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Back in June, as people in England were adjusting to the loosening of Covid-19 restrictions, and Black Lives Matter was all over the news, I interviewed a number of young people who live in east London. As the conversations went on, a fascinating question came up: if they were presented with the opportunity to rewind to a time before the pandemic, would they take it?
Most of them answered with an emphatic no. “This world is crazy, and it really needs to change,” said one. “If it doesn’t, we’re all going to get hurt.” She mentioned the killing of George Floyd but also talked about injustices and inequalities she saw on her own doorstep, and the sense that since lockdown began everyone had learned things about the state of society. “This is a time to remember,” she said. All the issues this vivid, volatile period of history had brought to the surface were too important to be pushed back to the margins.
This remains the hope of many people who are focused not just on racism but on other fundamental social and political questions that the Covid-19 era has so starkly highlighted. On a good day, it still feels as if no end of urgent issues are now finally out in the open, something recently illustrated by Marcus Rashford’s campaigning on food poverty. Indeed, the list of once-neglected subjects that are now being talked about goes on and on, from our hopelessly centralised system of government to the uselessness of the private companies that have built themselves into the state. Thinking about what kind of country we ought to be has been part of the Covid experience – something dimly echoed in the promises of politicians, including Boris Johnson, to “build back better”.
Recently, though, the story has changed again. In myself and many people I know, I can trace how our energy and enthusiasm about the politics of the pandemic were eventually weakened by weariness and fatalism. Now, with the news about Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine and the prospect of mass inoculation, millions of people are surely waiting for the return of normality, whatever that is. Huge questions swirl around the vaccine’s efficacy and how it will be distributed. But if everything begins to work, it will open up possibilities that will seem amazing: human contact, restored family ties, travel, the return of the arts, and the prospect of at least some of our current economic anxieties beginning to recede. In that sense, 2021 holds out the prospect of a national quietening.
This chimes with what has happened in the US, after Donald Trump’s four years of misrule reached its nadir with his bungling response to the virus. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s victory did not deserve the instant sneers and doom-mongering voiced by some on the left. But politics is always full of ambivalence, and it is also impossible to ignore what the New York Times columnist Charles M Blow recently characterised as “public nostalgia for the normalcy and decency the Obama years provided”. Biden, he said, “is not so much a change agent as a reversion agent. He is elected to Make America Able to Sleep Again”. This is as much about basic psychology as high politics: whereas Trump tapped into the human propensity for hate and anger, Biden won thanks to the pull of calm and emollience.
On this side of the Atlantic, we may yet witness our own version of the same story, centred not on change at the top but the stereotypical British longing for a quiet life. This, after all, is a country no less tired than America – of austerity, endless political convulsions, the unendingly aftermath of the 2016 referendum – and now of a mixture of horror, hardship and awful government incompetence. By the middle of next year, to still be alive and suddenly relieved of fear may feel like enough.
Depending on the outcome of Britain’s negotiations with the EU, do not write off the chances of a reawakening of the mood that followed the 2019 election, when the Conservative party had promised to get Brexit done and restore politics to a state of everyday tedium, and Jeremy Corbyn’s promise of sweeping change had been comprehensively rejected. It was always difficult to understand the visions of Dominic Cummings and his allies – there was often a sense of “car parks on the moon”, to use an old Gordon Brown joke – but his departure from Downing Street could spell the end of an idea of government that seems to be about constantly picking fights, and the start of a period of comparative placidity.
Meanwhile, Keir Starmer’s decision to focus on matters of competence rather than big questions about society and the economy may deepen the sense of things being put back in their box. If all that initial noise on the left about the pandemic leading to a fairer society fails to go anywhere, it will not be that much of a surprise: the same plotline, after all, defined what happened after the financial crash of 2008.
And yet, and yet … Compared with where we were in early 2020, this is now a different country, isn’t it? The emergence of Black Lives Matter is not the only big change that feels like it will last. The divide between the north and south of England, and the inequalities it embodies, have arguably not been as prominent since the 1980s. The ties that bind the UK are loosening at speed. The impossibilities of the benefits system are now being endured by hundreds of thousands of people who have never had such an experience. Even if some Tories would like to resume austerity, it feels as if the understanding of its cruelties has now settled into the public mind. Toryism itself looks damaged and devoid of content. Sight unseen, you would not think that the Johnson government had only just won a supposed landslide.
Navigating the next period of this crisis will require holding two potentially contradictory thoughts. The rolling out of a vaccine will start to ease our current state of collective anxiety, and the resulting euphoria will be felt by millions. But the reasons why this country has had such a terrible experience of Covid-19 will still nag away at any sense of collective wellbeing.
The future will be decided by which feeling wins out – not just among politicians, but within each and every one of us. As well as the continuing pandemic and an ailing economy, this winter’s other danger is obvious, and perfectly illustrated by a quotation from F Scott Fitzgerald, uttered by the fictional Jay Gatsby: “Can’t repeat the past? Why, of course you can.”
Source: The Guardian
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