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25 March 2020

The state transformed: Coronavirus will change the British state in ten crucial ways

Certain aspects of the way our government works will change fundamentally, and not all for the better. 

By Jonathan Powell

Comparisons with 1945 and a new postwar dawn are overblown. But the coronavirus crisis will, probably, bring about a series of lasting transformations in Britain’s system of government, largely by accelerating changes that were already under way.

First, the rehabilitation of experts will be completed. The civil service and the health and scientific experts have acquitted themselves well and demonstrated remarkable adaptability and imagination despite the insults hurled at them beforehand by their own ministers. 

Second, the government will have to bow to the inevitability of seeking an extension to the Brexit deadline. It will be neither possible for negotiations to start seriously by June 2020, nor sensible to contemplate a no-deal Brexit with the economy in the state it is likely to be in by December. Besides anything else, the thousands of civil servants working on Brexit have been redeployed to work on Covid-19.

Third, Big Government is back and having to manage things centrally through the crisis; ministers and civil servants will likely find it hard to stand back and let the private sector take over again. Fourth, solidarity will return to our political lexicon. The idea of a Universal Basic Income, first floated by the 16-century statesman and philosopher Thomas More in Utopia (1516), is now on the verge of being implemented by a Conservative government as the only way of dealing with the vast numbers of people self-employed or on zero-hours contracts in the modern economy. Once it is in place, who is going to reverse it? 

Fifth, government will have to cope with a huge fiscal and monetary hangover after the crisis. We have quite rightly been borrowing far more than we can afford to deal with the crisis, but like Lend-Lease after the Second World War – the programme under which the US supplied the UK and other Allied powers with oil, food and other materials between 1941 and 1945 – we will have to pay it back, and will face higher rates of tax as a result for the foreseeable future.

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Sixth, government operations were already slowly changing as increasing numbers of civil servants began to work from home, but this crisis has illustrated how many more can do so as a result of new technology. They will stay working from home once the crisis is gone. 

Seventh, the extreme emergency powers that the government has awarded itself to deal with the crisis will be hard to roll back. Already people are arguing that authoritarian states such as China have dealt much more effectively and efficiently with the crisis than democracies, and they will argue that government should have a more authoritarian streak in the aftermath as well.

Eighth, the use of surveillance technology to track contacts spreading the disease will have proved its worth and in the future it will not be just the Chinese government using artificial intelligence (AI) to keep tabs on the population.

Ninth, we have also seen the extraordinary sight of international cooperation breaking down just when we were facing a global threat, with EU members throwing up borders between each other and adopting different policies, rather than working together. It is not just the EU that will have to reflect fundamentally on how to ensure that does not happen again.

Finally, after surviving an existential crisis of a pandemic, which has long been foreseen, the government should turn its eyes to the other real challenges of the future, rather than constantly debating the past. What are we going to do about the challenge of AI and automation to our jobs, how are we going to deal with the huge problem of our ageing population and social care, what are we actually going to do about saving our planet from climate catastrophe? 

Certain aspects of the way our government works will change fundamentally, and not all for the better. But there is, I hope, likely to be one silver lining, and that will be to shift the focus of politics away from populism and towards competence – as Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, put it on 17 March, “This is not a time for ideology”. 

Read the rest of the “The state transformed” series here


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This article appears in the 25 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The crisis chancellor