Covid 19 is changing our politics faster than we ever could have imagined. We voted for Boris and yet we now have more extreme levels of socialism and state power than we might have expected under a Corbyn premiership. Most of us understand and accept that this is necessary as we enter something like a war footing to tackle the invisible peril. Debates about Huawei and Chinese involvement in HS2 are now forgotten as we focus on this pandemic – a different sort of globalisation.
How will things look once we emerge, sooner or later, from this serious situation? The state will have expanded, a post-Brexit deal probably will still not have been negotiated, the economy will be in tatters. Perhaps we might be looking at a similar scenario politically to the situation after World War II when a massive wartime expansion of the state made Labour’s statist policies more acceptable to the majority, who had got used to living in a statist system.
For those of a conservative or classical liberal outlook, it may be a case of what can be salvaged rather than pressing on with great speed, despite a large Conservative majority in Parliament. Brexit must emerge as the most important decision being made. Of course the decision to leave the European Union has already been made, but there must be no slippery attempt by Remainers to use the pandemic as an excuse to revisit that question. The question of what sort of Brexit we should choose will become a matter of debate though, when the assumptions behind the global economy will be under such scrutiny.
Globalisation has brought the economic benefits of specialisation and comparative advantage. In economic terms, as David Ricardo pointed out long ago, it is a win-win situation. Nonetheless life is not only about economics – and non-economic events such as a pandemic have an economic as well as a human impact. There will be serious questions asked about the world before Coronavirus. People will feel we were caught unprepared – with no self-sufficiency in agriculture, no mainstream manufacturing base of our own, supply chains stretched and exposed across the globe. Then there is that other deeply unpopular aspect of globalisation: free movement of peoples across national borders.
None of these issues are new. Across the Pond they are the very concerns that led to the election of Donald Trump. In the UK, in terms of the Brexit debate, there was perhaps something of a division between Brexit voters (particularly those from the economically-depressed North) and the leaders of the Leave campaign. It must be reasonable to draw the conclusion that while the political class who supported Brexit envisioned what Boris Johnson termed a “global Britain”, what the average Leave voter wanted was something much more like a Trumpian vision of Britain, on immigration, but also on relocation of jobs abroad and the impact of deindustrialisation.
Covid 19 will leave us with a country far closer to the voters’ vision than the politicians’ vision. After such a crisis, not only those in the economically-depressed North will be favouring policies of protection, but so will the whole of the economically-depressed nation.
Are we then on the inevitable road to protectionism with all the economic risks economists hold are inherent to that? Well, first we have to think about the parameters of the debate – Brexit was not just about the economy, stupid. It was about democracy, making your own laws, immigration, loss of identity. Any post-Covid-19 Brexit must take into account more than economics. It must take into account that identity matters and that changing communities unrecognisably through free movement of people not only has an impact on the delivery of public services, but has an impact upon identity.
It must also make us reflect on the economic reasons that people wanted out of the EU. It is very probable that many voters were not so much voting for a buccaneering spirit, but for greater security and that mood will only have grown after the defeat of the virus. This mood, which already existed on both sides of the Atlantic, was recognised far more by Donald Trump than our own establishment.
Whatever questions we may have about President Trump’s style and approach, we must recognise that his brand of populism was far more effective than the Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn populism. Trump is not an opponent of capitalism, but its ally. He has given ordinary people, threatened with the relocation of jobs abroad or the loss of jobs to migrants, hope that capitalism is still for them. It is a sort of “patriotic capitalism”. Trump said he will make capitalism work for ordinary working-class people again and let them have a stake in the system.
In our own country, integral to the global economy, many young people cannot get on the housing ladder and own their own property. Property ownership is a fundamental reason for believing in the market economy – it gives people a stake and helps them realise the aspirations all conservatives know so many people have: to have a job, a family and a home. If a global Britain post Brexit, with the post-coronavirus mood does not let people have a stake, while achieving all the benefits of comparative advantage, then it will not have worked.
Of course an extreme lurch towards protectionism would harm the economy and destroy jobs. What is needed is a rebalancing if free trade, the market economy and Brexit are to be saved. This means a patriotic capitalism, that does have an element of state intervention and support to ensure our jobs do not evaporate abroad and our supply chains are not exposed to global risks. That sort of Brexit would give people a stake in Brexit and actually deliver what people had voted for.
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