The pandemic asks big questions of our economy. Now is the time to answer them.

March 20, 2020  |  By Adam Lent, Director, NLGN

Adam Lent argues we need to start thinking now about a post-pandemic plan focused on building stronger communities and a resilient economy.

As is often the case with a crisis, Britain is channeling the Second World War. Talk of emergency measures, Blitz spirit and rationing abounds. So, with apologies for exacerbating the retro feel, I’m going to suggest it’s time to take a leaf out of William Beveridge’s famous report – the blueprint for today’s welfare state and public services.

It is often forgotten that the report was written in the heat of battle, long before victory was assured. Indeed, on the day it was published in December 1942, German forces launched a major counter-attack against allied troops in North Africa. D-Day was eighteen months away and the war itself would not be over for almost three years.

So even while we endure the anxieties of this pandemic, it is not too early to start thinking about what happens once the crisis has passed. In fact, the Beveridge report was a best-selling phenomenon revealing that even in their darkest moments, the British people can remain hungry for news of a better, future world.

Of course, the challenges facing our post-pandemic nation will be very different from those confronting Britain in the 1940s. Beveridge’s focus was ending the endemic deprivation that preceded the War. Ours must be to create a much more resilient society and economy because if the last couple of weeks have revealed anything, it is our very patchy ability to respond rationally and collaboratively to disruption. A sudden flowering of mutual aid sits alongside sink-or-swim panic buying. Those in secure jobs natter about the novelty of homeworking while countless others on ‘flexible’ contracts plunge into anxiety and crisis. Inevitably, some communities will react with speed and imagination to the challenges of peak infection, others will struggle to find the motivation to offer even the most basic response.

The truth is Britain lost interest in resilience about forty years ago when our focus shifted entirely to becoming globally competitive. Our guiding tenet has been an insatiable hunger for efficiency, growth, personal advancement and material acquisition. By contrast, all the things that help individuals and localities withstand uncertainty and disruption – strong community networks, consensus-building democracy, locally-rooted business, secure employment, supportive public services – have been neglected or deliberately undermined.

In the name of a competitive economy, our world has been shaped by an unholy alliance of a hierarchical public sector harried by productivity goals and vast corporations driven by quarterly profit targets. The ideal of connected local communities built around mutual care and support has, at best, been seen as a nostalgic distraction and, at worst, a block to freewheeling innovation.

A plan to change this by building a new, deep resilience implies a radical shift in economic policy and behaviour that maybe only ever occurs after a major crisis. In that sense, we should resist the PM’s breezy optimism that business-as-usual will soon return. We need to use this moment to build a more resilient economy and society precisely because, even when this pandemic is over, there are many more crises to come.

The increasingly unavoidable effects of climate change will cause further turmoil through flood, fire and, probably, more pandemics. They will also generate deeper economic crises by sucking the confidence out of global markets. Something investors and economists are waking up to even if politicians aren’t. And what will make this so much more challenging than either the war or the pandemic is the realisation that the climate crisis has no end.

So, terrible as it is, the pandemic is also timely. It could give us the jolt we need as a country to assess our fitness for even bigger challenges ahead. If we are wise, we will use this moment to ask ourselves some very tough questions about the type of nation we want to be when this trial ends: a place built on ‘community power’ where people have the security and resources to work together in the face of serious tests or one where we turn inwards, look after only ourselves and vainly hope for the best.

So, let’s keep channeling the spirit of the Blitz if it gets us through this moment but let’s also summon up William Beveridge’s famous self-confidence. Like him, we should start imagining right now a different world fit for the challenges of the next few decades, not just the next few months.