is alive and well

The Corporation has had a rough old time of late, some of it self-inflicted. But at national moments like the one we’re about to live through, the case for a national public service broadcaster is clear. Maybe some people would prefer to get public health information from a bloke on Twitter who reckons Covid-19 is a scheme by Big Pharma to privatise the NHS, but at times like these, a lot of people are still going to look to the Beeb for their news. Even the chief Beeb-bashers in No. 10 have accepted this, relaxing the edict forbidding ministers from appearing on some BBC outlets. Maybe, just maybe, we may end up with a more considered conversation about the merits and flaws of the BBC as a result.