On the evening of Thursday 26 March, at 8pm, we opened our door and stepped outside. Even in our quiet road in a market town, our neighbours, some of whom we sadly do not know, were standing at open windows, on balconies, at open doors or in their front gardens. Some ventured tentatively on to the road. Everyone was applauding. There were whoops and cheers. Someone set off a firework that illuminated the night sky.
It was a moment of magical mutuality, a public coming together of a kind one seldom if ever experiences outside of grand sporting occasions – a football World Cup summer, say, or home Olympic Games. It was almost unbearably moving because you knew that the scene was being repeated all over the country, as we applauded the doctors and nurses and other key support staff working on the front line against the virus. After years of visceral polarisation and sometimes toxic political debate, inflamed by the aggression and showboating of so much activity on social media, here was an expression of what Orwell called common decency.
In a recent interview with Emily Maitlis on BBC Newsnight, former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks (who writes this week’s Diary on page 23) discussed what the crisis had revealed about the inescapably interlinked nature of humanity. “This is the nearest we have to a revelation, even to atheists,” he said. “Here we suddenly see our vulnerability. We’ve been coasting along for more than half a century in unprecedented freedom, in unprecedented affluence, in unprecedented optimism. All of a sudden, we are facing the vulnerability and fragility of the human situation. Even without a faith in God, we have to say: either we work together and survive, or we work separately and perish.”
In 2018 Rabbi Sacks presented a BBC Radio 4 series, Morality in the 21st Century, in which he explored themes on which he has since elaborated in a new book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times. What interested me about the series, in addition to its philosophical probing, was that he spoke to many of the same writers and thinkers I have interviewed, or who have been featured in the New Statesman in recent times – David Brooks, Jonathan Haidt, Michael Sandel, Jean Twenge – as we grapple with the new political realities. What connects these writers is their pragmatism and desire to remoralise politics. They look beyond the old left/right binaries and offer penetrating critiques of the failures of hyperglobalisation.
The crisis of liberalism was interrogated in documentary-maker Phil Tinline’s The End of the Thirty-Year Itch, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 28 March. Tinline analysed how, as he put it, “the 30-year reign of free market economics was shaken by the 2008 financial crash triggering a decade of shocks and crises, hung parliaments and short-lived governments”. What fascinates him are moments of transition, when an era ends, consensus breaks down and a new settlement emerges, as happened at the end of the Second World War – or when, after the winter of discontent and the economic crises of the 1970s, Margaret Thatcher won power in 1979, heralding the free market era. At such moments, what seemed unthinkable becomes possible, and a new ruling idea takes hold.
There’s no doubt the coronavirus pandemic and our response to it will accelerate trends and forces already in play: the fragmentation of globalisation; the return of the protective state; the hardening of national borders and restrictions on free movement; the necessity of more resilient supply lines; the need for greater investment in our public services and in the public realm.
When we face crises in our lives – the breakdown of a relationship, a cancer scare, a family bereavement, unemployment – we often promise to ourselves, as we re-emerge on the other side, that nothing can be the same again. But, of course, patterns of daily life are re-established. Personal pledges are broken. Routine and habitualism devour our days. The pace of events sweeps us along, and we struggle to find the moments of pause and repose that allow for the kind of reflection and re-evaluation that can nudge us in a new direction.
What’s so compelling and all-consuming about the present multifaceted crisis is that it affects all of us, everywhere, simultaneously. We are being forced to confront existential questions about how we live and about mortality. And we are facing a potential economic cataclysm of a kind not experienced since the Great Depression. But will our hyperindividualistic culture be changed for the better? Already we are witnessing a renewed sense of social solidarity – those 700,000-plus NHS volunteers are an example to us all – and a greater commitment to both the common and public good born out of national emergency. If there is to be less emphasis on self and more on what Rabbi Sacks calls the greater human “We”, then this can only be for the good of us all.
Already we speak of “BC” and “AC”: before corona and after corona. We don’t know yet what the new consensus will be or if it will change our politics as fundamentally as the Second World War did. But it feels as if we are emerging at last from the interregnum that began with the financial crash into something new and strange and different, but also potentially better than the way we were living before.
This year, because of the crisis, our Spring Special is a treble rather than the usual double issue. The next issue of the magazine will be out on 24 April. In the meantime, please visit our website, where the whole NS team is working and continuing to publish essential new pieces, from both staff and guest writers, every day. May I thank you, our readers, for your continuing support.
This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special 2021