Last week, Boris Johnson stood on a set of stairs inside 10 Downing Street and spoke into a smartphone camera. Towards the end of a two-and-half minute monologue about Covid-19 and the national response to it, he said something striking: “One thing I think [the] coronavirus crisis has already proved is that there really is such a thing as society.”
The words, if anyone missed the reference, were an allusion to an infamous few sentences from Margaret Thatcher, published in an interview in Woman’s Own magazine in 1987: “I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it … They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.”
Though Johnson may well have cited what she said to create a useful distraction among political journalists, what he said nonetheless highlighted something undeniable: that Conservative politicians used to following Thatcher’s example are suddenly having to behave in ways that will be causing some of them no end of unease.
In the spectacle of the chancellor Rishi Sunak’s huge economic interventions and the government’s sudden veneration of the public sector, you can discern Tory shibboleths being suddenly thrown overboard. But things are perhaps more complicated than they appear. Coronavirus will force shifts in policy of a scale no Tory politician would ever have foreseen, but they also chime with underrated things that have been present in post-Thatcher Conservatism for years. When David Cameron was in charge, there were periodic fits of interest in a more socially minded Toryism, and the idea of the Conservatives somehow becoming a “workers’ party”. Before she was waylaid by Brexit, Theresa May spoke about the need for an activist state. Just before the arrival of Covid-19, when all the talk was of big infrastructure projects and helping places in the so-called “red wall”, cabinet ministers were doing much the same.
Of course austerity went on, inequalities were still ignored, and our exit from the EU quickly proved to be a huge distraction from the dire state of our social fabric. But in the midst of a sudden, unprecedented crisis, that is not quite the point. What matters right now is that much of the political groundwork has been done for Johnson and his allies to move away from free-market dogma, and in any case, they have no choice.
As and when we start to emerge from the coronavirus period, I would imagine we will be hearing a great deal about a new kind of Conservatism, and the supposed end of a Tory approach to governing that lasted 40 long years, from 1979 to 2019. This may not be nearly as benign as it might sound: from increased surveillance to the closing of national borders, there are things lurking in this moment that play to the authoritarian part of the Tory soul, and they need be closely watched. But make no mistake: a new political common sense will emerge from the crisis, and it will surely mark the start of a different era.
Two days after the close of the Labour leadership contest, where does that leave Keir Starmer? To some extent, the huge shift in Tory thinking will be helpful: if Ed Miliband’s attempts to shift debate after the 2008 crash were always stifled by the tyranny of austerity, and Jeremy Corbyn’s push left was stymied by basic unelectability,in times like these, a halfway competent Labour leader ought to be able to make the case for ambitious social democracy. That said, Starmer will have to avoid politicking for its own sake and the dire kind of “this proves me right” stuff recently attempted by his predecessor. For now, some of his job will come down to calmly pointing out the inevitable gaps between the Conservatives’ words and realities on the ground, and keeping a close eye on both the government’s propensity for incompetence, and Covid-19’s more sinister consequences. He ought to be good at those things; it would be strange if he were not.
But there is another, altogether more onerous challenge. One big thing is lacking from the government’s relationship with Britain, and it is time this was pointed out. Whatever its policy shifts, the Johnson administration has so far failed to speak to the country as a national community, and invoke a convincing idea of “we” and “us”.
One of the great political tragedies of the last decade or so was the way people on the right were allowed to run away with ideas about the United Kingdom – and, perhaps more importantly, England – and frame them in terms of a crabby, inward-looking set of prejudices. In the hands of so many Brexiteers, “we” became synonymous with a monocultural notion of “the people”, and patriotism was held to be the exclusive property of their own tribe.
The left, particularly under Corbyn, did what it usually does, and for fear of having to come up with ideas of belonging and nationhood that could include diversity and openness, vacated the pitch. The right, meanwhile, developed the kind of nasty, polarising, warlike vocabulary, such as “surrender”, and all that stuff, which the prime minister used throughout his opening months in the job. This, coupled with his libertarian mistrust of the state, means Johnson is now doing things that clash with his most basic instincts, which is why he has not seemed able to speak to the country as a whole.
In an age of mass scepticism and irreverence, and with the UK drifting apart, perhaps no politician could convincingly adopt the mantle of of a national leader. There again, there is a collective, communitarian spirit woven through this awful crisis – and if politics is to meaningfully speak to us, sooner or later, that spirit will demand to be voiced by people who are either in high office, or who aspire to it.
Aspects of our national life are suddenly in the foreground – from the NHS, through all those low-paid key workers, to spontaneous community initiatives that transcend most of the social divides we were told were insurmountable. If the Conservatives cannot turn them into a national story, someone else should at least try – not for immediate electoral gain, but for two other reasons. In the short-term, it could help many of us to get out of bed every morning and face the day. Looking further ahead, it might start to map out what kind of country we might become when the horrors of the coronavirus begin to recede.
On the evidence of the past few months, Starmer may be too bloodless and cautious a politician to pull this off. Maybe his remainer convictions, and widespread mistrust of his party, will deny him a big enough audience. But in the speech released as his victory was announced, there were at least hints of what the moment requires: the elegant recognition that in the midst of the crisis, “too many will have given too much” and “some of us will have lost too much”; the unanswerable claim that “we know, in our hearts, [that] things are going to have to change.”
“So many volunteering for the NHS, millions of people doing their bit to stop this virus and to save lives,” he said. “Our willingness to come together like this as a nation has been lying dormant for too long.” With modesty and humility at first, he needs to develop this voice. Anyone familiar with his party’s history will understand the task, as a matter of instinct: to make sense of this gravest of moments, and speak for Britain.
• John Harris is a Guardian columnist
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