John Gloster-Smith takes us back in time to show how history is telling us that the self centred, present system is not geared for the current crisis.

The impact of the Coronavirus is a shock to the conventional wisdom of political and economic thinking of the last few decades in a number of European countries, that of neoliberalism. Many people are now saying that surely out of this pandemic must come new thinking about how we manage our affairs. It is often the case that such major traumatic events shake the foundations of thinking and enable new forces to emerge. This is in part because the upheaval is a wake-up call, a questioning of how things have previously been done. In the UK, as terrible events unfold, it is instructive how the predominant system is being found to be wanting. A glance at the UK’s history can give us useful reminders of how prevailing thinking can limit a country’s response to a major traumatic event and thus potentially lead to new forces emerging that question the foundations of current conventional wisdom.

19th Century British Liberalism and the Irish Famine

Studying the policies that have operated prior to the current health emergency in the UK, I’m curiously reminded of the Great Famine in Ireland of 1845-9 and how the British government responded. The whole of Ireland at the time was part of the UK, formalised recently by the Act of Union of 1801. The Famine fundamentally tested that union and found it wanting. One way that the Union failed to serve Ireland’s needs was the response of the Whig government from 1846. The terrible story of the famine is in part that of the yawning gulf between Protestant British and Catholic Irish perceptions of the situation, at one level very misguided, at another outrageous, depending on one’s ability to retain historical detachment!

Ideology trumped the human need of the starving masses. Thus, for example, the route to help was via the workhouse system of the New Poor Law, a system introduced after 1834 and deliberately designed to encourage personal endeavour and “self help” and discourage people from seeking help. Moreover, there was actually in many cases plenty of food, but it was exported, mainly to England. The English were incapable of regarding the crisis other than through a very inappropriate English liberal and ideological prism. One million died during the Famine and another million emigrated. The trauma of the Famine then drove the Home Rule and independence movements that emerged in the mid-19th and early 20th Centuries.

The prevailing ethos of neoliberalism since Thatcher

When we come to today’s debacle, we do of course have an emergency that many countries are struggling with. However, in the UK context, we have a system in which the state has been steadily downgraded since Mrs Thatcher’s premiership between 1979 and 1990, partly because the state has been regarded as destructive of individual freedom and enterprise, and partly because of the desire to reduce taxes. Instead private enterprise has been encouraged to fill the need. In addition we have had the response to the 2008 financial crisis and the belief that government spending should be cut in consequence, and thus “austerity” was born. Many on the right saw this as restoring Victorian liberal values, and hence has been dubbed “neoliberalism”.

This neoliberal system is now visibly falling apart under the weight of the crisis. I’m reminded of just how much the National Health service (NHS) has been degraded under Conservative regimes since 2010 and, for example, instead of functioning at 85% capacity to give them the margin to deal with crises, for the last 10 years NHS hospitals, under intense pressure from an austerity-driven Treasury to demonstrate their “efficiency”, have been forced to operate at 95% capacity. Now some hospitals are close to having to decide who to give life support to. The economic, let alone human, absurdity of this should be plain: the drive for “savings” produces a situation where we have a massive fall in GDP, with long term consequences especially for the poor, who usually suffer the consequences, simply in order to address the emergency. Thus can the laissez faire-driven Whig response of 1846 also seem absurd in today’s eyes, that is if you are not wedded and glued to the fantasies of the Right such as the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Another example is how the British failed to join an EU initiative to obtain desperately needed ICU beds, despite officials being earlier involved in discussions. It was put down to “communication” issues, but many think that Brexiter ideology trumped humanitarian common sense. A further example is that just when there’s a massive surge in demand for help due to an enormous increase in unemployment, people are being forced on to the new Universal Credit system, devised in his wisdom by that arch-Brexiter Ian Duncan-Smith partly as an incentive to the poor to “take responsibility” for their situation, in other words discourage what he and his Free Market fellow travellers had dubbed a “benefits culture”. Here are echoes of the 1834 Poor Law mentality.

Yet another example is the so-called “social care” system for the very old, a now largely privately-run operation dependent on a very badly paid, ill-qualified and very demoralised army of helpers, now taking “care” of the most vulnerable sector of the population in this crisis. The social care system is widely regarded as on the verge of collapse. Furthermore, such has been the belief in “enterprise” that there is a very large section of the working population who work in the “gig economy” under zero hours contracts, theoretically self-employed but actually at the ruthless beck and call of poorly paying bosses who have displayed a remarkable level of disinterest in these people. This is reminiscent of the disinterest of the English “absentee landlords” who so heartlessly evicted their utterly broke and starving Irish tenants. Gig economy workers in the UK are now very vulnerable.

Coronavirus blows neoliberalism apart

This is the Free Market system that is somehow supposed to cope with the greatest health and economic crisis of modern times. An Irish reader might experience more than a touch of schadenfreude in reading these words, as might other Celts. Yet, from perhaps a more objective perspective, government is now being called upon to perform a massive volte face in policy terms in order to manage the crisis. Back has come the “big state” of war and post-second world war Britain, much though many dislike the wartime analogy. The state as payer of last resort is effectively paying the wages of much of the population, leading to speculation that a universal basic income could after all be possible in the future. Companies are receiving subsidies to keep them in business. The railways are effectively largely nationalised. The national debt is about to see a massive surge, again a wartime reminder. The NHS is having huge sums thrown at it to cope with the ballooning surge in ICU demand. Now people are standing outside their homes each week applauding the sterling efforts of NHS staff and public and care sector workers in general. Not long ago there was talking of privatising the NHS.

From emphasising individual effort and enterprise, we are now being exhorted to think of others, to show compassion, to collaborate, to contribute, to volunteer. Suddenly there’s a realisation that “we are all in this together”, that a virus is no respecter of social class or degree of wealth. For the party in power, just elected on a largely neoliberal ticket, this is an enormous challenge, to move from a laissez faire to an interventionist culture. Suddenly too, the arguments over Brexit look strangely irrelevant. Yet, for those who are not so attached to the dogma of neoliberalism, there is perhaps a golden opportunity to reinvent our social, economic and political beliefs for a brave new world where the values of humanity in general, of caring, compassion and love are in the end far more important that the very unequal and heartless world we were being invited to believe in just a few shorts weeks ago.

Rather as after the two 20th Century World Wars, many people are saying that something fundamental has to change. Thus can major events bring about a change in the political dispensation. As the Irish poet W B Yeats wrote of the Easter Rising in 1916 that finally triggered the ejection of the British from most of Ireland, “All is changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born” (“Easter 1916”, by W B Yeats).

John Gloster-Smith
John Gloster-Smith is a graduate of Oxford University, a former Director of History and Politics at Mill Hill School, London, and a facilitator and coach in professional and personal development, working often at the heart of UK government. He is now largely retired, lives in South-west France and writes on politics and personal development. John's personal blog is https://johngspoliticsblog.org/about/

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