The Great War and its aftermath hold lessons for the post-coronavirus ageby Norma Cohen / May 11, 2020 / Leave a comment
Comparing Britain’s current battle to stamp out the spread of Covid-19 to that of the nation at war is becoming a common trope; people are dying by the thousands, there is no clear path to victory nor any clear consensus on what “victory” might be.
And, like wartime, this battle is about survival, not just of people but of the state. History teaches that plagues destroy not only lives but institutions as well. The Black Death of England’s 14th century wiped out the feudal system and serfdom which supported it. Successive waves of random deaths are likely to undermine not just the health and social care systems but also entire supply chains upon which the delivery of goods and services, and payment for them, depends. Indeed, both democratic and plutocratic governments have seen their authority challenged in recent weeks. If a state cannot protect the lives and property of its citizens, what is it for? That is why Britain—and every other industrialised nation—is emptying its coffers to fight both the pandemic and its ensuing economic fallout.
In finding a historical comparator, it is not the plucky spirit of Britain during the Blitz of the Second World War which is the proper benchmark, but rather, that of Britain in the Great War 1914-18. Like the current pandemic, it was a war for which the duration and cost the nation was completely unprepared and to which the government was slow to respond. “Business as usual” was Lloyd George’s pronouncement at the outset of war. Male conscription did not begin until 1916, serious efforts to stamp out profiteering and inflation did not begin until 1917 and rationing of scarce goods did not begin until early 1918. By the time of the Second World War, some hard lessons of the First had been learned.
But while history of the Great War focuses on the military conflict 1914-18, much less attention is paid to what came after. The unpleasant reality is that inter-war Britain was a seething mass of conflict between its newly-empowered working classes—union membership broadly doubled between 1913 and 1920—and its aggrieved middle classes, angered by tax increases that were partly intended to relieve working-class suffering.