Things can change – and yes, walls can come tumbling down!
THERE IS, literally, something in the air at the moment.
It may just be coincidence but, when I switched on the radio this morning, they were playing Walls Come Tumbling Down.
Remember that? Paul Weller’s rabble rouser from 1985, the zenith of Thatcherism, when he tried bravely to convince us that things didn’t have to be this way.
“You don’t have to take this crap,” Weller sang, adding: “Are you gonna try and make this work, or spend your days down in the dirt?
Well, we all know how that went…. two years later, Maggie got voted in again, and then John Major succeeded her. It wasn’t until 1997 that we got another progressive government.
Today, of course, there’s yet another Tory just been installed at Number 10, and still no end in sight to their dominance of UK politics.
And yet… the sense that things can change is perhaps more tangible these days than at any time since the 1940s.
What’s made the difference is, in a word: Coronavirus.
Covid-19 is our biggest challenge since World War Two, bringing with it 40,000 UK deaths, the fastest economic slowdown in living memory and the greatest restrictions on our freedoms since Hitler was still rattling around in his bunker.
It’s ruining businesses from airlines to hairdressers, it’s fucking up our peace of mind, and doing sod all for shares and credit ratings.
And yet… there’s just a chance that we might – in the end – come out of it in better shape than Weller ever dreamed of, and here’s why.
One: No More Austerity?
Firstly, though the UK Treasury is taking on £300 billion more debt this year due to the pandemic, The Government has accepted that its job is to shell out on protecting people’s jobs and vital services.
We might – or might not, depending on your economics – have to pay the money back at some point. But, surely, we’re not going to try austerity again, given that it so dangerously hollowed out the NHS we’ve been clapping and painting rainbows for?
Austerity is a bonkers idea.”
Even former Brexit secretary David Davis says there’s no appetite amongst Conservatives for paying the money back quickly, adding that a combination of borrowing and boosting growth is the way forward.
“I would be happy to see it paid off over 50 years,” Davis said. “Austerity would launch the economy into so many brick walls it would be hard to list them all. It’s a bonkers idea.”
And just think of what ditching austerity means in practice: at the start of the crisis, it went almost unreported that the Government was writing off £13 billion of NHS debt – which before Coronavirus would have been sensational news.
Remember all those reports, not so long ago, that various NHS Trusts were about to go bust? Well, it ain’t gonna happen now – thanks to Covid-19.
Two: A More Wonderful World?
While we’ve been in lockdown, we’ve enjoyed being able to hear birdsong, goats taking back control of towns and prolonged spells of sunny weather, linked to the sudden absence of polluting particles in the air.
People everywhere have been taking to bicycles to get around and cities across the world have turned roads over to cyclists and pedestrians.
And, with social distancing likely on public transport for months or years to come, the green travel revolution may be here to stay, with long-lasting benefits for our skies and air quality.
When the rickety house starts to burn down, you don’t want to rebuild the same house”
Meanwhile, the government’s climate advisers and a group of 200 companies have both called for a recovery plan, based on green work programmes, to lead us out of the recession caused by Coronavirus.
The Financial Times quoted business leaders as saying: “We must use the recovery to accelerate the transition to net zero,” and that government bailouts should only be given to firms working to reduce carbon emissions.
Speaking on the podcast How To Survive The Apocalypse, futurist Mark Stevenson argued that the pandemic was “quite well timed, in a way,” because it gives us time to think about building a better world than this one.
“(A) lot of people have suddenly started (saying): … when the rickety house starts to burn down, you don’t want to go and rebuild the same rickety house,” he said.
“This gives us a bit of a pause to… rethink where we are going.”
Three: Happier Ever After?
One way of rebuilding the house might be – finally – to ditch our emphasis on constantly growing the economy and start doing things that make us all happier and healthier instead.
It’s something I’ve banged on about before – mainly when endorsing the former Democratic candidate for US President, Andrew Yang.
Yang wants to ditch Gross Domestic Product as a measure of progress and replace it with happiness and environmental indicators.
“(W)hen you say: ‘What do the jobs of the future look like?’, it could be that 20 years from now, it’s very normal to work in a job that just helps make other people stronger, healthier, mentally healthier, helps clean our environment,” he said on the H3 Podcast last year.
Ideas like Yang’s have now moved into the mainstream, with a UK poll saying most of us want to prioritise health and wellbeing over economic growth, both now and in the future.
And on Thursdays, when we clap our carers, we’re agreeing with Yang’s view that key worker roles shouldn’t just be jobs that “pay shitty and… no one respects”.
All of us are going to be re-assessing our priorities.”
According to another futurist, Ed Gillespie, many of us are wondering how we can create new jobs that better support the community values we’ve rediscovered since March.
“All of us are going to be sitting at home for twelve weeks… very much re-assessing our priorities, he said.
“Eighty-five per cent of us… don’t like the work we do (so)…I think you’ve got to give (people) purpose and meaning…. that’s one of the reasons why… in this situation, we’ve seen this massive response to volunteering for the NHS…
“Suddenly, when the wheels come off, you realise that… the things that genuinely make you happy are hopefully spending time with your family… connecting with your neighbours (and)… realising that there’s a purpose and meaning behind a lot of that.”
“This time, we’re all in it together”
Of course, all this discussion about a better world could just be a passing phase, when we say we want change but don’t follow through.
Remember when we all got a bit hysterical about Diana’s death in 1997, or wore wristbands and promised to End World Poverty in 2005? Mmm…
It’ll be more difficult to concentrate on changing the world when we’re back at our meaningless jobs, and the bosses are cracking the whip – and, anyway, I don’t trust the Tories to carry on doing the right things for much longer.
They’re already talking about ending the furlough system, risking a deepening of recession by putting millions out of work, as well as potentially starting a second wave of infection with their hasty re-opening of the economy.
But maybe, in the longer term, we’ll be able to make a better world because of Coronavirus.
Although he warns that “the next 30 years are going to be quite messy as we move from the old world to the new one,” Stevenson feels the depth – and breadth – of feeling unleashed by the pandemic means we could see real change, for once.
‘’(T)his time, people are dying. This time, you’re feeling it yourself,” he says.
“… it doesn’t matter whether you’re a hedge fund manager or a shop owner, you’re pretty much feeling… the same thing: we’re all in it together.”