IT IS a truism that every crisis is also an opportunity. Having turned the opportunity of Brexit into a national crisis under Theresa May, the Tories had better hope they can turn the crisis of Covid-19 into an opportunity under Boris Johnson. As Britain cowers in lockdown, Gisela Stuart’s ‘unfrozen moment’ has become a well and truly Arctic one.
As Andrew Breitbart said: ‘Politics is downstream of culture’, and if we continue on our present course, a more authoritarian, controlled society is a highly likely outcome. Daniel Hannan writes with his usual eloquence that ‘the virus is infecting our thoughts’, but he misses the larger point that the economic hammer-blow of Covid-19 has merely exacerbated long-established trends towards more socialist models of society as the Western world slowly succumbs to long-term secular stagnation and with it the siren song of the zero-sum game. The unenviable task of this Tory government is therefore not only to rescue Britain from the ravages of Covid-19 but to use this opportunity to achieve what Brexit could have done: a complete reboot of Britain’s society and culture. As the first rays of hope start to appear and deaths start to fall, the government urgently needs to rethink its entire policy portfolio. For a start, unless the Tories have a death wish, net zero green targets that will affect working-class voters who have been hit hardest by the lockdown are surely now off the agenda.
Furthermore, although the economic outlook looks incredibly grim, with colossal job cuts in a great many sectors, it is not all bad news. We seem to forget that a major gripe from economists after the 2008 financial crash was that a huge number of ‘zombie firms’ with high debts, serviceable only due to ultra-low interest rates, were dragging down our performance significantly. Presumably a great many of these (along with, tragically, many properly solvent firms) will now have been put to the sword. Yes, the pain is awful, but it also gives an opportunity for large-scale remodelling of the British economy.
Secondly, we can be reasonably confident that Covid-19 will have effected a step change in existing trends such as home working. In the current crisis, many middle-class professionals have found the experience much to their liking, and many, perhaps especially women, are highly unlikely to want to return to the way things were. A similar change is being experienced in the shift towards online retail.
A radical reorientation of transport policy from passenger to freight is therefore urgently required. Luckily, we are blessed to be on the cusp of a freight transport revolution: freight drones are already with us, not to mention even more futuristic magways. Astonishingly, Bladerunner-style flying electric cars may soon be with us. Rather than spending time and money on HS2 – an absurd white elephant even before Covid-19 – the government should be ensuring Britain is at the forefront of these wondrous new technologies, many of which could create high-end advanced manufacturing jobs to replace the low-skilled Britain of today, and at a time when there is broad agreement on the need to repatriate manufacturing from China. (In the meantime, if you must build shiny new trainsets, surely it would be better to look at reviving the Central Railway project from Liverpool to the Channel Tunnel, a Brexit-friendly scheme designed primarily to put motorway-chewing transport lorries on low loaders, as well as container traffic.)
Revolutionary transport technologies and the switch to mass home working will mean we have to reimagine the city completely. British cities are almost all ugly and utilitarian. If they are to compete with home working, they must become places where high-earners want rather than have to work, and places that foster creativity. The alternative is decline and increasing social division as the middle classes abandon the city. This will require nothing less than a revolution in planning restrictions, tax incentives and above all the democratic oversight of town and city development away from the dead hand of Stalinist, top-down town planners.
Finally, I am willing to bet that an unnoticed revolution has been quietly happening during these grim times. Although the zeitgeist is reportedly one of timidity and conformism, millions upon millions of people have had the time and opportunity to reflect upon their lives and what they want from them. The human mind is most creative when relaxed, and my bet is that in future years we will trace the origin of many wonderful ideas back to this time. With the public finances under war-time levels of pressure, helping those ideas to be realised by creating a tax environment that favours entrepreneurship rather than the big authoritarian state will be perhaps the most courageous call the Tories can make.
Then there is Brexit: Brexit proper, we tend to forget, is a mere nine months away. It is not too late to reignite its fundamental spirit of hope and daring to harness the national imagination to the even greater level of revolutionary change now required, and in the process rescue us from the drift to socialism. The Tories made an absolute foul-up of Brexit 1.0. In unprecedented circumstances, they have been given another chance. For all our sakes, they cannot now miss the opportunity of Brexit 2.0. It really is all or nothing.