Robin Hambleton suggests that Covid-19 is opening up new political possibilities
December’s tensions between political leaders in the north of England and Prime Minister Boris Johnson regarding the Covid-19 recovery strategy highlight two critical divides in society at one-and-the-same time: values and place.
As well as drawing attention to striking differences regarding the values that should guide societal healing, the political conflict is also shining a bright light on the unacceptable spatial divisions that now disfigure modern Britain.
History tells us that when injustice is not just felt by oppressed classes within a society, but is also clearly seen as unacceptable by large numbers of people in particular areas of a country, the political consequences can be explosive.
A lesson from the poll tax rebellion?
Reflect for a moment on the poll tax rebellion of 1989/90. Initially introduced by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Scotland in 1989, before its introduction in England and Wales in 1990, the poll tax replaced the long-established local ‘rates’, a tax related to the value of property, with a single flat-rate local government tax on every adult.
The new tax was not based in even a notional way on ability to pay. Rather it required an individual on very low income living in a small flat to pay the same amount of local tax as a multi-millionaire residing in an extensive mansion. This inept policy was rightly seen by most people as wholly unjust and there were truly massive, well organised public protests across the country.
As Danny Burns explains in his excellent book, Poll Tax Rebellion (1992), the grassroots anti-poll tax campaign drew in a very wide range of voices from civil society – from poor people who simply couldn’t afford to pay the tax, to local coalitions of people who were furious at the cruelty of the tax. Within a few short months Margaret Thatcher was history – she was forced to resign in November 1990.
My point is not to suggest that a similar fate awaits Boris Johnson in 2021, although there are political commentators who take this view. Rather, I want to draw attention to the way that place-based public resentment at a distant and out of touch government can, at times, combine with class-based interests to bring about an unstoppable upsurge in pressure for progressive change.
In his insightful book The Establishment: And how they get away with it (2014), Owen Jones provides a revealing account of the role of right-wing think tanks in reshaping the political discourse about the role of the state in Britain since the 1970s. He explains how these think tanks operated as ‘outriders’, extolling extremist, even dangerous, ideas that right-leaning politicians could then draw on.
He rightly gives attention to the so-called Overton Window. Named after Joseph P. Overton, the late vice-president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, based in Michigan, this window concept claims to describe what is politically possible, or reasonable, at any given time within the prevailing politics of the day.
The window analogy is helpful as it suggests that those seeking bold change, in whatever direction, need to think beyond the development of new policies. Radical reformers need to work out how to move the location of the window in the direction they favour. The chief problem with the Overton version of the window is that it misunderstands the nature of freedom in the modern world.
Following Overton, right-leaning politicians take the view that weak, or minimal, government is superior to strong government – at root they claim that ‘less government’ delivers ‘more freedom’.
To be fair the state does, indeed, limit individual freedoms, usually to bring about significant societal benefits. For example, anti-pollution laws limit the freedom of polluters to ruin the natural environment, and laws banning physical assault and murder limit the freedom of violent individuals harm other people. Clearly not all individual freedoms are good for society.
However, the experience of living through the Covid-19 calamity teaches us that the very framing of this debate about ‘freedom’ is misconceived. Focussing attention only on individual freedom is a peculiarly narrow, even bizarre, way of conceptualising freedom. The pandemic demonstrates, if more evidence were needed, that we are all inter-dependent – we can make each other ill or we can try to make each other well.
In recent months, societies across the world have favoured strong intervention by the state to meet the Covid-19 challenge precisely because they value freedom – meaning freedom from sickness, freedom from suffering and freedom from death.
More than that, there has been a spectacular rise in community-based social caring, with neighbours helping neighbours alongside a proliferation of heart-warming local projects and initiatives designed to help those in need.
These radical shifts in perception of what really matters in modern society suggest that we need a more capacious way of measuring and evaluating state intervention – one that goes well beyond the simplistic question, ‘Is this state limiting my individual freedom or not?’
Covid-19 opens a new window of political possibilities
In a new book, Cities and communities beyond COVID-19: How local leadership can change our future for the better, I suggest that we can build a useful measure of governmental performance by focusing on the concept of caring for others and for the planet.
In her book Caring Democracy: Markets, ecology and justice (2013), Joan Tronto argues that care, not economics, should be the central concern of democratic life. She explains how societies now face a caring deficit, and Covid-19 has shown her analysis to be prescient.
By drawing on the well established literature on ecocentrism – see, for example, Robyn Eckersley’s book on The Green State: Rethinking democracy and sovereignty (2004) – we can add to caring for ourselves and for each other the critical importance of caring for the natural environment on which we all depend.
The diagram at the top of this article presents a way of considering future political choices that steps beyond the outdated framing provided by the Overton Window.
The next steps
Vast numbers of citizens and activists in thousands of cities and communities across the world have already moved the political window towards caring for people and the planet.
In my book I celebrate the progressive achievements of Bristol, Copenhagen, Dunedin, Freiburg, Mexico City and Portland. The good news is that these cities are not alone. The Covid-19 pandemic, awful and upsetting as it is, has already provided an opportunity for place-based leaders to change our future for the better.