How Covid has challenged political certainties

Photo showing the inner courtyard and facade of the HM Treasury building.
Inside the HM Treasury building.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons under Open Government Licence v3.0

The Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit have combined to upset political certainties. Traditionally, the right is tight with taxpayers’ money while the left prefers to splash the cash. Yet our experience during the pandemic has seen a reversal of these positions.

Who has been benefiting from the billions of additional public spending? How has this policy volte-face affected traditional political loyalties?

Libertarianism is a cornerstone of conservatism: the freedom to do what one likes with one’s life and assets, keeping as much as possible of what one earns and owns, rather than sharing it through taxation. More liberal democratic values favour distribution or redistribution of wealth throughout society, usually through taxation and universally accessible services.

Conservative governments have tended to restrict spending on social programmes, expecting citizens to fund their needs through employment, enterprise or inheritance – the preferred option for themselves – while Labour administrations have emphasised investment in public services, so healthcare and education for example are provided equally for all.

Politics has become increasingly polarised in recent years as voters succumb to populist appeals of both right and left, seemingly leaving little traction for the political centre.

It comes as something of a surprise, therefore, when a Conservative administration uncharacteristically spends apparently lavishly on healthcare and social welfare, as UK chancellor Rishi Sunak has done in response to Covid-19. In November 2020, Sunak said in his economic statement that the government had already spent £280bn to help support the economy through the coronavirus and would spend a further £55bn in 2021.

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But let us not be fooled into believing that he has turned socialist. He had little alternative once it was clear how unprepared UK was for the pandemic and what it would do to the economy. So he did what he had to do: politically it was far better to be perceived as lavish in the protection of jobs than to allow unemployment, bankruptcy and business failures to rise to unprecedented levels. Other countries with governments of a variety of flavours have introduced broadly the same sort of pandemic survival package.

What is politically interesting is that the chancellor has had recourse to the very methods for which Conservatives regularly slate Labour manifestos: large-scale government borrowing to fund social programmes for the benefit of the majority. How this government has actually distributed the money – and how it plans to recoup some of it – is however shocking.

All shades of political opinion now coalesce around an analysis that the post-Crunch austerity programme, if at all justified, was too deep and too long, leaving public services and local authorities lacking capacity and workers struggling economically.

In April 2020 Boris Johnson promised no recourse to austerity. Yet now, even before the Covid crisis is past its peak, Universal Credit is limited to a level on which a decent way of life is not viable and key workers’ incomes are capped just when they have sustained us so magnificently.

Meanwhile, the population can see government ministers throwing borrowed funds to unaccountable and unqualified suppliers of goods and services without the most basic negotiations, contracts or price competition. The chancellor is robbing the poor to give to the rich, especially, we now know, to those who happen to be mates of cabinet members or Tory Party donors.

In other words, the government has surpassed libertarianism and redefined redistribution as taking money from those who have little and giving to those who have plenty. There is no political label for this except corruption.

In addition, while many believe lives are more important than commerce, not all agree. A significant strand of the Conservative government and backbenches is very exercised about the constraints on people’s lives intended to control the spread of Covid-19. This is partly on principle – that freedoms are being limited – and partly that business – money-making, their idol – is being restricted.

Now, though, libertarianism may be creeping into the thinking of the normally more altruistic tendency on the left.

The pandemic has taken its toll on everyone, not only in work and health but also in humanity. Family members have been unable to see one another for months on end. Lovers are separated. Children cannot see or be seen by grandparents. Elderly people die alone.

This situation has been so chaotic and protracted that people of all political shades are increasingly frustrated with the strictures demanded for health protection, not least in the North of England, which has been restricted for so long but has been winning against the virus.

The inhibitions placed on normal human interactions are becoming unacceptable not only to those who naturally resist interference but also to those whose values are social, supportive and mutual, just when a Conservative chancellor is spending like a caricature socialist.

How ironic it would be if resistance to government-imposed rules were to ally the more socially liberal on the left with libertarians of the right; and perhaps even too, the very people being robbed with the robber, in a redistribution of values and restoration of the centre. One consequence may be that tribal loyalties forged over decades and hardened over Brexit may blur into a less binary model, with room and representation required for the socially and economically liberal, all thanks to Covid-19.

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