By Graham Smith
It might be nearly 600 years since Niccolo Machiavelli first suggested that we should never waste the opportunity offered by a good crisis, but his words have never been truer than they are today.
With more than a quarter of Cornwall’s population effectively under house arrest, now is an excellent moment to reflect on how we got here, and where we go from here, assuming we live long enough.
Already I long for the days when the most worrying thing the news could scare us with was talk of a hard Brexit.
It’s like being in a science fiction movie. We have to assume that everyone else is a zombie, looking for the opportunity to infect us with an alien lifeform. Which is not far from the truth.
Some local communities are rallying, with armies of volunteers looking out for their neighbours – while others rampage up and down the supermarket aisles, panic-buying everything they can carry.
Already I detect that confidence in the government is collapsing. We have gone from Getting Brexit Done to waiting, anxiously, for the next sensible piece of Covid-19 advice – but knowing it will come from the World Health Organisation, not our own government.
We look with envy at South Korea, which is testing 10,000 citizens every day, and wonder why our own government stopped testing except in extremis.
Anxious parents look at the Republic of Ireland and wonder if an airborne virus can travel across a school playground. Businesses in the tourism and hospitality sectors look at France and ask why the government there is prepared to legislate, yet ours is not.
There have been quite a few similarities with the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy epidemic of the 1980s and 90s. Do you remember when government scientists kept telling us that there was a “species barrier” which would stop Mad Cow Disease from infecting humans? And then Max, a cat, died in Bristol. The rest, as they say, was history.
I think the Covid-19 tipping point came last week when the government’s chief scientist (below, with his boss) went on the wireless to talk about the idea of a “herd immunity” – knowing that this would involve the deliberate culling of at least 250,000 people, most of them over the age of 60.
It is simply not true to say that this realisation did not dawn on the boffins until a few days ago. There has for months been a detailed argument inside the government’s Cobra committee between the “soft” social scientists, promoting their expertise in human behaviour, and the hard clinical public health scientists, who are much more onside with the WHO and who favoured an immediate clampdown on the virus, similar to that waged in China.
The speed with which things are changing makes the head spin, which is what seems to happen in most revolutions. You don’t even notice it’s happening, until the history books tell you it has already happened.
And so we get to where we are now: an economy in ruins, a citizenry gripped by fear, knowing that even if we don’t die someone we love almost certainly will.
What happens next? I am as is so often the case inspired by the works of George Orwell, who in 1940 tried to imagine what life would have to be like once the war was over. In My Country Right or Left he wrote: “Only revolution can save England, that has been obvious for years, but now the revolution has started, and it may proceed quite quickly if only we can keep Hitler out.
“Within two years, maybe a year, if only we can hang on, we shall see changes that will surprise the idiots who have no foresight. I dare say the London gutters will have to run with blood.
“All right, let them, if it is necessary. But when the red militias are billeted in the Ritz I shall still feel that the England I was taught to love so long ago for such different reasons is somehow persisting.”
Orwell was close to Nye Bevan, and their revolution gave birth to the National Health Service and the “cradle to grave” welfare State, with universal free education and all the rest of Labour’s 1945 election manifesto.
Within weeks from now, possibly sooner, we can expect our aviation industry to have completely collapsed. Covid-19 has done more to reduce carbon emissions than an army of Greta Thunbergs. A sensible use for Newquay Airport, right now, would see the entire site turned over to the production of vegetables. As I write this, Richard Branson is still promising to launch his rocket on 31st March - but regular readers will be familiar with Mr Branson’s promises.
Cornwall’s tourism sector accounts for about a third of our economy. We’re going to need an alternative to tourism. The era of global agricultural trade has come to a sudden and dramatic halt. Cornwall’s farmers and fishermen are the new heroes of next week.
There is a growing realisation that the ambition of some of Cornwall’s public servants, who enjoy commissioning healthcare from the private sector, probably ought to be working in the private sector themselves and not for Cornwall Council or for the National Health Service.
Town and parish councils are already coming under pressure to rediscover the roles they enjoyed in 1945 and start providing more allotments, and community-generated energy, owned and managed by local communities.
The ideas that government should be kept small, or that there is no such thing as society, or that free markets must always prevail, are all now dead. Covid-19 is just another of Boris’s bastards: the inevitable love child of global capitalism.
It looks to me as if December’s general election was very unlucky, for the winner. I remember how, after John Major won the 1992 general election, his government had the life crushed out of it by Black Wednesday only five months later. The voters waited, patiently, humming along to the Spice Girls and Oasis, and then took their revenge.
Covid-19 is far, far worse. If we take the government’s advice, we have a life in which there are no pubs. No restaurants or cinemas. There’s not even any football and instead of Match of the Day, we are force-fed Mrs Brown’s Boys.
This is the stuff of which revolutions are made. Let’s not waste the opportunity.