My family is lucky, in this crisis and in this weather, to live in the country. From our house is a wide view across a river, with fields and woods rising the other side. The woods are at that lovely moment when the trees are budding but not yet in leaf, so one can see the forest floor beneath as it greens up faster than the canopy above.
As I lay on the lawn yesterday, reading stories about panic-buyers and people who are not obeying the rules of social distancing, I recalled the line in the hymn about a place where “Every prospect pleases and only man is vile”.
As I watched, however, a dozen fallow deer, frightened by something in the larger wood, broke out of it and galloped across the field towards the copse beyond. As the deer approached it, something alarmed them there too. They froze, and then started turning back and forth indecisively. After a bit, as if by joint reflection, the herd calmed down and moved, in slow and orderly fashion, into the second wood.
It struck me that most of the human herd is behaving a bit like those deer at present. It is not evidence that we are vile. We shouldn’t be blaming each other too readily. It is simply that it takes a bit of working out how to answer need and avoid danger. Take “panic-buying”. Yes, a few greedily grab great piles of stuff, but most of us buy more of something which we believe might become short (hence the old slogan “Hurry, hurry – while stocks last”). That is not wrong.
Take the failure to maintain social distance last weekend. It is entirely natural, and healthy, to seek space to take the air. As an individual decision, given the current need for psychological refreshment, it is even positively good. The problem arises when lots of individuals independently make the same decision. A beautiful National Trust park usually affords lots of room, but if you arrive there in the time of Covid-19 and find the car park crowded, you have unwittingly added to a health hazard. Morally, it is like being in a traffic jam – each driver stuck in one is not usually blameworthy for being there.
Last night, Boris Johnson announced a much fiercer clampdown to deal with these difficulties. The public are now extremely restricted in where they can go. His argument is one from dire necessity, and it would be bold to say it is wrong. But those calling for draconian action also need to remember its unintended effects. If, for example, the Government had suddenly “locked down” London last week – as was rumoured – such a measure would itself have caused chaos. It could have turned hundreds of thousands of people into refugees, overcrowding road and trains, increasing infection risks as it did so.
The Government sensibly did not close the city. With these latest restrictions, there must be a real danger that people will find them impossible, get disillusioned and defy them. The difficulties in care homes, for example, are now truly formidable. So is the situation of parents whose children are unexpectedly home all day.
We, the herd, do need guidance, but if we become blindly dependent on rigid orders, we might panic blindly too.
It may make sense to get the Opposition involved
The wartime comparison with the coronavirus does not work in every way. But in one respect, it does. Unlike in normal politics, there has to be an overriding common purpose. Does it make sense, therefore, to form a coalition government, as some are beginning to suggest? Given the urgent need to beat the virus, does the normal, legitimate role of the Opposition disappear? Would it help national unity if the Labour Party were sharing responsibility and decisions?
Jeremy Corbyn should certainly not have any role. As the defeated, outgoing leader, he no longer has a personal mandate. It might not be idiotic, however, for Mr Corbyn’s successor – most likely Sir Keir Starmer – to be treated differently.
The analogy with the coalition government formed under Winston Churchill in 1940 is inexact. In that case, the existing Conservative government had failed in its war aims, and there had not been a general election since 1935. Churchill had a moral duty and a political need to cast the net wider. In 2020, the Tory majority is new and robust.
Nevertheless, it might be good to find some way to bring the Opposition in on what is happening for the duration of the crisis. It could be slightly informal, given that the duration (unlike the Second World War) will probably be a matter of months, not years.
If Boris Johnson were to invite Sir Keir (or whoever) to join the fight rather than stand on the sidelines, it would be a big gesture. The risk would be that it would split Labour – and therefore the new leader would probably refuse. Labour’s gain by accepting, however, would be that, at a stroke, it would have shown itself to be a party capable of government once more.
With spring comes hope
The coincidence of the virus biting and the spring coming leads me to take deeper delight than usual in how the season changes. On Sunday afternoon, our dog turned over on her back and wriggled herself luxuriously down the grassy slope for the first time this year. For us, this is normally just a pleasingly comic moment of spring. This year, it felt touchingly hopeful.