The strange death of ideology

When crisis hits, seemingly rigid beliefs can be overturned

April 30, 2020
Photo:  Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images
Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images

The premise of drama is that you situate a group of characters with individual attributes and motivations in a specific set of circumstances and see how they respond. Nature is a cruel kind of dramatist. We were going about our ordinary lives, and a sudden event over which we had no control has now transformed them. Each of us is experiencing something new, and each is forced to adapt. But that adaptation is not only personal; it is profoundly political. The virus is compelling our leaders to alter their habits, even their beliefs, in real time.

The last month has brought a global battering of ideology. Proudly liberal democracies are instituting police states and economically conservative governments are applying de facto socialism. In the space of a few weeks Britain has implemented a new left-wing consensus: the government has effectively renationalised the railways, commandeered the provision of private healthcare, guaranteed the immediate future of thousands of small businesses and paid the wages of millions of private employees. It has done so with the near-full support of the right-wing media and Conservative grassroots. The virus gave the government no option but to change, so it did.

This strange apparent death of ideology is all the more pointed for the moment of its demise. Specifically, ideology had not been so powerful for a generation. For two decades following the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, we arrogantly assumed things would never again change. Some thought we had reached the end of history itself. But the so-called liberal consensus was as transient as any other. The last few years have brought authoritarian and xenophobic nationalism on the right, popular anti-elite movements on the left, and economic protectionism transcending both. Blocs and ideologies once again crystallised as the nations of the world drifted further apart from one another.

In this country, ideology’s contemporary pin-up has been Brexit. It has derived its entire force from privileging political ideals over economics. At each step, the UK government has expected the EU to act in Brussels’ economic interests while studiously disregarding its own. The Brexiters promised interventions from the German car manufacturers, then global trade deals to replace our prosperity in the single market, and if all else failed a no-deal Brexit to safeguard our freedom. None of that was driven by the concerns of daily life, but a feeling of our lost and rightful place in the world.

Brexit, then, is the immediate test of ideological fracture. In the short term, it will manifest through the question of whether we extend the transition period. The government will either extend by July—sacrificing political principle for the economy—or it will default to a catastrophic no deal in December. That scenario will crush the one thing Covid-19 has not: our supply chains, which have allowed manufacturers to stock supermarket shelves. Two-thirds of voters, including a significant number of Brexiters, support extending the transition. Refusal to do so would represent a major fissure between the government and people.

Let us assume we do extend. In the long term, the results could be even more profound. Put simply, we may have less interest in symbolic trade deals than in self-preservation.

The first point is practical. With or without Brexit, the pound in our pocket matters again. When our economy has been holed by the virus, a stoical public will not ask to dig further. Before this crisis the prospect of economic damage seemed abstract, fantastical or hysterical; now people will be attempting to salvage whatever remains. We may no longer assume times will always be stable or predictable. We will take fewer risks.

The deeper question relates to our mindset. Brexit’s calling cards of control, risk-taking and a fabled “Blitz spirit” are shedding their nostalgic lustre. In the face of brutal daily reality, sovereignty and standing alone no longer feel so romantic. The last four years were a luxury. The next four will be about survival.

But this is also much bigger than Brexit. We could start to question things not for how they correspond to our belief systems but how they will change our everyday lives. When it comes to it, what really matters to us? We will not be in crisis forever, we may forget or learn little, and could try to return to exactly how we were. But the genie of precedent has already escaped. We have seen clearly how things can change, and how quickly. And yet we do not know how rooted those changes will become. Perhaps ideologies will grow more bitter and entrenched. Perhaps the urgent replacement of ideology with economic radicalism will herald a new pragmatic age. In all cases some will cling to the devils they know, others will want to rebuild the world from scratch.

The fundamental point is this. Adaptability is not a weakness, but in fact one of our key strengths. It enables us to accept new surroundings, overcome disappointments and where necessary, change vital behaviour. And yet in the political world it has come to be seen as fecklessness or weak will. A leader who changes their mind, or changes course, must be a leader without principle. Margaret Thatcher’s most famous line came in mocking “that favourite media catchphrase, the U-turn.” But this crisis demonstrates the nonsense of adhering to a series of policies whatever happens. All thoughts, decisions and actions are made in a specific time and context. We have no idea what will happen in the next moment. Each morning we assume the world will look much as it did yesterday, but can never be sure. When we learn new information, our instinct is too often to resist it rather than incorporate it, as though the world must be determined in our imaginations alone. But people’s lives count for more than fixed ideas.

Ideology is, of course, not really dead. Nationalism and authoritarianism are not going away, and may in fact strengthen. Popular left-wing movements, too, may (we can dream) spearhead greater equality. The question is not what replaces ideology, but how far it changes and in what direction.

Today we find ourselves in a storm and have no real idea when it will pass. We may recall the blinded courtier in King Lear who observes that “as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.” When nature is cruel, humans are frail. But people can change, and change their minds. It is all that has ever guaranteed our survival.