After coronavirus, what's Left?

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  • The battle has begun for the post-Covid legacy, deciding what's going to change. The left and progressives are first to engage. Think tanks are on manoeuvres.
  • A new publication from the Common Weal campaign group draws together progressive themes, with some tensions between the global and local.
  • With politics and economics in flux, Holyrood party manifestos will soon be in preparation, so this is a key moment to influence both the parties and the policies that will shape Scotland's future.

Much will surely change when Covid-19 is eventually seen off, some of it necessitated, much of it by choice. So the shape of the future economy is up for grabs.

There's a battle to be fought on the right, where Conservatives used to be fiscally conservative. Before the pandemic, Boris Johnson was already breaking with the George Osborne strictures on getting the deficit down and reducing debt. It was that former chancellor's choices that defined the British public sector through the past decade.

Johnson wants us to see his government as a clean break with that past. He seems to exhibit a limited grasp of the Thatcherite strand of Tory thinking, that says the state should have its frontiers rolled back where the market can allocate resource more efficiently.

His time as mayor of London, and his promises to intervene in the economy to 'level up' neglected parts of England with big spending on infrastructure, tells us that he's not the political heir of George Osborne or Margaret Thatcher

So what happened to the Thatcherites? Most were too busy with Brexit. And they came to dominate Conservatism so much that they lost her radical, impatient, outsider's edge.

Image caption What became of the Thatcherites who came to dominate the Conservatives?

But with Brexit 'done', they can now contemplate the wreckage where Osborne had sought to bring order, with an extraordinary rise in both debt and deficit due to the pandemic crisis.

Expect a lively debate over the Right's "right way" to get both down, how it can align itself with the public appreciation of NHS heroism, and whether taxes should take more of the strain than they did after 2010.

At Westminster, they have the luxury of time to debate the issues. They're secure to the end of 2025. Not so the Scottish Tories, who have to make a call later this year as to whether they campaign on saying 'no' to further tax increases at Holyrood, with the likely consequence of significant spending cuts.

Resilience

What of the Left? It seems to have got the debate started a bit faster. As one campaigner told me, they've long talked up the prospects of crisis, and seen that as their opportunity. That it's arrived with thousands of deaths is unwelcome. Nevertheless they now have their crisis, and with a reset of politics and the economy under way, this is their opportunity.

Common Weal calls itself a "think and do tank" bringing together Scottish social, economic and environmental campaigners, which is soon to publish an agenda for change called 'Resilience Economics'. Today, it offers up a taster menu.

Resilience is a word that's become fashionable across business planning, and features in Scottish government jargon when more hospital beds or winter road gritters are required.

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It's found in international development, describing the requirements of poorer societies to be able to withstand shocks and downturns when their finances are precarious and public services often fragile.

That precarious and vulnerable quality of many lives is also being addressed in the Scottish version of economic resilience. The priority it sets is to reduce inequality, to raise democratic participation, community cohesion and public trust, while aiming for quality public infrastructure. Not much to ask, then.

'De-globalisation'

The critique of market economics is a familiar one. So moving swiftly on, what is its alternative? It's based around social outcomes, where the economy is there to produce useful goods and services.

It seeks to address the unresolved problems of the financial crash more than a decade ago, by turning the banks towards service of the economy (they would argue that's where they've got to anyway, though not in a way these authors would recognise). Common Weal wants to reduce the extent to which debt feeds dependence.

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Image caption Donald Trump's aversion to globalisation is a lot less internationalist than the Common Weal wishes to see

This is a notably green prospectus, in favour of a circular, recycling economy, with more sharing (think car clubs, for instance) requiring less acquisition. Regeneration is one key word, replacing the extraction of profit and value for people elsewhere.

Where it finds the greatest internal tensions is where it calls for a 'de-globalisation' at the same time as increasing internationalism. Other forces are hard at work on de-globalising, most prominently the occupant of the White House, but the outcome he seeks is a lot less internationalist than Common Weal wishes to see.

'Tricky mix'

Where there are also tensions are in public management of not only health, education and justice, but also transport communications, energy, land, food and housing. This is "non-optional consumption", and the model suggests fewer options for the individual on how they consume it. The answer is ambiguous about the link between management and public ownership.

But state control at that scale looks like it is in tension with the push for greater decentralisation. It's tricky to mix state control with this programme's intention of building up local 'wealth management', which seeks to retain the spending within a community so that it also benefits from recycling it through local households and enterprises. I wrote about that recently.

Is this the right programme for Scotland? Well, Common Weal thinks so. With natural resources in abundance, from wind power to timber, quality food and its education and skills base, "there is probably no country in Europe better able to move swiftly to a resilient economy approach or deliver better outcomes for its citizens than Scotland". That's a big claim. It indicates that UK policy is a block to achieving this, so we're back into familiar terrain of the independence debate. Expect to hear more about it.

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Image caption Scotland has natural resources in abundance

Indeed, expect to see more of this positioning ahead of the May 2021 election at Holyrood. There will be a battle to influence the manifestos put before the electorate, and particularly that of the SNP.

Its thinking about the route from re-start to recovery of the economy is being informed by its own appointed think-tanks. The Just Transition group met recently, its minutes published this week, showing that a discussion of public ownership was closed down by preference for regulation of the market.

While there's a Council of Economic Advisers, Benny Higgins - a former banker - is the more mainstream choice as chair of the Scottish government's advisory group on economic recovery. Expect to hear more from him soon. There are some eyebrows raised that three such St Andrew's House committees are running in parallel. Perhaps, they're on a crash course.

Meanwhile, 80 people and groups - charities, campaigns and trade unions - signed up to an open letter published at the weekend, that pushes the first minister to take a more radical approach to a fair and sustainable economy post-pandemic.

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Image caption The aftermath of the pandemic is an opportunity for the Left and the Right

They want re-distribution of wealth, more resource to reduce carbon emissions and an emphasis on human rights with an international outlook.

The Jimmy Reid Foundation, named after the shipyard shop steward, added its own contribution on Monday. It brought a reminder that the aftermath of a crisis is an opportunity for Right as well as Left, and after the financial crash, that led to years of public spending cuts. They don't want that to happen again, obviously.

Strongly influenced by trade unions, they're drawing lessons from the current crisis: making the case for public manufacturing of protective equipment for health workers and control of the pharma industry: removing the profit motive from public transport: appreciating civil servants more: taking the crisis in university budgets as an opportunity to gain some form of democratic or community control of higher education. This is not a manifesto for the consumer or the individual, unless you think trade union interests can be aligned with both.

Post-pandemic

So the think tanks are on manoeuvres to shape the future. And meanwhile, there are those who make a living out of predicting it. A book is published today, having been speedily compiled by someone with a title I covet of 'global futurist and foresight director'.

Aftershocks and Opportunities, offers "scenarios for a post-pandemic future", fictional, hopeful and dystopian.

Just as many have returned to their home or home country at the start of lockdown, there's an argument that we will return to our roots: Also that contrary to conventional new thinking, the new normal will feature a sharp move away from home working, as employers reassert control. There's the view that the intrusion of the state into our leisure time, who we meet, where and under what conditions is going to change policing permanently.

Political leadership at every level is probably too immersed in crisis to be able to engage in all this for now. But it will. It will have to.

Those leaders have to balance choices about what is desirable and achievable, and what it can persuade party and public to support.

Not so many think-tanks are arguing for the reassurance of the way things were before Covid-19. But there's surely a sizeable voter appetite for that as well.