A new Perspective from Louis Lunts
There is no single story of this pandemic. Each of us has our own story to tell because it marks us all differently. Some of us have stories of struggle, some of anxiety, and some of plain boredom. And far, far too many of us have stories of loss.
Whatever the story, wherever in the world, everyone’s is unique.
And yet I can’t help noticing that here in Britain a national story is forming too: a story about what it really means to be a citizen.
The British can be a patriotic bunch, but in the modern world our lives understandably revolve more around family, friends and colleagues than around the nation state. Given our recent past, a lot of us also tend to have a healthy scepticism towards blind national pride.
But I can’t think of any time in recent history – let alone my lifetime – when we have identified so strongly as fellow citizens. If channelled the right way, I fiercely believe this shared identity can be a force for good, healing the divisions of recent years and eventually helping us build a better Britain together.
To understand how, we must first understand the dynamics that are bringing about this shift. For me, there are three.
The first is our sense of morality.
The threat we are facing is both invisible and highly infectious, which means our success in containing it relies on every individual doing the right thing, even when the danger isn’t apparent. To put it bleakly, one person can take an innocent walk along their local high street and unknowingly partake in a chain of infection that results in thousands of deaths.
The human moral compass hasn’t evolved to comprehend morality in anything like those terms. According to most anthropologists, homo sapiens has spent the vast majority of its history in small communities of no more than 150 people. Our instincts guide us to be good to one another within an inner circle, but after that we’re on our own.
Of course, morality beyond the scope of our own back yard isn’t a new concept. From veganism to volunteering, we’re perfectly capable of doing good in ways that aren’t immediately visible. But these actions are usually seen as optional and there is no sudden need for everyone to act the same way.
The difference now is that all of us depend on all of us, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. We’ve had to expand our moral values to accept that our decisions as individuals shape the future of the whole country.
The second is our changing relationship with the state.
“There’s no such thing as society” proclaimed Thatcher in 1987, “and no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first”.
For better or worse, the doctrine this soundbite espoused – that the state’s role in people’s lives should be drastically reduced – has shaped the Britain of 2020. From lower income taxes to the privatisation of key industries, we have grown less and less accustomed to the notion of big government.
Then along came Covid-19 - the response to which only the state could coordinate – and overnight our relationship with government changed. Within days of the lockdown, the police were enforcing state-mandated quarantine, 25% of the workforce were signed up to the Treasury’s furlough scheme, and 70% of the population were tuning in to watch the government’s daily briefings.
A country that is used to relatively small government is now looking to the state, not just for leadership but for its very survival. This new relationship doesn't just lead to one-sided dependence. It also gets us to engage more enthusiastically with national politics and place higher expectations on our government.
The third is our renewed appreciation of civil rights.
Over the last two months, our way of life has changed beyond all recognition. People have been fined for visiting loved ones, forcibly removed from parks and publicly shamed for unnecessarily travel. And yet, the majority of the British public are still strongly in favour of lockdown measures.
This period has sparked an intense and illuminating debate about the rights and duties we ought to expect as citizens and where the line ought to be drawn between state control and individual liberties.
There is nothing new to this debate – it has been the driving force of regimes and revolutions for centuries (tea party, anyone?) – but most of us in today’s Britain have taken it for granted for rather a long time.
Now that it’s back in the limelight it will, I suspect, long outlast the lockdown.
So here in the UK, we are considering the national consequences of our actions, we are expecting more from government, and we are reviving the debate around civil rights and duties. In short, we are thinking like citizens.
Whether this leads to the betterment or detriment of our society remains to be seen.
Driven by hope, nationally minded citizens can achieve great things. In the years after 1945, Britain’s post-war consensus and belief in big government delivered more than a million homes, sweeping welfare reforms and, of course, the NHS.
Driven by fear, the passion of citizenship can be exploited for power. “Together in Britain we have lit a flame that the ages shall not extinguish”, said Oswald Mosley in 1938. “Guard that sacred flame, my brother Blackshirts, until it illuminates Britain and lights again the paths of mankind.” We all know how that turned out.
Since the lockdown began, we’ve seen both the hope and the fear that collective spirit can bring. At its best, it manifests itself in long overdue appreciation of our true national heroes, including those of other nationalities on whom we have always depended. At its worst, it breeds fear of outsiders and suspicion of our neighbours.
And so it falls to each of us to decide what our renewed identity as citizens might bring in the future. Will we allow it to dissipate when life returns to some semblance of normality, will we allow it to be exploited, or will we harness it to build a better society?
One thing’s for sure. Building a better society starts with deciding your place within it. To that end, we must all decide for ourselves what being a citizen means in 2020.
One of my favourite episodes of The West Wing commemorates Margaret Mead’s words in its final scene. Having just announced American intervention to prevent a genocide, President Bartlet gives his new staffer Will the following advice:
Bartlet: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful and committed citizens can change the world. Do you know why?
Will: Because it's the only thing that ever has.
This chapter of our national story has only just begun.