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How the coronavirus crisis could change the nature of government and democracy

MATTHEW TAYLOR: Crises can lead to big social change, and this one might too – if certain conditions are met

MT graphic

The coronavirus is now the biggest global event since the second world war. Anyone alive today will remember these weeks and months for the rest of their lives, retelling stories about its impacts ranging from the tragic loss of loved ones to the trivial frustrations of home working. It is certain the crisis will have major implications for many aspects of our lives, societies and institutions.

But why, and in what ways, do crises lead to change? There are perhaps three key factors. First, there needs to be a latent desire and capacity for change which predates the crisis. Second, the crisis needs to reinforce that case for change and also in some ways prefigure alternative ways of doing things. Third, there needs to be a political alliance and a policy platform that can come together to turn potential into reality. Two examples provide contrasting illustrations: the AIDS epidemic of the late 1980s and the 2008 financial meltdown. We can see the importance of each factor and how it is far from certain that they will align.  

In the former case, an existing gay rights movement plus a wider social liberalism provided the background potential. The scale of the crisis forced the most impacted communities and public health authorities to make a choice: hide away and cover up or demand action and fight stigma and ignorance. Eventually, they firmly chose the latter.

Finally, the crisis pointed to clear and achievable reforms – whether investment in treatment and cure, behaviour change or action to counter homophobia and discrimination.

The financial crisis was very different. First, the momentum for change in either the way markets worked or their outcomes was weaker and more contested. Second, people derived different messages from the crisis itself. For some, it was all about the behaviour of rogue bankers; for some, it showed the negligence and irresponsibility of governments; while for others, it revealed the inherent failings of globalised finance. While these arguments aren’t totally incompatible, they tend to lead to quite different policy prescriptions. 

Finally, the prospects of turning the crisis into an agenda for lasting change were hamstrung not only by a lack of consensus, and the tensions between short-term imperatives and long-term shifts, but by the failure of reformers to create alliances or develop popular reform programmes. Most fatefully for progressive change, the left split between the radicalism of Occupy and the unsuccessful attempts of incumbent social democrat leaders to adapt and renew. The beneficiaries of the crisis were not progressives but nationalist populists.

On the basis of this analysis, what scope is there for progressive reform of government and democracy following the pandemic? Three areas stand out.

First, the crisis is likely to lead to a greater emphasis on foresight and planning in government. These are already important functions, but they have rarely been seen as politically salient or a priority for spending. As the public is poignantly reminded of the many people and institutions that predicted a pandemic of this sort and argued largely in vain for adequate precautionary investment, the role of government in preparing for possible futures will be strongly reinforced. In the prime ministerial advisor Dominic Cummings there is someone at the centre of power who apparently needs little convincing. He has, for example, described Philip Tetlock’s book Superforecasting as essential reading for the kind of “weirdos” he is recruiting to the Downing Street staff.

Perhaps the crisis will better enable politicians and officials to achieve something they have been frequently admonished to do by a variety of experts: focus policy on the longer term. If so, an important concept may be that of “resilience”, which has been developed and tested in cities across the world, backed by a major Rockefeller funding programme. Many commentators have already pointed out that the largely ignored warnings of pandemic experts have an eerie similarity to those of climatologists. 

But long-term planning in areas like carbon reduction and climate change mitigation means making difficult and sometimes unpopular choices, a challenge which will be exacerbated by the bleak fiscal position the UK is likely to face after the crisis. The adversarial, soundbite-oriented bear pit of conventional politics is not the place to win complex arguments. Perhaps, then, a second development could be to reinforce the already strong case for the greater use of deliberative democratic methods of engagement and policymaking.

Unlike representative democracy, dominated by our profoundly unrepresentative and deeply dysfunctional political parties, deliberative processes can strengthen trust between governing politicians and the public. And this points to a third post-pandemic imperative.

A noticeable characteristic of the countries that seem to be handling the pandemic best without reverting to authoritarianism – for example, South Korea and Taiwan – is relatively high trust between rulers and citizens. This has meant the public have been willing to accept quite intrusive approaches to personal data, on-the-spot testing, and behaviour modification as a price worth paying to rulers they trust to act effectively.

To enhance its limited reserves of trust and to try to mobilise a divided nation, the UK government has relied strongly on public health experts as messengers. As Michael Gove gratefully redirects difficult media questions to NHS managers at Downing Street press conferences, the idea we have had enough of experts is exposed as a tendentious myth. Yet, in many areas – like testing and equipment – the government has been seen to have overclaimed and tragically underperformed.

The crisis will eventually pass. But whether it is preparing for the long term or exploiting the incredible potential for public good of data and technology, restoring trust in our governmental institutions is vital, not just to the health of our democracy but to our livelihoods, wellbeing and, perhaps, survival.

In the UK, and even more grimly the US, the pandemic has at times shined a cruel light on the tattered fabric of our public sphere and democratic culture. If this crisis is not to go to waste, we need the resolve and the ideas to start to repair that fabric.

Matthew Taylor is Chief Executive of the RSA.