COVID-19 confirms a shift in politics – but not to the left

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On 23rd March, Steve Baker, the Conservative MP for Wycombe, delivered one of the most important parliamentary speeches of the last fifty years. In it, he argued that the “lockdown” of the United Kingdom was essential for the country to get through the current COVID-19 crisis. He argued that we must all support the government’s actions, but he also gave the public a stark warning.

“Libertarian though I may be, this is the right thing to do,” said Mr Baker, his voice choking as he held back his emotions, his instincts, his passions. “But my goodness, we ought not to allow this situation to endure one moment longer than is absolutely necessary to save lives and preserve jobs.”

Mr Baker’s speech captured the mood and spirit of the British public. We are and have always been, a country of freedoms, of liberty, of opportunity. To have these rights suspended by the state for the foreseeable future in the name of preserving lives is absolutely the right thing to do, and has, on the whole, been widely supported across the country. It has also revealed a deep sense of pride in our national character. Whenever our country has been faced with a crisis, the British people have always stepped up and defended it. This time, we must go further. This time we must defend our own rights as citizens.

The current crisis has confirmed how much British people value their liberties. The chance to have economic independence, personal freedoms and individual responsibility was never a choice made by the British people, it was a demand: a demand so fundamental to our national character that in its hour of greatest threat, the attitudes towards it have shifted from lukewarm to a fierce defence. We have all seen, and felt, what is at stake if we chose to suspend any of our freedoms and bequeath them to the state.

Far from being an idealistic advertisement for socialism, the COVID-19 crisis has shown just how much we all value the liberty in our economic and social lives, and just how much excessive state power can take away from both. If nothing else, the greatest victories arising from this crisis will be that of pragmatism over factionalism, economic freedoms over unnecessary controls, a laissez-faire state over the damage of an interventionist one, and the slow death of populist righteousness within politics. We must all do what we can to get through this crisis, but we must not forget what we treasured in our society before it.

Alongside our cherished liberties, the current crisis has shown the importance of practising responsible fiscal policies at times of “peace”. It is far too easy to criticise a decade of austerity with the tired argument of Keynesian investment that we now see. We must all realise that the economic sacrifices of the last decade, when the country and the world were at peace, are the reason the government is able to invest in a time of crisis, a time of war. If the government had been excessively investing during the times we were not gripped by a crisis, where would the money be for this time of crisis? You cannot spend before you save, and fortunately, the country was economically prepared after a decade of fiscal responsibility.

Arguably, if the government had invested more into the NHS and social care for the last decade, we would be more prepared with ventilators and beds – few would dispute that – but ‘peacetime’ investment on unsustainable levels would have always been a fantasy we could not support when a crisis hit.   

Additionally, the increase in welfare claimants during this crisis, as perfectly reasonable as that is, has confirmed that jobs and economic stability are an absolute necessity to relieve poverty and hardship. Prioritised investment into job creation, principally in the self-sustaining private sector, as a means to produce economic opportunity is another axiom this crisis has confirmed.

The final shift in politics from COVID-19 has been to accelerate the decreasing importance of Jeremy Corbyn’s voice on the political stage. Far from being formed in the same mould as socialist Clement Attlee, Corbyn’s assertion that Labour must reject a national government simply shows that, once again, he does not have the best interests of this country at heart.

The first tenet of leadership is being able to work constructively with those that you disagree with, and Mr Corbyn has proven that his detestation of the Conservatives is more important than the pride in his country. That is, of course, based on the assumption that the Conservatives would want Labour in a government of national unity – after all, united parties with an eighty-seat majority rarely struggle to govern.  

Matthew Whiteley

Image: Wikimedia Commons.