March 18, 2020
Author: Ralph Berry
‘The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.’ Sir Edward Grey’s words, uttered on August 3rd 1914, echo in the mind. The Government has now closed down theatres, pubs, bars, and restaurants in the name of slowing Covid-19. The Church of England followed the same policy unbidden, announcing that corporate worship would be suspended. Social life is strangled in the name of ‘self-isolating’, a prime value which takes precedence over all others. No escape abroad is possible, since travel is prohibited and other countries are in lockdown; Spain has long been enormously popular with the British, and the British Ambassador in Madrid has said that there is ‘no real prospect of having anything like a normal holiday in Spain.’ Each country is left with the task of counting its dead, and the UK experts reckon that a total of 20,000 deaths would be ‘a good outcome’. Should this come to pass, the same experts will presumably congratulate themselves on the accuracy of their formulae. Some of these are however dubious. The move to close schools is absurd, since children are the safest class in the country, and the median age of their teachers cannot be even forty. The gravest challenge is hinted at by today’s headline in the Times by their columnist Daniel Finkelstein: ‘Parliament must take the lead in weighing up the economic and radical trade-offs that will be required in the crisis.’
And that is the real issue. Hitherto the crisis has been seen through the prism of human lives and the threat the virus presents. These are given priority in the State’s policy response. But the economic threat will wipe out the social gains of decades, all of which were predicated on the great god Growth, and growth has silently slipped away from the scene. It is impossible for the West to avoid a great recession, and this will not conform to the optimists’ V-shaped pattern. The essential problem is not the immediate checks on movement, travel, trade. It is the brutal, lasting hit against the rewards which affluent countries have lavished on their people. We all know them, and some are notorious. French railway workers demand retirement at 52-and-a-half on handsome pensions, meaning that their working lives are less than their pensioned ones. Greece used to allow people to bequeath their pension rights to their daughters, provided that they were unmarried. In the United Kingdom, the vast number of public sector workers enjoy index-linked pensions which are ‘unfunded’– that is, based not on contributions but on a promise by the State, which will have to do some re-thinking on that one. The entire life-system of the country is being destroyed to elongate the lives of a tiny handful of people, almost all of them elderly with pre-existing problems. The tribe has other needs.
The Chancellor’s sweeping promises of financial help to distressed people and institutions will dig the State’s hole much deeper. Of course, there are some consolations. Football, corrupt and unimaginably over-rewarded, will for a time be suppressed. Much sport will go the same way. Theatre, now the protectorate of the politically correct, is closed down. The Royal Shakespeare Company is stopped from selling fake Shakespeare to credulous tourists. Gramsci’s ‘long march through the institutions’ will be halted while the troop movements are re-scheduled or abandoned. But this is the end of an era. Coronavirus marks the fall of what Barbara Tuchman termed, of Europe in 1914, The Proud Tower.