Covid’s slow burn

We thought that the pandemic would transform the way we live—but almost three years on have abandoned its innovations. History teaches us that change may yet come

December 22, 2022
RMT union president Alex Gordon and union members protest at Victoria Embankment, London, London, 5th November 2022.  Credit: Vuk Valcic/Alamy Live News
RMT union president Alex Gordon and union members protest at Victoria Embankment, London, London, 5th November 2022. Credit: Vuk Valcic/Alamy Live News

On 11th March 2020, as Britain came under attack from coronavirus, Rishi Sunak delivered his first budget as chancellor, dedicating £12bn to fight back against the virus. Two days later, Dominic Cummings realised Britain was “heading towards the biggest disaster this country has seen since 1940”—when inadequate preparation and an over-cautious, money-worried government left the country in terrible danger. On 17th March, Sunak committed an additional £350bn to help the economy cope and Prime Minister Johnson declared that “we must act like any wartime government and do whatever it takes to support our economy.”

For a time, the parallel with the Second World War held. As in 1940, years of fiscal caution now seemed a reckless failure to prepare the nation’s defences, from PPE stocks to social care. The state suddenly expanded: Treasury, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) came together and built the furlough scheme at immense speed, and cost. Nurses, drivers, shop assistants and cleaners became frontline heroes. Vowing to “build back better”, Johnson invoked Churchill’s famous 1943 promise of a welfare state “from the cradle to the grave”. Keir Starmer detected a “mood in the air” like 1945, which swept a radical Labour government to power.

Since then, however, it has become a commentators’ commonplace that Covid has not brought the much-predicted 1940s-style transformation of British politics. The days when 4,300 mutual aid schemes flowered are long gone. Now RMT union banners shout “KEY WORKERS BETRAYED”; nurses are on strike. All those heady claims seem hopelessly utopian.

But today’s disillusionment is itself reminiscent of the war. The extreme crisis of 1940 triggered revolutionary dreams of a collective, egalitarian new country; as the threat eased, that fervour cooled, which felt, to some, like defeat. And yet 1940 did transform politics—not in a flash, but with a slow burn, by making any return to the 1930s intolerable. If we could borrow to defeat the plague of Nazism, why could we not borrow to defeat the plague of mass unemployment? The nightmare of 1930s-style poverty overrode the once-dominant nightmare that a bloated state—borrowing, taxing and spending to excess—would trigger economic collapse. Overcoming the orthodoxy, however, required a fight.

1940 did transform politics—not in a flash, but with a slow burn, by making any return to the 1930s intolerable

This month has seen celebrations of the eightieth anniversary of the Beveridge Report, which promised to banish want, squalor, ignorance, idleness and disease with social security, state healthcare, and full employment. It was acclaimed on publication—it sold 635,000 copies—but we tend not to celebrate the huge battle it took to turn the report into reality. Days before Beveridge’s plan was published, the Chancellor Kingsley Wood briefed Churchill that it was unaffordable. But as one Labour MP pointed out, talk of the finances involved made the public smile and ask, “How much per day is the war costing?” Among younger Conservative MPs, the nightmares of the 1930s trumped Wood’s fears. The future Lord Hailsham, then plain Quintin Hogg, warned: “if you do not give the people social reform, they are going to give you social revolution.” The debate over Beveridge culminated in the largest Commons rebellion of the war to date—yet still government caution won out.

The “cradle to the grave” speech that Boris Johnson evoked in 2020 was Churchill’s response—but he made it reluctantly, to try to ease public frustration. Churchill considered Beveridge “an awful wind-bag and a dreamer”, and tempered his broadcast with warnings about cost, inflation, tax and bureaucratic stifling of liberty. He was being tugged forward by the huge public support for Beveridge but pulled backwards by conventional wisdom. Well into 1944, there was wide suspicion that the government “won’t even give us Beveridge”, and that the people would be “done out of things” by “vested interests”, like the insurance companies and their political allies.

In 2022, as in 1942, Kingsley Wood-style fears of financial calamity remain tenacious, especially after the Truss debacle. For some, the legacy of the colossal wartime-style spending that Covid forced on the Treasury now necessitates renewed austerity. But as interest rates rise, prices soar, and homes grow cold, the other aspect of the pandemic remains: the glimpse of a more protective state. Reports warning that Covid exacerbated existing problems are lining up like ambulances outside an overstretched A&E. In the last few weeks, such work from Gordon Brown’s constitutional commission, the Institute for Public Policy Research and the British Medical Association has joined evidence already gathered by Peter Hennessy, the Covid Recovery Commission, the Northern Health Science Alliance and UK in a Changing Europe. Much of this connects workers’ ill health and geographical inequality to Britain’s anaemic growth rate, with Covid hovering over it all as both cause of intensifying problems and spur to unavoidable change.

As interest rates rise, prices soar and homes grow cold, the other aspect of the pandemic remains: the glimpse of a more protective state.

As with Churchill, orthodoxy pulls politicians one way while the demands of the moment and the unavoidable priority of ordinary people’s economic struggles tug them the other. Witness Sunak’s impassioned advocacy of cutting taxes and spending… and his record of doing the exact opposite. Or how it became unthinkable that his government would not raise universal credit in line with inflation. Or how, under Truss, levelling up promises fell away, but the idea rapidly bounced back, along with its cabinet champion Michael Gove. Or the way Jeremy Hunt, in his short-lived leadership campaign, promised to cut corporation tax to 15p… and what actually happened. While it was widely expected that Chancellor Hunt would return us to 2010-style austerity, that now seems politically impossible, with cuts deferred until after the next election. Instead, as in the 1940s, Hunt shifted the burden, somewhat, towards the wealthy, helped by increasing doubts that low taxes really help everyone.

As with the fury provoked by the debate over the “affordability” of Beveridge, Sunak’s cost-of-living payments and Truss’ energy price guarantee show how policies that were unthinkable before Covid forced the creation of the furlough scheme are now unavoidable. We may not talk about “key workers” anymore, but it’s hard not to see the impact of that concept in the increased public sympathy for workers striking against pay cuts; polling suggests there is high support not just for nurses, but supermarket workers. The government argues that the hospital backlogs left by Covid mean it cannot raise nurses’ pay to meet inflation; for now at least, the public, the ex-chair of the Conservative party Jake Berry and even the Daily Express seem unpersuaded.

None of this means that Labour has the next election in the bag, 1945-style, whatever the mood in the air. During the pandemic, there was frustration on the left that Labour did not ape the polemics of the 1940s and fuse the failures revealed by Covid with a decade of cuts and stagnant pay to create a single compelling narrative. Starmer’s conference speech this year did sketch out a story of the last decade as an “endless cycle of crisis”, but the left remains exasperated by his caution.

However, folk memories of the 1945 election victory easily obscure just how maddeningly timid many in Labour found Starmer’s predecessor, Clement Attlee. Seeing no chance of victory, he wanted to stay in coalition with Churchill, and had to be forced out of it by a furious party conference. As things panned out, this mix of radical fire and Attlee’s bank-manager persona proved rather effective. Post-Kwarteng, Labour’s hopes of borrowing to invest might benefit from looking reassuringly boring. Whether the legacy of Covid ultimately helps Starmer match what Attlee achieved in the wake of the war, we shall have to see.