And now for something completely different…

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Every cloud has a silver lining. The coronavirus pandemic is no exception, and I don’t just mean a bump in profits for Amazon, Zoom and face mask manufacturers.

The health crisis has sparked a priority rethink. What is more important, seeing family and friends or the latest pair of Jimmy Choo shoes? Who is more important to society: bankers and lawyers or dustmen and nurses? Do lives come before the health of the economy or vice versa or are they inextricably tied? Do we prefer the roar and pollution from cars and planes or the sound of birdsong, the smell of clean air and a sustainable planet?

The list of questions is virtually endless and the answers have consequences for every facet of society. The questions are being asked and we need to start thinking of the answers and their repercussions.

Almost every notable historic event has been followed by major societal changes. The Norman Conquest introduced the feudal structure to Britain. The Bubonic Plague wiped it out. The English Civil Wars set Britain on the path to constitutional monarchy. World War One left America as the world’s number one economic power, landed Britain with a staggering debt and gave women the vote. World War Two increased the debt, created the United Nations and European Union, led to the end of the age of empire, ushered in the welfare state, the NHS, the nuclear age and confirmed American power.

Churchill was possibly the most loved and admired man in Britain in 1945. His leadership played a vital role in defeating Hitler. But he lost to Labour’s Clement Attlee because the people wanted a change. 1945 was a watershed moment. Covid-19 is in the same category.

Most of history’s watershed changes emerged in an unplanned haphazard fashion. The exception was the aftermath of World War Two. During the war years almost as much attention and planning was devoted to the postwar years as to fighting Hitler and Tojo. The result was the longest period of peace and prosperity in world history. It wasn’t perfect. If it was questions would not be asked today.

Post-1945 was mankind’s best shot to date. Coronavirus is another opportunity to get it right–or at least better. But we need ideas, plans, discussions and cooperation. The pandemic is an opportunity to take stock and, if necessary, change direction. But we must not burst forth shooting from the hip with sloganeering sound bites. The consequences of new directions must be carefully weighed and considered.

We need to start with ideas and the talented ranks of the Liberal Democrats have never been short of those. It was, after all, a Liberal peer—Lord Beveridge—who produced the blueprint for the Welfare State. So while locked in self-isolation, exercise the little grey cells with new ideas to deal with economic, political, environmental, international, local, social, educational, health or any other macro or micro issue. But don’t keep your thoughts to yourself. That would be a waste of an opportunity and talent. Tell the world in the comments section after this article or write your own blog and put it up on Lib Dem Voice. Coronavirus has created fertile ground “FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT.”

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopaedia of the Cold War” and “America Made in Britain". To subscribe to his email alerts on world affairs click here.

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  • Yes. We know their is the development of electric planes. Any chance of advanced airships being developed.Some ships are partly engine driven and sail. Do solar power ships exist?Can these ideas be expanded and developed into Industries? Anybody else with some ideas, thoughts?

  • You make some really good points Tom.

    In my experience, our party is far from lacking in terms of radical ideas about how we can build a fairer society and stronger economy (see what I did there), but has much to learn about winning.

    Until we have enough of a core cohort in local parties across the UK doing the leg work to build the base, our ideas may often be co-opted in time by others (given the strength of our ideas), but possibly too late for the maximum benefits to be felt by society.

    For those party members keen to build in their local area at the moment, I would encourage them to get involved with phone banking – Calling with Kindness.

  • Yes, society will or needs to change. Human well being could take over from economic concerns. This does lead to economic changes .The importance of caring for others can bring forth ways to combat loneliness prevent boredom encourage positiveness in life be it the development of social groups ,activities . The development of further tech (robot dogs etc). These not only need trained jobs to produce but people to go and maintain. That leads to social contact and ability to keep an eye on others. New jobs ,new social contact, future direction for economy .A sense of well-being where people can be seen to be needed and looked after.
    Equally Care homes should NOT be profit motivated where ,as noted , Covid -19 resources are not priority.
    Opening up of parks and gardeners to maintain them. Nature in general should be at the forefront of well-being.
    As a carer I try to keep my partner occupied in these times by stimulating the brain encouraging new (or old ) talent into action.
    Yes contact people on the phone, internet and SELL our ideas,policies to others CONSTANTLY to stamp our beliefs on others.
    The party should take note of the new future that is ahead.

  • Katharine Pindar 12th May '20 - 3:02pm

    We indeed need to suggest ways forward that are completely different, Tom, but yet progressive. They need to seize voters’ attention and win their consent, be compatible with the continuing work of our excellent councillors, and be distinctive enough from plans the (reforming ) Labour party will be pressing for.

    Though different, they need to be building on the best ideas which have already been persuasive. Such ideas were for instance those of William Beveridge, who in his report of 1942 described the five great evils he had seen in pre-war society and proposed the solutions that led to the creation of the NHS and social insurance, in a new social contract between post-war government and people. Such ideas are those of the UN Rapporteur Philip Alston, whose post-visit devastating statement about poverty and deprivation here specifically said that the post-war social contract had broken down. (See the new article on his statement posted here last weekend.) And such ideas, humbly echoing our great predecessors, has led myself and Michael BG to propose that there must now be a new social contract between government and people, to fight the continuing, pre-and-post Covid ills of our society – including the neglect of the NHS and social care, the shocking levels of poverty, the inadequacy and lack of available employment, the depletion of sustaining local authority services, and the lack of provision of affordable homes for everyone. With the platform of a new social contract, our party can fulfill all three aims, of satisfying the voters who will be demanding change for the better, of backing up the devoted work of our councillors, and of being distinctively different from the Labour party.

  • Jon,
    Banging on doors, distributing leaflets, pounding pavements and phone banking are essential and valuable political tools. But they are useless unless accompanied by a quiverful of well-thought out policies. We need to do both– develop policies and sell them. The lockdown provides an opportunity to consider and develop new ideas which can be sold when the pandemic ends.

  • We needed this pandemic to refocus on our economy, society and the world. Localism needed a jolt as did community and personal growth. If we can reclaim our locality, well being and spirituality it will not have been in vain.

  • Gordon Lishman 13th May '20 - 1:03pm

    Rather a rosy view, with some optimistic interpretations of history.
    WWII saw a commitment, based on Allies, to some co-operation and rules-based systems of politics and economics. And to Cold War!
    Both Wars saw the rise of the US as an economic power and, post-WWII, as a political power. Does that currently look like an unalloyed good, cemented benignly in place?
    WWI led to economic collapses, the rise of fascism and WWII.
    In terms of willingness to co-operate internationally, do we currently look nearer 1918 or 1945? Particularly in the light of leaders, not only in US and UK, emphasising national exceptionalism, victimhood and competitive achievement?
    The plague undermined feudal relationships. It also increased scapegoating, pogroms, starvation, rootlessness and some murderous civil unrest.
    People are currently valuing some non-economic goods. They are also losing jobs, security and income, particularly in manufacturing, travel, hospitality and tourism. Where I live, the dependence on aerospace-linked manufacturing is leading to major problems. People may value hearing the birds rather less than the prospect of a new job in a traditional metal-bashing business.
    The opportunity for change does indeed exist. There is no guarantee that it will be change towards liberal definitions of better society and there is a risk of the opposite.
    Liberal Democrats don’t need more “policies”. We need a narrative, a story about what’s wrong and answers that work and deliver change for good. Policies may be symbols in that narrative, but they aren’t the story.
    We don’t need Beveridge’s or Keynes’s answers to 21st century problems. In Keynes’s words, we need “a new wisdom for a new age”. Beveridge came from the shared experience of war and a longer experience of class division. As with the Lloyd George reforms, it was founded in communities which understood the capriciousness of risk in a world where unemployment, bereavement, industrial injury, ageing or illness could mean destitution. That isn’t how people today see those risks. They don’t respond as a “class”.
    The shorthand of “Beveridge” misses the reality that most people would say, uninterestedly, “who?”. We need a new wisdom, based on new analysis, understanding and debate and attuned to the needs of the world we now inhabit and firmly rooted in the everyday language and lived experience of normal folk.

  • @ Tom Arms “Churchill was possibly the most loved and admired man in Britain in 1945”.

    Oh no, he wasn’t. His party lost 189 seats in 1945, and in his own home counties suburban seat of Woodford, despite the fact both Labour and Liberal stood down for him, his sole’amateur’ independent opponent got nearly 30% of the vote.

    The Churchill myth came much later……… and his own vote dropped by 15,000 in 1955 even though the Tories won the General Election.

  • David and Gordon,

    Instead of focusing on your interpretation of history why can’t you devote your talents to a discussion of future opportunities. I am particularly interested in the suggestion of a Lib Dem story into which stories can be slotted. But what should that story be in a post-pandemic world?

  • @ Tom Arms A fair point, Tom.

    The positive converse of my comment about the rejection of Churchill….. is that people wanted a different sort of politics and a state based on social cohesion, fairness and social justice.

    I am still in awe of the achievements and courage of the post war government that replaced Churchill. There is much to learn from them and about the role of the state….. to provide the liberal ideal of freedom…. freedom from illness, freedom from poverty and freedom from ignorance.

    I still have memories of what my grandparents (granddad was a miner) told me of the behaviour of Churchill towards the less fortunate in the 1920’s. I suggest you take a look at why the people of Dundee rejected him in 1922.

  • Imogen Graham 14th May '20 - 1:50pm

    People are greatly cheered by the positive environmental impact the crisis has inadvertently had. They don’t want to lose this. Many people have shown that working from home can be just as effective and they like it too. How many new office buildings do we need? Definitely not a new runway at Heathrow and maybe HS2 should be re-visited?

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