Will UK politics ever be ‘business as usual’ again?

(Photo: The Atlantic)

By Alex Meredith – Contributor 

Nearly a month since the lockdown was introduced in the UK, there is a growing sense of realisation, that the impact of the Coronavirus will permanently change our politics and how we live our lives going forward. Even when the lockdown begins to be lifted (still unknown as to when the time will come at this stage), social distancing would likely remain a matter for the foreseeable future, not least until a vaccine has been confirmed. Many reports and suggestions from leading scientists and experts at the University of Cambridge, have made hundreds of suggestions into how ordinary Brits would perhaps live their lives when life begins to return to normal. The most prominent ones being people having to walk around parks in clockwise directions, the use of tongs when shopping, people waiting in their cars at GP appointments to be called forward inside, and music being turned off in shops so that there is no requirement for close contact for communication.

It is certainly difficult to cast our minds back to the start of the year, when politics was, as Andrew Marr put it, ‘on the verge of returning to normal’. Now that Brexit infighting was over and the 2019 general election produced a majority government, which had put an end to the previous few years of coalition chaos and weak government, there seemed to have been a strong sense of normality being restored within the UK and certainly within its political system. Only the challenge of how to leave the European Union was the primary focus of the UK government, and the path seemed to be sufficiently paved out following the official departure on the 31st January and the preparation for trade talks on the future relationship to take place. Even though Coronavirus was a confirmed global problem, much of Europe at the time seemed relatively at ease and it was back to the ordinary day to day running of political life for the upcoming few weeks, until cases began to spread across the UK and Europe, leading to action being taken on governments to do more and prioritise this issue, therefore putting Brexit negotiations aside. This was another significant challenge posed within such a short space of time, which would inevitably present a major political crisis. The only difference with the Coronavirus pandemic was that it was a political crisis equally problematic for the rest of the world, and not simply a domestic political issue unlike Brexit.

Yet, unlike the political dissent that the UK experienced last year, with a divided country, a divided Parliament, and no clear end in sight up until the general election; the Coronavirus has ultimately unified the nation, and indeed the world as a whole. This is in achieving the prime goal of defeating the virus, and life returning to as close to normal as possible. Of course, there are differing ways in which countries have taken these measures. Whether it is mass testing in Germany, a total lockdown in Italy, closing the borders in Russia, or Trump pointing the finger at China and the World Health Organisation (WHO), the ultimate end goal remains the same in defeating a hidden enemy, that has infected more than two million people globally, and resulted in more than 200,000 worldwide deaths at the time of writing.

This time last year however, politics in the UK was at a completely different level of crisis compared to right now. The centred issue a year ago was focussed on the nature of leadership within a Parliament that was evidently divided on the single biggest issue of Brexit. People on both sides of the argument were angry, and democracy in itself looked dead and buried at the time as people raged that Politicians were ignoring the will of the British people. Yet despite this political dissent, the outrage, the infighting, and the division, it can be argued that the overall impacts of these issues were primarily focussed on the inner Political sphere, business leaders, and political analysists, scientists, and academics. Whilst there was certainly a vast amount of media coverage over the issue that ignited the opinions of ordinary people and created heated rows amongst friends, families, as well as the use of social media, it was a lot easier to escape from it and live lives as normal in the way that lives have always been lived. Schools were still open, people were able to go and work (along with employment being at its highest level), venues such as restaurants, playgrounds, cafes, bars, pubs, clubs, gyms and leisure centres etc. continued to remain open, and thus police were not out issuing fines or dispersing gatherings for breaking current government guidelines that were virtually unthinkable less than a year ago.

These outlined liberties are ones in which for generations, Europeans alike have taken for granted as we are shifting into a post materialist world. In more normal times, the state plays little to no intervention whatsoever in the lives of ordinary citizens or the economy. Such ideas would virtually be unheard of not too long ago if anyone was to suggest that these current measures would be introduced anytime soon. Only would we see such measures taking place in more authoritarian countries such as China, in which the importance of a centralised, one-party state contradicts western values and key liberties. Yet the coronavirus has shown that such measures are no longer extinct from western societies on any scale, and even long after the pandemic is defeated, there is no question that these liberties could be restrained for many more decades to come. However, these restrictions appear to be overwhelmingly accepted by the public across many countries, as they have been exposed to greater levels of cases and infections (e.g. only three percent in France think the measures are too strict according to a BVA poll), and an addition are more likely to emerge out of this pandemic as closer communities having worked together to help defeat the virus. This will also come with a government that increasingly recognises how important it is that the NHS is properly funded and well looked after, not least that the Prime Minister himself experienced the full experience of intensive care and had two nurses stay by his bedside all night just in case.

In addition, the coronavirus pandemic has decreased the significance of Brexit within mainstream political society. As such, it is only being discussed in context as to whether the UK will extent the transition period in 2021, as the initial unlikely success of the negotiations appear impossible given that both the UK and the EU have concentrated their efforts in defeating the Coronavirus. However, the UK government has officially rejected calls from the IMF to extend the transition period. Despite the EU bargaining hard for an extension, whether it will be agreed is highly unlikely. Repeated calls for an extension are not resonating whatsoever with governmental officials or indeed ardent Brexiteers at this moment. The talk of Brexit has long transformed into near non-existence as Covid 19 continues to revolutionise British politics.

To conclude, politics will change for good as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic. Even if the lockdown begins to relax in the coming weeks or months, the issue of how post Coronavirus Britain will function, would likely be at the forefront of future political debate, impacting our domestic and international transformation. Could this pandemic strengthen the right-wing case that the values of liberalism, globalisation, and openness, have been a coherent failure, and thus a shift from international institutions to the nation state and closed borders would be the only solutions? Could the state inevitably become more Hobbesian and authoritarian in character as people increasingly seek action from the government in times of crisis? Could remote working and teaching become the new norm? Will at least some form of social distancing remain in place forever? Will the government finally realise that it is beyond crucial that our NHS is properly funded as well as rolling back privatisation and never selling it off? These are just some of the most prominent political questions being asked about the future of Britain and its politics, once there is finally a shift from the Coronavirus pandemic.

We must therefore prepare for a stark contrast in the way we live our lives prior to the spread of the pandemic, which would likely remain in place for the foreseeable future. Politics in Britain will therefore not return to business as normal anytime soon, at least for generations to come.

 

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