Updated: Jun 8, 2020
Decades of decline led us here
In 1992, Bill Clinton won the US presidential election, ousting the Republican incumbent, George H. Bush, and in so doing heralded the arrival of a new zeitgeist. He immediately moved to assert in his victory rally that the American people had voted to “make a new beginning” and that this victory of his nominally renamed New Democrats would precipitate a transformation which would ready the United States to face the challenges of the coming century. And as above, so below; by 1997 Tony Blair’s New Labour had stormed to victory in the 1997 British General Election, paving the way for the newly elected Prime Minister to declare that “A new dawn has broken” and that the British public had voted to enter a new era.
These sentiments were echoed across the Anglosphere, and more broadly the Western world. Yet in the final analysis, it is clear that the administrations which came to govern in the new millennium, from the political left and right, far from ushering in the radical change which they promised, marked a continuation of the economic, social and political consensus that had been introduced by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Indeed, the Iron Lady, when asked of her greatest accomplishment, answered: “Tony Blair, and New Labour”.
Culture and Politics
Politics is downstream of culture. Without cultural events of enormity, politics cannot permeate its contemporaneous framework, no matter the number of politicians who promise change, events are the true masters of the course of history. At the onset of the 20th century, when the British government set about recruiting soldiers to fight in the Boer War, it found more men were emaciated than were able bodied, and this alarming discovery, coupled with rising unionisation and the emergence of the Labour Party, precipitated the introduction of the 1906 Liberal Welfare reforms. In material terms these reforms introduced pensions, medical examinations, Labour Exchanges, and a whole swathe of other innovations aiming to address poverty. Culturally too, it had a profound impact, reshaping society’s understanding of poverty as being involuntary, rather than elective.
Similarly, come the conclusion of the Second World War, a communitarian spirit had taken hold of the nation, and the universal nature of the hardship endured solidified bonds of brotherhood which paved the way for the Welfare State, and the principles which underpin it. After 37 years of Labour and Conservative governments observing a steadfast commitment to this ‘Post-war Settlement’, the 1978-79 Winter of Discontent made abundantly clear the challenges of maintaining such a programme in the modern era. In what have since become epochal scenes, the dead were left unburied as gravediggers went on strike, and the government was forced cap in hand to the IMF, in search of a loan.
Our collective understanding of society, of politics and of community was irrevocably changed as a consequence. After coming to power in 1979, Mrs. Thatcher famously argued that there was “No such thing as society”. Industries which were strategic, but loss making, were left to go to the wall. The communities that relied on them were urged to compete in the new free market, and to find their way in the service and finance sectors.
Covid-19 forces a rethink
There has been a popular mood of rejection of globalisation, growing for a decade. This rejection has manifested in Trump, Brexit, Boris, Salvini, Orbán, Le Pen, Wilders and many others. However, the Corona Virus Crisis has become an accelerating agent, serving as the catalyst that will facilitate the paradigm shift which has been long in the making. It was Lenin who once said “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” We are living in such weeks now. The crisis is so extreme, so shocking to the body politic, that the Western conception of economics is being remade on a moment to moment basis. It is no surprise that Donald Trump has used the crisis to highlight his longstanding commitment to “Buy American, Hire American” since it was on these kinds of promises he was elected.
What is more insightful, are the real time shifts being undertaken by the most fervent champions of globalisation. At the first sign of this crisis, the European Union has been relegated to an advisory body, in the view of its members, who in turn have taken unilateral actions to close their borders, introduce export bans, and ramp up national manufacturing. For example, the German Health Minister, who swiftly moved to ban the export of medicines to other EU countries has argued that ‘[Germany] shouldn't be dependent on other nations for medicines and personal protective equipment ‘. France’s President Macron, who was once seen as the French ‘heir to Blair’ has insisted that supply chains must “Become more French”.
As recently as the 3rd of February Boris Johnson gave a speech, which in different times would have been character defining; an opportunity to set out Johnsonism. In it, he declared:
“Free trade is being choked and that is no fault of the people, that’s no fault of individual consumers, I am afraid it is the politicians who are failing to lead.
The mercantilists are everywhere, the protectionists are gaining ground.
From Brussels to China to Washington tariffs are being waved around like cudgels…”
Since that time, Boris has put out a call for British manufacturers such as JCB and Dyson to produce ventilators, as the global supply is choked. The likes of Barbour are busily producing surgical gowns in the North East of England, as China hordes its stocks. Export bans have been introduced for key medical supplies. Calls have been put out for a latter-day land army to pick the Summer fruits.
The supply side dependency of the West has never been so obvious, nor the weaknesses of free trade so glaring. And once all is said and done, there will not be, nor can there be a return to the status quo. The paradigm has shifted, and Western governments are already acknowledging it, be it Macron promising to reform capitalism, or Dominic Raab stating that “there is no doubt we can't have business as usual after this crisis”. Just as with the war, the universality of the suffering is serving, paradoxically, to unite people within the nation. This disease which demands we isolate to defeat it, is ironically bringing people together in a way unseen since 1945.
A communitarian spirit has emerged and will displace consumerism and materialism as the zeitgeist to come. This new era will be one in which supply chains are shortened, the local economy booms and people’s sense of place in the world will align ever more closely with their family and flag, than with any supranational organisation, or private corporation.