During the depths of lockdown, I recalled Franklin D Roosevelt’s famous exhortation to his fellow Americans at the nadir of the Great Depression: “There’s nothing to fear but fear itself.” To my surprise, during a recent call to an anxiety helpline, the kind man on the other end of the phone quoted words he attributed to FDR’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt: “The future is a mystery, today is a gift, which is why we call it the present.” Stop worrying about tomorrow, seemed to be the message, and root yourself in the moment.
One man who is paid to demystify the future, though, is Martin Wolf, the chief economics commentator of the Financial Times. He joined me for the first in a mini-series of “At home with” Zoom interviews for the How To Academy. As we emerge from lockdown, public events remain a distant prospect, and there is still an appetite for virtual gatherings. Wolf described what we are about to encounter in economic terms as another Great Depression. But we aren’t feeling it like the financial crisis of 2007-08 because the government is borrowing like mad and we haven’t been able to spend during lockdown.
Paying for the crisis
The question remains: how will we pay for it all? Wolf doesn’t think it very likely that either the government or the opposition will want to cut spending significantly. He predicts Boris Johnson (who has since pledged not to “go back to the austerity of ten years ago”) will borrow; Labour would tax.
Of course, there are many who have already experienced financial fallout from the pandemic. Personal stories make for the most powerful calls on phone-in radio. “Evert” rang into my LBC show to say that because he hadn’t been furloughed he had slipped into poverty. He revealed that he would make a bag of pasta “stretch for three or four days”.
The role of radio was never more obvious than during the most intense period of lockdown. Broadcasting to the nation in the middle of the night, I was conscious that I was reaching into people’s homes up and down the country and providing, at the very least, some companionship. The irony was that I had never felt so lonely myself. I was recently divorced and separated from friends and family, and the sudden adjustment – from a life led at full tilt to one of confinement – was suffocating.
Vivek Murthy was surgeon general under Barack Obama. He is waging a campaign to tackle loneliness, a condition that he believes leads to anxiety, addiction, depression and even violence. When I interviewed him for another Zoom event, he emphasised the importance of human connection and creating a society in which we look out for one another. The patients on their deathbeds with whom he has spent time don’t speak of their bank balances: they talk of the relationships they have formed. Listening to such a senior medical professional talking about the power of kindness and love served as a reminder to me of what matters most in life.
The natural world
Our relationship with the natural world is also critical and the pandemic has reinforced this message in two ways. First, if we don’t get it right, we now know – emotionally, not just intellectually – how vulnerable we are as a species. Unless we urgently learn the lessons of our fragility in the face of crisis, we will continue to fail in our approach to the looming climate catastrophe. Drought, flooding, disease and mass migration are on the horizon.
Second, as we retreated, so nature re-emerged. We read of wild goats coming down from the Welsh hills, peregrine falcons nesting again at Corfe Castle in Dorset, and a cuckoo calling at Osterley Park in west London for the first time in decades. The air we breathed on our statutory daily walks tasted clean and fresh even in central London. Do we really want to return to our aggressive pursuit of self as we step, blinking, back out into “normality”?
To choose a sustainable future we must make our voices heard, otherwise it will be too late. Jonathon Porritt, whose new book Hope In Hell emphasises the immediacy of the climate threat but also suggests solutions, advocated in an interview with me non-violent direct action. He would, he said, be prepared to go to prison for the planet.
The politics of consensus was short-lived during the evolving coronavirus disaster. Any semblance of unity was smashed to bits by the Dominic Cummings row as old Brexit rivalries reignited. Boris Johnson and his henchman were revealed to be the establishment, not the brave, self-styled champions of the people. Still, old loyalties die hard and the airwaves spilled back into tribal factionalism. And then George Floyd was brutally killed in Minneapolis and I found myself, a white man, attempting on the radio to explain white privilege to white people who still didn’t get it.
That said, many white people don’t feel remotely privileged. We are a profoundly unequal society – and not just along racial lines. To this end, if the Prime Minister can prove his “Rooseveltian” New Deal is not a sham but a genuine attempt to “level up” and bridge the gap between the North and South, he should be encouraged in the project. In the meantime, I continue to revel in Keir Starmer’s grown-up leadership of the Labour Party. He has been a revelation: not just “forensic” in his holding of Johnson to account at the dispatch box, but already almost prime ministerial. Starmer must not relent: the challenges of unlocking the country are greater than those involved in locking it down in the first place. If the government continues to make mistakes, the consequences will be devastating.
Matthew Stadlen is a writer and host on LBC
This article appears in the 08 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, State of the nation