As the coronavirus tragedy unfolds, placing great stress on health services around the globe, we are afforded a real-world, comparative study of the effectiveness of different forms of government in a moment of crisis. Like the coloured fluid run through water systems to find leaks and points of weakness, Covid-19 is coursing through the world’s political systems, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses in real time.
Many pixels have been hurriedly expended online comparing the statist, authoritarian and semi-authoritarian systems of East Asia with the initially laissez faire approaches of Western nations to staunching the spread of the virus, a debate which taps into the ongoing crisis of faith in the future of liberal democracy. Yet within the liberal democracies, less attention has been given to the growing disjunct between American and European attitudes to the pandemic, symptomatic of far deeper cultural dissonances.
European nations, including our own, have chosen to freeze their economies for the greater good of the nation’s health, and particularly out of solicitude for the survival of our oldest and weakest members.
The United States, by contrast, after flirting with the idea of some form of Universal Basic Income, has submitted to the hard-hearted religion of the market, which dictates that the old and weak must be sacrificed to grease the juddering gears of the economy. Each approach carries with it great political risks: the European approach of halting production and placing the entire nation under effective house arrest for a period of unknown duration has never before been attempted, and the prospect of some form of civil disturbance breaking out as we enter summer must be considered.
On the other hand, the American notion that an economy can function smoothly during a lethal pandemic, with workers and their family members falling ill and dying across the country while the federal government dithers on its response, seems wildly optimistic. Which policy will prove more successful is up to nature, both human and viral, to determine.
Here in the UK, we have, like the rest of Europe, chosen to sacrifice our economy instead of our parents and grandparents. The Government has entered a war footing, stepping in to pay the wages of private sector employees confined to home, effectively nationalising the railways, and reordering the relationship of Britain’s state and private sector in the most dramatic fashion for generations.
This national lockdown has met with the approval of the vast majority of the voting public, at least for now: when it comes down to it, we are a nation that believes in a strong state, especially in a moment of national adversity. The comparison to the United States, from which our economic liberals draw their ideas, and often funding, is instructive.
Compared to us, and other European countries, the global superpower is barely a functioning state, far less a nation as we understand the term. In this respect, we are fortunate to have deep cultural reserves to draw on: a certain national mythos of dogged making-do and carrying-on in the face of adversity has since the Second World War defined much of the nation’s self-image, and now is the time to utilise it for the greater good.
To this end, the government has proposed a mass mobilisation of 250,000 volunteers for the NHS, to deliver food and medicine to those self-isolating at official request.
It is a good idea, and the speed and scale of the public’s response, with more than 400,000 volunteers already, is heartening but it perhaps does not go far enough. Continuing the wartime analogy, an impromptu volunteer effort is, like the Little Ships at Dunkirk, suited to a sudden crisis of short duration, but a sustained battle over the course of months or years requires a different degree of determination entirely.
If this is genuinely a national crisis on the scale of the Second World War, as the government’s extraordinary economic and political measures suggest, then we should mobilise the full resources of the state to face it. To do this, why not institute a form of conscription suited to a peacetime crisis: an NHS national service?
If the virus is least harmful to the young and fit, then it would make sense to deploy the nation’s youth as a strategic resource, who would otherwise be trapped in their homes for the next three months, or year, or even two years. Much of the basic work of the NHS — moving trolleys, making beds, delivering medication, swabbing floors — surely does not require a nursing degree to perform.
By allowing students whose A-Levels and university degrees have been placed in hiatus for the foreseeable future to serve their neighbours, their families, their communities — and their country — in a period of severe crisis we may bring about a great social good from this unwanted test of national resolve.
Consider the 2008 financial crash and its aftermath: then as now, a Conservative government utilised the language of wartime solidarity in handling the response to a disaster of globalisation. All the rhetoric of self-sacrifice in defence of the common good was deployed, and when the nation accepted the call, it was instead given a long-planned whittling of the state’s resources under the name of austerity, a cynical con-trick that has done much to destabilise the country’s politics in the years since then.
The students and graduates of 2008 were delivered vastly worse life outcomes by a government appealing to social solidarity, while the economic trends which caused the crash — the economy’s reliance on financialisation and property speculation and the widening gap between haves and have-nots — accelerated further than ever before. It is not hard to trace the rise of Corbyn and his attendant chat show revolutionaries, as well as much of the culture war that has surrounded Brexit, to this moment of betrayal. This cannot happen again.
We cannot expect young people to place their lives, their educations and careers on hold for a year or more and shut themselves in their small and ruinously expensive homes without a just reward for this sacrifice. There is no glory, no sense of having placed your own destiny in the service of a greater good to be gained from locking yourselves at home and fighting over toilet roll in your daily, rationed trip outdoors.
What if we offer those who have least to fear from the virus — but most to lose from the measures to quell it — the opportunity to use this period helping others? If we guarantee them the nation’s praise and gratitude, and a more equitable distribution of assets in the economy we build once the virus has been defeated?
It is perhaps fortuitous that those most at risk from coronavirus — the Boomer generation — hold a disproportionate share of the national wealth, and that it is largely through their political decisions that its transfer down the generations has been halted, a looming political crisis in itself. If the Zoomer generation whose prospects of social mobility are now the lowest since the war itself take on much of the responsibility of caring for their often selfish and misguided grandparents, the case for a radical reordering of the nation’s economy and infrastructure in their favour is so much stronger.
After the last national crisis a grateful nation offered Homes Fit for Heroes and a generous welfare state to those, fresh from school and university, who sacrificed their best years for the greater good. A similar offer cannot be impossible now that the whole economy is once again gathered into the government’s hands, in an opportunity for radical transformative change unlikely to be repeated.
The NHS is an obvious object of mass national mobilisation. Not only is this a crisis of public health, a war in which hospitals are the frontlines and medical staff the nation’s defenders, but the NHS is perhaps the only national institution which commands the unswerving support of the vast majority of the nation’s population.
As the 2012 Olympics spectacle showed, it has become a central plank of the national myth, a sacred cause to which politicians of Left and Right must swear loyalty to in a manner that has long gone beyond pure reason. The NHS absorbs 7.1% of our GDP and a far greater proportion of our political bandwidth: if even a small fraction of those who pledge their devotion to the service at each election are willing to serve it for the duration, we are well-placed to weather this period of crisis.
Some may find a vocation in this brief period of service; others will gain skills, friendships and a sense of purpose and satisfaction that will last a lifetime. If we are asking people to put their lives on hold for the good of the nation, then we should offer them the opportunity to look back with pride at a period of national crisis which will be discussed for the rest of their lives, and which will surely enter the national mythology.
Of course, traditional conscription, in those European nations which carried out the practice until recently as well as those which still do, is only partly a question of military need. The process also famously builds a sense of national solidarity and common purpose among the disparate groups which make up a society, transforming “peasants into Frenchmen” in the historian Eugen Weber’s phrase.
In the same way, the common purpose and shared battle against the coronavirus will help reinforce the frayed social bonds that tie us together as a nation. We have just escaped a period of national schism not far from cold civil conflict in the heat of its rhetoric and political division, and in this great and unexpected challenge we are also granted an opportunity to bring ourselves together once again.
Summer is coming, and an undervalued, economically disenfranchised youth population locked in their homes presents a grave challenge to social order as the crisis drags on and the novelty wears off. If this looming threat can be transformed into an opportunity for societal cohesion, it may come to seem wilfully negligent not to have embraced it wholeheartedly.
Releasing our youth from effective house arrest and allowing them to commit their health, vitality and purpose to the nation’s greater good is not just a quick fix to a sudden manpower shortage but a statement of who we are as a nation. It is an opportunity for the British government and people to affirm that we value younger people, and that we need them to play their part.
In boosting the NHS with a transfusion of new blood where it is needed most, freeing up both trained medical staff and the armed forces for the period of greatest danger now approaching, it would be a move of some practical utility which bears within it the seeds of a far greater social good.
By reinventing national service for a largely pacific generation, we would establish public service as a social good and set the stage for the rebalancing of the social contract that must surely follow. In the aftermath of the coming storm, we will, like both our European neighbours and our American cousins, measure ourselves as a society against the measures we took to protect our nation, and the values we decided to make paramount. The coronavirus offers us the opportunity for a very British, communitarian revolution, if we only take it.