Oxford, 15 May 2020. I have an admission to make. Today I read through a copy of The Spectator for the first time. Of course it’s possible that I glanced at it occasionally before, somewhere over the last 50 odd years. But I don’t think in any serious manner.
Because in the past I would have dismissed the magazine without a second glance. As a publication which is unashamedly Tory in outlook, it was not on my list of preferred reading material. Yet now, as a freelance journalist with lockdown time on my hands, reading good writing has become more important. And the Covid-19 pandemic has blocked many of the diversionary activities I would normally have undertaken, giving me more spare time than ever.
So …. The Spectator. There is without doubt some good writing in it, something I can always appreciate. And I have probably reached the age where I am free to believe that quality trumps all when it comes to content.
No doubt some of my friends will be shocked by this admission. Because although never a member of a political party, I have generally tended to be liberal in outlook. And having spent some 30 years in a trade union, some of it at quite high level, reading a patently blue-tinted Tory magazine would seem not quite manly!
But Covid-19 has changed many things, one of which is my outlook. I no longer automatically feel the need to claim that the government (usually a Conservative one) is wrong, a professional hazard which has driven much of my past. I no longer believe that change will necessarily be any better. The pandemic has brought me, like many people, to understand that there are more important issues to consider.
I find the left/right oppositional party loyalties that have characterised UK politics for so long as nothing more than tribal chest-thumping. And being forced to choose between free markets or outright socialism is simplistic and a huge waste of time. This virus outbreak has forced me to realise that intellectual capacities regardless, we remain merely an animal species, prey for a virus that picks out the weakest.
This realisation of our vulnerability is shocking in itself. It is a game-changer for me, and I believe for society itself. I am not sure that we will ever go back to the free and easy ways of our old world. We will try, and perhaps for a while we may appear to succeed. But the innocence of the 1960s and 1970s is gone, as is the selfishness of the naughties.
It is likely we will return to a new kind of normal. One that perhaps has more in common with the first part of the twentieth century than the twenty-first. Where economic activity will be more limited, not only from the post-Covid recession, but also because many have seen how the lockdown improved our environment.
But the consequences will also be palpably greater inequality, a society more divided than ever. Community organisations will become more important. Some of the partnerships set up to help others in the peak of the crisis could endure, given sufficient motivation. The fact that 750,000 people volunteered to help the NHS during the peak of Covid-19 proves that a strong sense of public spiritness still characterises British life, one of the few positive aspects of this crisis.
But it will take time to understand the new reality. Since people have short memories, it is likely to take a third or fourth coronavirus outbreak at some point in the future before we begin to face up to the challenges properly.
By that time, it is possible that more people could be living monitored and controlled lives, subject to the kind of social control acceptable to date only in countries like China and South Korea. The days of my youth, of disappearing for weeks at a time with a cheery ‘see you when I get back’, I fear have gone.
For UK politics such changes will bring more uncertainty. As we change our behaviour, so are political views likely to diverge. Traditional conservatism may remain a bastion for some, but in the longer term it is likely that a broader outlook will become necessary.
Who knows then what changes and alliances may emerge. The initial suspects may be Green, but if future virus outbreaks are as severe as Covid-19 or worse, it is possible that religion could return to play a part in our lives again.
In that respect perhaps, Covid-19 may be ushering in the real theme for the 21st century, one in which the human race knows its own bounds.
© Philip Hunt, 2020.