Unprecedented times, unprecedented measures, and the end of liberalism?


By Victoria Adams, Public Affairs Director

The UK government has committed to paying the wages of its citizens (to the value of up to 80% of a maximum of £2,500 per month) to keep employment and expenditure afloat. Although it is likely there will still be a recession following the pandemic, measures like this should stop the country going into a full blown depression.

But when will the government call an end to this unprecedented intervention? Will there ever be a good moment to turn off the taps, when it seems certain that that will trigger another recession? As soon as wage support stops, companies will make cuts to improve margins.

And, of course, there’s a more politically philosophical conundrum: how can this Conservative government ever justify a return to austerity measures or even straightforward fiscal Conservatism after this season has passed?

It doesn’t take a political pundit to draw clear parallels between Labour Party manifesto pledges and Conservative COVID-19 policies. The government is going to nationalise the railways as the financial pressures on Train Operating Companies have mounted.

Labour’s 2019 Election Manifesto committed to giving free full-fibre broadband to everyone in the country. Many voters, including even some in the Labour Party itself, sneered at this proposal. Now it doesn’t seem like a bad idea for government to give providers support to ensure everyone can connect to high speed internet

What price do we put on health?

Can ‘value for money’ and ‘efficiencies’ remain as the guiding principles underpinning government procurement policy? If so, that will leave the nation perilously weak and unprepared for the unexpected.

The NHS has always been a political hot-bed – and services have been strained for the past few years. The current crisis has shown how vital it is to pump more cash into it, whilst simultaneously reviewing and improving its structures and resources. This comes into sharp focus when we look across the Atlantic. In the US, health insurance is tied to employment – worrying, especially when thousands of people are getting laid off and reports are emerging of people being sent bills of up to $300,000 for treatment of Coronavirus.

Will COVID-19 result in even higher levels of investment in the NHS? That would certainly prove popular, but whether it would be sustainable is perhaps a more pertinent question.

Levelling-up hits the buffers

Already the crisis is hitting low-income workers hardest. I believe this is likely to re-ignite a huge anti-elitist backlash. One prime example is EasyJet asking staff to take unpaid leave for three months whilst some executives are enjoying substantial bonuses in addition to government aid.

Is the political and social response to the COVID-19 crisis going to make the country more naturally left wing? There’s a distinct possibility that might happen – depending on how long this pandemic continues, people are going to get used to having this level of government protection. The ‘Blue Wall’ voters are the social-economic constituencies that are likely to get hit once these policies are lifted – is there a chance they’ll feel betrayed and left behind once again? I fear that might be the case.

Looking out

And what about international relations? Globalism is already on the decline, but will this exacerbate it all? It is clear that the US is going to punish China for its role in sparking the current state of affairs. But borders are locking down across the world in quick succession. How long will they stay closed for, and will some countries use this as an opportunity to further nationalist agendas?

I’m aware that I have posed more questions than answers: such is life, especially in uncertain times. My diagnosis is that the future looks bleak and uncertain. But perhaps I’m unnecessarily pessimistic, so I’ll leave you on a sunnier note. Maybe a better way to think of the Coronavirus era is like a business decamping to a disaster recovery site. That analogy sees us returning back to office normality once it’s all over – and life resetting to the way it was before. Therein lies the biggest question of all – are we in temporary parenthesis, or is this the new normal? 

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