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23 April 2020

The coronavirus crisis is a moment for England to craft a new national story

Our memory of this time must be more than one of togetherness and solidarity. It must be that the people of England proved better than those in power.

By John Denham

On 5 April, the Queen addressed the nation. Her speech drew powerfully on her memories of 1940, of evacuation and the Blitz. It played on a collective British memory, one that shapes our sense of “who we are” and “how people like us behave”. The shared mythology of the Blitz is different to how the Blitz was experienced, but it is not just what people experience that matters. The remembering and mythologising of events has the power to shape a nation.

We have now been plunged into a very different collective experience. How will coronavirus be remembered? Who will tell the story of this time in a way that resonates with the largest number of people? A great deal hangs on the answers.

The identity of a nation depends on how its members think of themselves and what they believe they can achieve. People cannot create what they cannot imagine. National identity is far more than flags and football; it’s the collection of shared stories that tell us about ourselves and what we might be together.

In the past four weeks, articles proclaiming that things will never be the same again have spread as quickly as the virus. These commentaries almost always proclaim what should change, without any evidence that these changes will come to pass. Whether the future will be different will rest on how we tell the story of what is happening to us now.

After the crash of 2008, we were told “nothing will be the same again”. The left blithely assumed that most would, finally, see the failings of global capitalism. But the right told the most compelling stories, pointing the finger at profligacy, migration, failed international co-operation, the corrosive effect of liberal values and the need for national solidarity, sacrifice and effort. If we want this new crisis to usher in progressive change then, this time, we need to have a better narrative.

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There are encouraging signs. Few people objected to the Queen’s personal wartime references (although many recoil when her ministers wrap their incompetence in the mantle of Churchill and Beaverbrook). But this is a very different nation to that of 1940. 

As the names on the tragic list of NHS staff killed by coronavirus show, this is now a nation that stands on its diversity. This year, St George’s Day falls on a Thursday. The flag and the name of England’s patron saint are often used by those who do not welcome migrants and the children of migrants. The new Thursday tradition of the last few weeks will see millions stand at their doors and windows to applaud health, care and other key workers without arguing about who belongs. Those being clapped for, and those clapping, will include millions of people with migrant origins, who are part of the national story as never before.

There might just be a new story: one that is inclusive but also distinctly national. One that blends continuity and change. But it may not all be simple. We all clap, but our experience of lockdown and of disease depends much on our income, work, housing, geography and, quite possibly, race. Those now lauded as key workers weren’t just ignored by the current government, but by leftist theorists who found much more radical potential in metropolitan graduates. The people who are now at the centre of our national life must be empowered, not just praised. 

We have rediscovered the importance of government only to find the state itself in crisis and national economy hollowed out. Reconfiguring the NHS as a Covid-19 service was remarkable, but the state is mostly ineffective. It has long assumed that the private sector solves problems better, and that national productive capacity doesn’t matter.

The state can’t do procurement because many years ago it stopped valuing knowledge of how real businesses operate or how individuals live their lives. Better to nudge people to do as the state wants than have a state to serve their interests. Hence the chaotic delivery of testing, personal protective equipment, and respirators where even critical procurement has been outsourced.

Ambitious economic rescue packages stumble when they meet the real world. England’s addiction to the centralism of the union state has been exposed as rigid, incompetent, and unable to make the best of the local leadership and initiative that has been on offer across councils, communities, universities and businesses. 

In the future, one story will be that we came through this together. We looked out for each other and bore our losses bravely as we have done before. That story will put power back where it has always been. Our national story must be more than togetherness and solidarity. It must be that the people of England proved better than those in power. That their capabilities were greater than the way they have been governed. We all did what we could, but had to ask too much of some and too little of others. Those are the reasons we can never go back there again. We know who will tell the first story, but who will tell the second?

John Denham is a former Labour minister and director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Southampton University. The Centre is currently running an online survey on the impact of Covid-19