As of last week the country went into lockdown. Yet outside the window of my study here in Somerset, for a few days at least, something like the usual number of cars continued to whizz past, and couples ambled along the pavement chatting merrily with those they encountered along the way. A makeshift sign was posted to a telegraph poll at the roadside which exemplifies the prevalent attitude here. “Holidaymakers not welcome,” it read, as if the deadly virus were something foreign that we would be able to keep out rather than something that is already here, among us.
Those travelling into the area from more densely populated cities do carry a greater risk of bringing the coronavirus with them. But I suspect there is a degree of parochialism and xenophobia to placards like this, as demonstrated by the worrying number of people carrying on as normal: the virus is something they get “down there in London”, as I was told of various phenomena as a child. To paraphrase George Orwell, the pandemic still feels far away, a smudge of misery hidden by the curve of the earth’s surface.
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There are of course some who are out and about for the daily supermarket run. Others are no doubt ‘key workers’; while some perform their one piece of exercise a day. It scarcely matters. What matters is that we don’t gather to socialise in public places. Yet through my dusty window I can still see a continual trickle of people — overwhelmingly older people — who appear reluctant to take even basic precautions in the face of this threat.
These are extraordinary times and writing this I feel like a member of the Stasi. According to Anna Funder’s excellent book Stasiland, there was one Stasi officer or informant for every 63 people in the former German Democratic Republic. Including part-time informers, that ratio was high as one informer for every 6.5 East German citizens. I view everyone walking past the window of my study with suspicion. Yet I was rather more disconcerted by the glee with which some police forces appeared to be enforcing the lockdown.
Despite the protestations of professional contrarians and rent-a-gobs — the types who must continually batter themselves against the mainstream in order to define themselves — we are not yet East Germany. Indeed, this is not really a ‘lockdown’ as such: we are still permitted to leave the house and, unlike in much of mainland Europe, we do not have to show papers to anyone in order to do so.
The real test will be in the coming weeks as the death toll rises more rapidly. Just before the lockdown was announced the pubs in the small Somerset town where I’m staying were bristling with life. Drinkers fanned out onto the pavements like a swarm of ants, despite the macabre scenes broadcast from Italy and elsewhere. It wasn’t much-maligned millennials whom I saw expressing such frivolous abandon, but rather many who would be characterised as the so-called ‘war generation’.
I don’t know if this is a conscious expression of selfishness so much as an absorption of the idea that nothing ever changes. Through our obsessive nostalgia for the ‘Blitz spirit’ and its accompanying sentimentality, we forget that the generations born during and shortly after the war have experienced an unparalleled degree of peace and prosperity. There has been very little in the past 75 years that the provincial middle class have not been able to safely ignore behind net curtains and an irrepressible asset bubble.
For its part, the Government has understandably been reluctant to introduce the sorts of draconian measures that have been enacted in mainland Europe. This has been widely lamented yet it is a sound instinct. The Labour Party has been strangely silent, though we can assume its ruling clique of boutique Stalinists are lamenting the fact that it is not they who have finally been able to put the entire population under house arrest.
More importantly, one wonders what kind of society we will have when we emerge from this crisis. It is striking how quickly even conservatives have grasped the ineffectiveness of the laissez-faire economic system now that the situation has required people to think about things beyond their own wallet. Human beings are largely emotional creatures who respond to seismic events in an emotionally charged way. The cool rationalism espoused by various economic theorists went out the window as soon as people started to stuff their bathroom cabinets with toilet rolls.
It isn’t only ordinary people who are carrying on as if nothing has changed. Even now, 10 days after Johnson announced the official lockdown and weeks after the crisis started, we are still hearing stories of employers forcing staff to turn up to work, and low-paid workers cram into Tube carriages — hotbeds of viral transmission — because the Government has been slow to close down all non-essential workplaces. Boris Johnson and co are not evil or intent on sacrificing millions of the elderly in the name of ‘herd immunity’, as some of the more deranged fringes of the Left are suggesting. However they are temperamentally incapable of grasping the realities of living the sort of existence where one is willing to risk fatal illness in order to earn a wage.
As the crisis has progressed, it has become clear that there are far too many opportunities for disreputable organisations and individuals to take advantage of the situation. This in turn is undermining the collective effort to protect the old and the vulnerable. There may be little we can do beyond better public information to keep the compulsive socialisers indoors, but we can reprimand the landlords ripping off their tenants and the bosses forcing immigrant workers — desperate to put food on the table — to pile into petri-dish Tube carriages
The Government had the power to pay self-employed workers to stay at home and it has finally done so. It also has the power to close things such as building sites, which remain open. In the words of a local friend who manages a couple of sites, they are “not the most hygienic of places and most people there aren’t too concerned by it all”. He will close this week regardless of government advice.
On a personal note, last week I informed my landlord in London that I would have to end the tenancy early because I had to self-isolate with my 90-year-old grandmother. It was something of an emergency. The response was immediate: I had to cough up the outstanding rent covering the six-week notice period or she would trouser my deposit. When I mentioned the three-month mortgage holiday my landlord would soon enjoy I received no response let alone any offer of compromise. I’ve heard nothing at all since. The landlord in question owns at least eight properties, each with at least three occupants paying £800 a month or more in rent.
I suspect there have been many similar occurrences of landlords taking advantage of the situation and employers flouting the spirit of the emergency measures. While the majority of people in Britain have made huge sacrifices over recent weeks, they’ve seen some of the country’s biggest companies — Virgin, Wetherspoons, Sports Direct — behave with only profit in mind. This may yet be a lasting lesson for those who have been brought up on the notion of benevolent capitalism, just as the relative success of collectivism during the Second World War shifted public opinion to the Left for a generation following the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Capitalism will endure because the alternative remains too temperamentally wedded to the failed doctrines of the past but the state has taken on a more significant role in the economy during the crisis than people will have imagined when they voted Conservative at the December General Election. Yet nationalisation for the sake of nationalisation leaves most people manifestly cold. I suspect the consensus view resembles the well-known quote from John Kenneth Galbraith: “I’m deeply suspicious of somebody who says, ‘I’m in favour of privatisation’, or, ‘I’m deeply in favour of public ownership.’ I’m in favour of whatever works in the particular case.”
What’s more, the outpouring of misplaced online sentimentality for Cuba’s international medical brigades is further evidence that the Left is too busy cosplaying the Cold War to formulate a serious alternative to the status quo. Whether the liberal model we have grown used to endures beyond the current pandemic may be another question altogether, as James Kirkup has touched on elsewhere for UnHerd. But Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party have all but disappeared from the national conversation since the crisis began.
Invariably one expects support to rally behind the Government during a time of crisis. Something similar has occurred in the United States under Donald Trump, despite his clumsy (to put it mildly) handling of the pandemic. Yet Corbyn’s decision to stay in office and preside over a lengthy leadership contest has lent the Labour Party an air of irrelevance during a period when the public needs an opposition that is volubly challenging the government on every decision it is taking. Corbyn’s decision to continue working from Parliament despite police advice to work from home is indicative of the man’s titanic ego — an ego he has always cloaked in a affected air of modesty and asceticism.
We are waiting then, all of us. For the pandemic to end — or at least to subside — but also to see what sort of society emerges by the end of it. It has not yet hit us in Somerset with the force it has in Europe or, indeed, in London, but every thinking person knows it is coming.
The mood among those who have shown indifference up to now will change as the local obituary pages expand and the numbers struck down crowd out the usual fare of petty crime and squabbles over planning permission. Theirs is the deep, deep sleep of England — and they are about to be jolted rudely awake.
Then it will be more waiting, mainly to see whether the resulting acidity and resentment is directed at the Government, or toward those fellow citizens who up to now have so egregiously flouted the emergency measures.