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From work to education to politics, nothing will be the same again

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Schooling is going to look very different for the foreseeable future

If it wasn’t clear before last week’s extraordinary events, it is as clear as day now: there will be no return to the world as we knew it before Covid-19.

Announcing an unprecedented package of support for businesses and workers last week, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, called for a “collective national effort.” The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, said “the whole resources of the country” need to be directed at the challenge before us, and “the only organisation that is big enough to do that in the magnitude of this calamity is the government”.

These statements would be important even if they were no more than rhetoric, because they convey a shift in political thinking, at this moment of national crisis, from liberal orthodoxy to more active government. A Conservative Chancellor talking about collective national effort. Another young Cabinet minister on the up talking about our dependence on the unique capabilities of the state.

But this is more than a change in political language. We are witnessing a change in policy more dramatic, more emphatic, and more consequential than any we have experienced outside wartime. Last week, the Chancellor gave taxpayer guarantees to businesses facing bankruptcy. Then he gave taxpayer guarantees to tens of millions of workers facing pay cuts or redundancy.

Quite rightly, given the extraordinary effects coronavirus is having on life and commerce, the state is involving itself in the economy to a greater extent than at any time since the Second World War. And the Government is now – reluctantly and, some argue, too slowly – also imposing restrictions on our personal freedoms like none since 1945.

From programmes to bring thousands of trained medics back into the NHS, to the BBC’s decision to put its resources into keeping the public informed, and our children educated and entertained, throughout the crisis, the country’s people and institutions are making the promise of a “collective national effort” a reality.

Of course, an irresponsible minority continued, as long as they could, to gather in bars and pubs and go to the gym. And of course in some parts of the country there has been panic buying in supermarkets. But despite this behaviour, for most people, the story of coronavirus in Britain so far has been one of solidarity.

Families have made plans to protect elderly parents and grandparents. Neighbours have set up WhatsApp groups to stay in touch and see who needs help. Doctors and nurses have volunteered to serve in coronavirus units. Medics from the private sector and those working elsewhere are dashing back to help. Businesses are rushing to manufacture ventilators and switching production to make much-needed goods like hand sanitiser.

We are, in different ways, showing that we understand that we depend on one another and, while we are all individuals with our own wants and needs, we are also members of something bigger. We are remembering that national life is not about the individual stories of some 60-odd million people, but the challenges we meet together. We are rediscovering the importance of community, institutions and the state.

When this is over – or more accurately, when we are over the worst of something we might need to continue to live with – there will be no going back. And not just because, after bailing out business on an unbelievable scale, taxpayers will demand a different future. It will simply be impossible for ministers to return to the politics and economics of individualism after exhorting us to play our parts in a collective national effort.

The Government’s extraordinary policies are no justification for socialism, of course. We might hear the Left use Sunak’s pay guarantee to justify a universal basic income, which would either apply generously to all and be unaffordable, or cost less and provide less relief than existing benefits. They might argue for further rounds of quantitative easing not as emergency medicine but to fund their giveaways. And they might argue for taxpayer support for any business that finds itself in trouble.

This does not mean policy should not change. It is already possible to imagine the ways in which the experience of coronavirus might inspire us to build something better. First and most obvious is the inevitable public demand for greater national resilience and state capacity to protect us from danger. Both governments and businesses are likely to want to shorten the stretched global supply chains that serve the modern economy. The NHS, and other key parts of our social infrastructure, will need more investment and capacity.

But other lessons will apply. Government insiders say, for example, that the decision to close the country’s school system will have a greater economic effect than that of the 2008 financial crisis. If our economy is so dependent on schools freeing up parents to go to work, why is our provision of childcare for three and four-year-olds so poor?

Now so many of us have come face-to-face with the reality of economic insecurity, we should want to address this insecurity for people who have to live with it through normal times too. We can create new rights and protections – and new systems too, like a portable benefits platform – for people working in the gig economy. After all, as supermarkets restock their shelves, we are all reminded how we depend on often forgotten low-paid workers.

We might also try to restore our important institutions, and create new ones. From the volunteer-run village shop to the Armed Forces, this crisis will remind us of the importance of organisations that bind us together, forge common identities and build trust. We can do more for the “little platoons” in villages, towns and cities around the country, and support national institutions like the BBC and NHS. Given the need to rebalance labour and capital, it would be no bad thing if the new spirit of collaboration between ministers and trades unions also continued into the future.

Serious crises demand measures that would be unthinkable during normal times. As in wartime, they can also forge a solidarity that survives long beyond the moment of danger: when this is over, there will be no going back.

 

‘Remaking One Nation: The Future of Conservatism’ (Polity) by Nick Timothy is published on Friday