Coronavirus has blown open many of the issues contemporary society faces as a whole.
The UK Government has acted radically in the last few weeks. The furlough scheme has guaranteed many workers pay, and a huge effort has provided support for charities and businesses. Yet many have been left behind.
Those laid off have joined record applicants for unemployment benefit, as we look on from the precipice of the worst economic crash since the 1930s. Key workers have emerged as national heroes, but their low-pay has highlighted imbalances in our societal values. High earners continue to work from the safety of their homes, and companies are still paying shareholders, whilst relying on government bailouts to pay their staff. It is clear the government has not acted radically enough.
Yet Britain has an established history of putting radical thoughts into practice.
In 1941, the wartime coalition government began to envision how British society should look after the war. The “homes for heroes” scheme had rewarded soldiers’ service in the First World War with proper housing, and it was felt a similar repayment for sacrifices in this conflict was due. By 1942, three long years before the war would end, the report was finished. Inside was the blueprint for the modern welfare state, which aimed to pool the resources of every working citizen to maintain a standard of living “below which no one should be allowed to fall”.
George Orwell commented at the time that “it is something of an achievement even to be debating such a thing in the middle of a desperate war in which we are still fighting for survival”. It would take 6 years until the crowning glory of these reforms was unveiled with the official opening of New Park Hospital in Manchester, the first NHS hospital. Offering free healthcare to all at the point of use, the NHS remains unique around the world.
Now, in the midst of catastrophe, it is again time to explore bold new ideas.
The coronavirus has transformed our lives beyond recognition, and whilst the number of deaths seem to be flattening, it is clear we will remain in the grips of this crisis for the foreseeable future. It is also clear we cannot continue life as we have.
Our political response must adapt accordingly. Ideas like Universal Basic Income or negative income taxes may help guide us through the economic challenges of coronavirus, but more radical thought will be needed in the coming crises of climate change, creeping automation, and digital insecurity. Political thought must again create mainstream policies from the far margins of political thought.
Many ideas previously dismissed as too radical, or too costly, will become reality as society realigns its values in the face of crises. The NHS was initially rejected by Britain’s largest doctors union, the BMA, who claimed it was a threat to doctors’ livelihoods. 72 years later, we step out every Thursday evening to applaud their work.
Britain has adapted before, Now we must do it again.
* Tom Badham worked with the Cheltenham Liberal Democrat party during the last election, and has an MA in Political Communications.