The darkest hour comes before the dawn. These are words we would do well to remember, as we are plunged into the depths of the COVID-19 crisis. After the excruciating end to the Brexit debacle (whichever side of the fence you were on) and then the widespread flooding, another old saying springs to mind – that bad things happen in threes. This event, however, feels as though it is of another order – disorder, in fact, on a Biblical scale.
It is apt to try and comprehend the enormity of these events in recent historical terms, particularly in relation to the gradual collapse of the British state. It is one that feels like it may be the penultimate act in a series of sorry chapters – and somehow appropriate that it should involve the world looking on in bemusement and horror, as the government blindly thrusts more suffering upon its people through that combination of idiocy and mendacity that we are now so familiar with. One can borrow from Anthony Barnett’s work in articulating this story, beginning with Thatcherism’s crushing blows to working class communities, moving on the foreign policy disaster of the Iraq War that so tarnished the British self-image, the financial disaster and subsequent austerity, and then the sizeable numbers within those overlooked communities using Brexit as a means to hit back. The inability of our government to cope with this impending disaster – no doubt sidetracked by the obsession with Brexit and hamstrung by a desire to show their new found freedom and do things differently – sums up with tragic irony what the UK has become. Arrogant, ignorant and ailing: the deluded, sickly old man of Europe.
It must be remembered of course, that part of the desire to do things differently with COVID-19 reflects an ideology that is beholden to the market; it can be described either as a reflection of our deeply entrenched neoliberal culture that puts profit above all else, or an expression perhaps of a more classical laissez-faire liberalism that Boris Johnson might want to identify with. Whichever, the result is the same. It’s taken international embarrassment and the realisation that 400,000 might die to cajole him into changing tack. And there may be a sting in the tail here, given the immense powers that have been newly transferred to the state in the wake of the public clamour for action. Johnson may have wanted, in a Churchillian moment, to inspire the population to act in a selfless spirit of national unity, but having done more than most to obliterate any residual sense of a unified, constructive Britishness, that was never likely to happen. And so we must now be watchful in attending to how Number 10 will seek to use these new powers – over such things as arrest, detention and quarantine – for their own ends.
So where does this leave us in Wales? Well, one aspect of the story not alluded to above was the seismic event of devolution under Blair. It was not then, and it is not now seen as such (a process, cariad bach). However, as the UK has been fracturing under the stress of the developments referred to by Barnett, one has come to appreciate how this decision has created the conditions for new possibilities, which in current circumstances may provide genuine grounds for hope.
What has been most disappointing in the Welsh Government’s response so far is that it has not been in keeping with the underlying assumptions of devolution; it’s not just that health, social care and education are devolved, it’s that the whole concept is premised on the idea that Wales is a unique polity with its own people and political culture, who view the world differently as a collective, and have different traditions and experiences to call upon. It is so desperately sad that this last week has unfolded with the story of the rugby game and the Stereophonics gigs putting thousands at risk, reflecting a reluctance on behalf of the Labour government to grasp the nettle and define a response that could have been so different. Unlike Britain as a nation-state, Wales still has within it a deep well of unity, solidarity and community spirit that can help us at a time like this. Given that we live in a nationalistic world – that is, one where most people lay claim to a nation (or nations) as part of their complex identities – is now not the time to use that force for good and mobilise our sense of belonging towards a collective response? Such rhetoric can help to forge a will and spirit to help us through these straitened times, and encourage the idea of self-sacrifice for the greater good. Let us take care of ourselves and each other and do what is necessary to survive, as best we can, during this time.
And in this way, we must look at our response now as a means to defining our path in the future. For how we cope with this disaster can be key in what happens afterwards. It is often said with war that it must be carried out with a view to securing a just peace, and although the analogy is not an entirely suitable one, there is the same sense that we must look at our actions now with a view to the future society we want. This epidemic has the makings of epochal change, happening as it is at a time when a radically different world based on new values is required, in order to protect our natural environment and save ourselves from the politics of hate, bigotry and racism that has been spreading like angry wildfire.
And if one looks for it in a positive way, one can discern the possibilities of a new order emerging here; communities organising once more to look after themselves, radical independent media seeking to assert its influence, serious discussions around the possibilities for measures such as a Universal Basic Income. This very dark hour serves as a final warning that our hyper-capitalist, hyper-globalist, and hyper-consumerist way of life cannot be sustained, and finally – to recall Gramsci’s words – the new must be born.