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State of the nation

Why we are entering a new age of disorder.

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Intellectual attitudes towards the state of the nation mirror those towards the coronavirus. In each case, an influential body of opinion expects a reversion to what it regards as normalcy. The pandemic will soon be defeated, or else it will fade away. With the end of lockdown, the economy can continue where it left off.

Similarly, many seem to believe that the political changes of the past four years are anomalies. The Brexit referendum, Donald Trump’s presidency, Boris Johnson’s majority and the inability of the EU to achieve solidarity in face of the largest economic dislocation in its history are all aberrations from the normal course of events.

These expectations are not correlated with political allegiances in any simple way. Most of those who believe coronavirus is overhyped and lockdown overdone are Thatcherite Brexiteers. Those who believe the political shifts of recent years can be reversed are mostly progressive liberals and unreconciled Remainers. What these seemingly divergent groupings have in common is the faith that the order they imagine existed until a few years ago can somehow be reinstated. They recognise that things cannot be just as they used to be. The restoration they have in mind will be an enhanced, re-energised, super duper version of the old order. But however embellished, it will still be the ancién regime. It is a nostalgic vision, and plainly hallucinatory.

As it applies to British politics and to the global scene, any programme of restoration is an exercise in magical thinking. Whereas the pandemic has advanced some trends and reversed others, it has also rendered some issues defunct. Debates about Brexit and the future of Western capitalism are examples. Brexit is irreversible, while Western capitalism has splintered into a variety of state capitalisms. At the same time Britain and other Western societies find themselves without a consensus on values that can enable them to deal with the virus or shape their future.

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We are in the early phases of what has so far been a comparatively mild pandemic. Many epidemiologists believe the virus will go on to re-emerge in successive waves, possibly in different forms in different regions, and become endemic throughout the world. But there is an enormous amount that is not known. (We don’t know precisely how the virus originated, for example.) Maybe an earlier, more draconian and shorter lockdown in Britain would have been the wisest policy on precautionary grounds. And yet conceivably some variation on the Swedish approach, which avoided lockdown, may in the end prove the least costly. Mass testing and contact tracing are being promoted as all-purpose solutions. But if not everyone who catches the virus displays symptoms or develops antibodies and immunity proves to be transient, as some studies from China suggest, test and trace is not a panacea. Relatively minor behavioural changes such as hand washing and wearing face masks seem able to curb the virus’s spread to a surprising degree, but only if they are widely adopted.

A vaccine and effective treatments will help greatly, but there is increasing geopolitical conflict over how they are to be distributed. The US has bought up nearly all of the global supply of remdesivir, an anti-viral drug that might shorten the recovery time of coronavirus patients, for some months ahead. Will Xi Jinping make a Chinese vaccine available in countries whose governments are at odds with his policies in Hong Kong? We do not know how the virus will evolve, or how increasing knowledge of the disease will be used.

There is another kind of uncertainty at work. There is nothing approaching agreement on the values that should shape policies towards the pandemic. The spurious exactitude of quality-adjusted life years (QALYs), which are used by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence to evaluate whether treatments are cost-effective, conceals a host of ethical difficulties. A rebooted version of 19th-century Benthamite utilitarianism, QALYs multiply how much longer a patient will live after a given treatment with the future quality of their life. But what counts as quality in a human life? QALY theory may tell you a few years of life for a disabled child are worth less than longer life in a healthy productive adult. But this is not a result that squares with everybody’s intuitions. I, for one, reject it out of hand. Ethics cannot be reduced to an arithmetical formula.

Underlying all this is the deepest uncertainty of all. Significant numbers of people have shown they care more about other goals than they do about stemming the pandemic. Some are ready to risk infection in order to promote a cause to which they are passionately committed. (Unfortunately, science has yet to demonstrate that the virus refrains on moral grounds from spreading in mass gatherings of protesters.) Others are ready to take the risk in order to return to work or have a day at the beach. Growing numbers resist government advice because they insist on making their own choices about how they want to live.

Some may say this is no bad thing. People should be free to make their own judgements of risk, and act on them: that is what living a normal life means. The former UK Supreme Court judge Jonathan Sumption has been writing in this vein. All such arguments skate over differences in the nature of risk. If surfers choose to practise their sport in weather in which some will likely drown, that is their business. If some do die, many more will not start doing so a few weeks later as a consequence. But the risks taken when you expose yourself to the virus are multiplicative. Not only do you increase your own chances of dying, you greatly increase those of others. One super-spreader can infect hundreds of unknowing people. There is also a question of resources. Will those who expose themselves to a high risk of catching the virus in order to live what they consider a normal life be treated by the NHS when they fall ill?

Arguments such as this illustrate the intellectual hold of obsolete philosophies, in this case Millian liberalism. Today we are much too closely interlinked with one another to be able to apply the “one very simple principle” proposed in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859). “Over himself, over his own body and mind,” Mill declared “the individual is sovereign.” This was always a dubious proposition. In a time of a worldwide pandemic it is an absurdity.

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The causes of the pandemic are in the way we lived before it struck. At its peak, globalisation meant near-universal connectivity between economies, mass mobility of human beings and increasing population density in much of the world. Pathologists argued for years that this system was liable to epidemics of infectious disease. They were ignored because those that occurred, such as Sars in 2002-04, were contained. Now what they feared has happened, and some are warning of worse pandemics to come.

Yet progressives remain fixated on how to revive the world that engendered the present disorder. They constructed and managed that world, and it flattered their self-image as the rational vanguard of the species. It is only to be expected that they should yearn for the return of their now bankrupt authority. Yet few aspects of the contemporary scene are more laughably grotesque than defunct politicians and advisers demanding a return to the politics of competence and expertise that produced the dysfunctional euro, the ruinous Iraq War, the financial crisis, anarchy in Libya and the regime of globalisation that is currently collapsing.


Credit: Andre Carrilho

The new Labour leader’s shift of stance on Brexit is instructive. By refusing to demand an extension of the transition period, Keir Starmer has signalled that the issue is closed. The subtext of his message may be less clear. He may believe – correctly – that the upshot of negotiations will more likely than not be a deal. He may suspect, also correctly, that exiting without a deal might not matter greatly in present circumstances. Or he may have heeded warnings that endorsing an extension would be fatally damaging in the old Labour heartlands that must somehow be recovered now that Scotland has been carelessly and irrevocably lost.

Coming from the chief architect of the campaign to turn Labour into a Remain party, Starmer’s volte-face is commendably bold. But many in his party do not share his astute perception of political realities. Labour’s problem is no longer its leadership but its members. The problem is not the Corbynite remnant, which – however much it rages against the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey from the shadow cabinet – is now little more than a succession of ghosts flitting across late-night television screens. The obstacle to change comes from the mass of Labour’s moderates, who still believe the party can come to power by aligning itself with what they call progressive values.

For many of them, this includes resisting a change that is now irresistible. Some will be clamouring to rejoin the EU long after that sacred institution has passed into history. Again, many prophesy the break-up of the British state after Brexit. But once Britain has left the EU, Scottish independence ceases to be a credible option. A Scottish state outside the UK, needing to negotiate rejoining the EU at a time when oil is no longer a prize asset, a shaky banking system, no national currency and the prospect of a hard border with England, has little or no prospect of economic viability. The position of Northern Ireland is more complex, but it is not going to become part of the Republic any time soon.

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Starmer has shown himself to be a political operator of consummate skill. At times his practice of avoiding battles he is not sure of winning has looked opportunistic. He was not notably vocal on Labour anti-Semitism during his leadership campaign. But his swift sacking of his former rival Long-Bailey is as richly symbolic as Blair’s repudiation of Clause IV, and in terms of the party’s future more important. Labour is no longer identified with the politics of demonisation and conspiracy theory.

At the same time there is an extreme fuzziness regarding anything that might be called Starmerism. A political project has to be more than a series of strategic manoeuvres, and the lessons of the general election have not yet been grasped. Labour cannot win on the back of a coalition of wistful and angry bourgeois radicals in the English metropolises and university towns. The Labour Together post-mortem focuses on the need for a continuing commitment to economic transformation. But working class voters didn’t reject Labour’s economic programme, though they doubted it was properly costed. They rejected the values Jeremy Corbyn embodied – above all, his lack of British patriotism – and represented as his party’s.

Labour Together recognises the need to overcome cultural divisions, but it is unclear they can be bridged. By arguing that statues of slavers should not be torn down but placed in museums, Starmer nimbly avoided a potentially damaging issue. By rejecting as nonsense calls to defund the police he has outflanked Johnson as the defender of law and order. But there are limits to the agility of even the most artful politician. How far will Starmer go in distancing himself and his party from the Black Lives Matter movement? His choice is between a value-based version of class politics, which is the clear electoral imperative, and the cultural warfare of identity politics. It is hard to see how he can regain his party’s traditional base without alienating the progressive bourgeoisie that now forms so much of its membership.

Perhaps Starmer thinks he can win by exploiting what he takes to be Johnson’s mistakes. It is a view endorsed by those who compare the Conservative position after Dominic Cummings’ trip to Durham with that of John Major’s government when Britain toppled out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism on Black Wednesday in 1992. Major went on to lose the 1997 election. Public trust in government has suffered a hit in recent weeks, and compliance with social distancing has palpably weakened. But the world moves on rather more quickly these days.

Before the next British general election, skirmishes in Ladakh may have escalated into major conflict between China and India. Following the destruction of the “one country, two systems” model in Hong Kong, Taiwan’s independence may be actively threatened. A far-right Matteo Salvini government could be in power in Italy and the future of the euro in question. If there are more events like those in the city of Dijon, which last month became a conflict zone in clashes between Algerians and Chechens, Emmanuel Macron could lose out in the 2022 presidential election even to Marine Le Pen. If the pandemic slips altogether out of control in the US, fatalities may reach catastrophic levels. If scenes of anarchy in US cities persist over the summer, Trump may yet win in November; if he loses, he may contest the result. A Joe Biden presidency might continue, under a leftist guise, Trump’s protectionism and neoisolationism.

Any of these eventualities, and others that cannot be foreseen, would change the world profoundly. In this age of acceleration, is it likely that large numbers of UK voters will make their choice four years from now on the basis of an episode, in Dominic Cummings’ road trip, that will be as remote and irrelevant then as the forgotten fracas in 1998 over Peter Mandelson’s mortgage is today?

Undeniably, the government is in trouble. Consistently overpromising and under-delivering, it has dithered unconscionably over schools and the two-metre rule. Test and trace systems have been belated and patchy. The treatment of care homes has been atrocious. Johnson needs to act quickly if his government is to maintain any reputation for competence.

Part of the problem comes from the toxic inheritance from the David Cameron and Theresa May regimes. Regarded by progressives as a sinister authoritarian power grab, the Johnsonian project of reinventing the British state is a response to the broken machine of government left by a decade of austerity. Ousting Mark Sedwill from a position of concentrated power was a logical step in this project, though any success it may have will only emerge many years from now. Austerity has been ditched in favour of a bold Keynesian programme. But infrastructure building of the sort outlined in Johnson’s “new deal” also takes time, and will do little to stop the fast-approaching avalanche of joblessness. At a point when physical mobility is decreasing and society needs increased digital connectivity, pressing ahead with HS2 is not only horribly wasteful but positively surreal. Always pernicious, the Universal Credit scheme will be a disaster in a period of mass unemployment.

Whatever Johnsonism may be, it is not a type of neoliberal economic orthodoxy. The offer of British citizenship to 2.9 million Hong Kongers – widely popular with voters – suggests Johnson’s brand of conservatism is hardly an expression of anti-immigration xenophobia either. The danger for Starmer is that the Johnson government could end up embodying the conservative social democratic values he is trying to instil in Labour.

Paradoxically, the economic crisis may work in Johnson’s favour. Insofar as Starmer has a view of the economy, it appears to be that of the Economist, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal: there is nothing wrong with market capitalism that a few judicious reforms can’t remedy. Like these august journals of business opinion, Starmer’s new Labour has not noticed that the system it proposes to reform no longer exists.

Instead of China converging on the free market, Western economies have morphed into versions of Chinese-style state capitalism. The difference is that Western states are not aiming to dominate the global market but to insulate themselves from it. Greater security against market shocks is integral to the process of deglobalisation that is under way. This may not be grasped by paleo-Thatcherites rhapsodising about free markets. Yet I believe the logic of de-globalisation is well understood by leading actors in the government. Orthodoxies forbidding the state from acquiring a stake in private companies and subsidising the wages of workers are likely to be shredded as the gigantic scale of economic construction required in the wake of the shutdown becomes ever clearer.

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The most intractable difficulty the government faces is not one of its making. There is a reason, beyond palming off responsibility, why ministers have harped on about “following the science”. In Britain, only science has retained any authority. Scientists have no greater competence in questions of ethics and politics than anyone else; but there is no longer any common body of values to which political leaders can defer when trying to legitimate their policies. As a late secular efflorescence of a theistic idea of the sanctity of the individual, values have come to be regarded as being essentially subjective and emotive. The test of what is right, good and true has become personal feeling.

This poses a difficulty not only for governments but also protest groups. Movements of communal solidarity are currently based on the hyper-liberal premise that individuals determine their own identity and morality. But it is impossible to formulate an idea of social justice, still less embed it in society, when values have been privatised. This is also why talk of “true conservatism” – an emerging discourse on parts of the right discontented with the Johnson government – is anachronistic and ridiculous. Intermittent and partial as it may have been, the common life of the past has gone for good. Culture war is not a passing affliction. Like the virus, it has become an endemic condition.

Britain faces a future in which no government will be able to invoke a consensus on values in support of its policies. This country is not soaked with apocalyptic religiosity as is the United States, nor is it awash with guns. If opponents of protest movements take to the streets, there could be a serious threat to public order. But the Hobbesian problem Britain faces is subtler and deeper than suppressing lawless violence. The task is maintaining a fragile peace in a culture of fragments. We are going to have to learn how to live with disorder, just as we must learn to live with the virus.

John Gray is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is Seven Types of Atheism (Allen Lane)

This article appears in the 10 July 2020 issue of the New Statesman, State of the nation