What do wars and pandemics have in common?

When a politician states that ‘there is no choice’, they are either lying or lack the imagination their position requires.

In 2010, the UK was easing out of the world’s worst financial crisis since the 1930’s, under the steady if uncharismatic leadership of Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. As is often the case, those in power pay a heavy price for being at the wheel when economic disaster strikes, and Labour were eased from power by the Conservative pair of David Cameron and George Osborne (despite 44 consecutive quarters of growth from 1997 – 2008, an unprecedented feat in UK history). 

The UK’s social and economic path was then to change dramatically as chancellor Osborne implemented a harsh program of austerity that would have far reaching consequences. It’s possible to debate for a decade the fiscal benefits of growing, or cutting a country out of a deep recession, but the short to medium term social impact is a much clearer choice – only one risks destroying the social fabric of a country. 

At the end of WW2 with the UK economy shattered by the war effort, and in reverse of 2010, the charismatic Conservative war leader Churchill was rejected in favour of Labour’s Clement Attlee. Attlee won the election with the promise of building ‘a land fit for heroes’. Bullets and bombs do not discriminate between rich and poor, and for the second time in 30 years everyone had contributed to an exhaustive war ‘victory’. With national debt at 200% of GDP the UK managed to build the NHS, welfare and comprehensive education systems. 

In 2010 UK national debt was at 75% with a £400bn bank bail-out already on the books, not great but not disastrous. Osborne pedaled the myth that only harsh cuts to local authorities and public services could save the UK from economic disaster. With interest rates close to zero, it was in fact the optimal time for the government to kick start the economy, but Osborne chose otherwise. The results of these ideologically driven cuts were to impoverish the most vulnerable in society, over-see a triple dip recession and for the UK to lose its AAA credit rating (we’ll leave the impact on Brexit for another day!)*. We were definitely not ‘all in this together’ as Prime Minister Cameron claimed, as the poorest bore the brunt of excessive cuts to front line services.

While it is not realistic to compare the economic landscape of 1945 and 2010, it is possible to compute that the country was definitely not in worse shape in 2010. It is the role and responsibility of politicians to find solutions that build for the future while ensuring that the social fabric of a country is not ripped apart during the repair work. As the UK tackles the Covid-19 pandemic, the under-funding of front-line public services has been laid bare.

On one hand their is a lack of testing, suitable clothing, equipment and personnel leaving doctors, nurses and care workers exposed to the virus and stretched to breaking point. The secondary impact is equally harsh, as millions of vulnerable, ill and elderly people are forced to fend for themselves as the service can only cope with life and death situations. A close family friend with terminal pancreatic cancer can barely reach a doctor as his condition worsens and care is consumed by corona-virus cases.

This piece should not be taken as an anti-Conservative tirade, as this is not the time for political posturing. Churchill was the war time leader we needed, and Attlee the re-builder. Thatcher and Blair were both strong and flawed, while I along with many others would welcome the steady hand of Major or Brown right now.

However, regardless of the party and the leader, our political system must be both resilient and compassionate. Without public services that protect us all, there is no social fabric to hold us together in times of national emergency. NHS staff, volunteers and the vast majority of the UK public have shown a willingness to unite that will hopefully live long in the memory – but this is at risk if we continue to stratify our society. 

Neither wars nor pandemics care who or what you are, but they do require a national effort to face down. That’s why we have universal healthcare, welfare, pensions and education – because ultimately we ‘are’ all in this together. If there is one positive that may emerge from this crisis, it’s that no chancellor will dare to make dangerous and ideological cuts to services we need, when other options are available. Lest we forget, there is always a choice.

*By 2015 UK national debt had increased from 75% to 85% (vs annual GDP), after 5 years of Osborne led cuts