Boris's coronavirus pragmatism is confounding his critics

28 March 2020

7:00 PM

28 March 2020

7:00 PM

If ever Britain has undergone a period of authoritarian socialism, then this is surely it. Massive state intervention in the economy is taking place alongside state direction of the activities of private citizens that is both intensive and extensive in nature. Yet there are few private sector tycoons to be found arguing not to receive state support or, for that matter, free enterprise economists claiming that the market will, left to its own devices, come up with an optimal solution to coronavirus.

Meanwhile more than 90 per cent of us approve of the draconian limits placed on our individual freedom in pursuit of the collective good. And I say that as someone who has recently returned home from his single state-sanctioned piece of exercise for the day.

Although this is very much socialism in action – and a form of state socialism that observers of the Soviet era would recognise at that – it is, of course, being overseen by a Conservative Prime Minister. Boris Johnson, hitherto a keen advocate of lower taxes, lighter regulation and liberalism in social matters too is energetically directing operations.

When Rishi Sunak delivered the Budget a couple of weeks back it was very social democratic in nature, with a £30bn ‘big bazooka’ to deal with Covid-19. Within days it became obvious to Boris Johnson that this would not be enough to stop an economic cardiac arrest, so he had Sunak put an extra nought on the package and effectively nationalise nearly the whole economy.

And while he might have expected to be a Charles II figure, heading a Merrie England revival, Johnson has in fact become a latter day Oliver Cromwell: football has been shut down along with pubs, theatres and anywhere else where people may seek to congregate to have a good time.

The Prime Minister has appeared positively pained at the imposition of such heavy-handed measures to control the lives of individuals and most of us believe his promise that he will not sustain them for a minute longer than is necessary. Politically it was clearly very useful to him that opposition parties called for them to be implemented first.

But he got over his pain and impose them he did, along with the temporary nationalisation of wages and lots of other socialist economic measures. A Tory premier who recently campaigned on the basis that Labour’s plans for the size and scope of the state were an excessive abomination has, within months, trumped them in every regard.

It is a breathtaking act of pragmatism. So when one asks what sort of Tory is Boris Johnson, from now on there can be no disputing that he is not a right-wing ideologue but lies squarely within the Disraelian ‘One Nation’ tradition. He has recognised that, quite exceptionally, a crisis is facing the nation that requires an emergency socialist response and his Tory political philosophy has proved elastic enough to deliver it.

In the face of coronavirus, conventional levels of individual liberty would be a disaster, putting countless lives at risk. All of us, or at least the vast majority, must follow the social distancing advice if the National Health Service is not to be overwhelmed.

And only the public realm could conceivably muster the resources and devise an overall strategy to keep the economic fabric intact. This isn’t a case of the state trying to pick winners, but of the state preventing thousands of good companies from going to the wall.

After this crisis is over, actual socialists will argue that it was their creed that saw the country through. They will claim this proves their creed should become the new governmental orthodoxy in non-plague ridden times too. But they won’t be in a position to make that choice; Boris Johnson will. And it doesn’t take a genius to realise he will seek to steer a course back towards a private enterprise economy and will roll back his new nanny state vigorously.

In doing so, he will be showing that his critics on the liberal-Left are clueless in their characterisations of him as an ideological extremist. This is not a premier anchored to ideology, just one who has what might be termed ‘ceteris paribus inclinations’ that he is ready to temper given the course of events.

Johnson has long had a nose for what Sir Keith Joseph termed ‘the common ground’ and had already occupied it on everything from getting Brexit done, to tougher law and order and more generous NHS funding before the Covid-19 crisis erupted. Attempts by left-wing politicians and pundits, mired as they are in minority sensibilities, to depict him as a right-wing extremist are not only doomed to failure but will appear increasingly off-the-wall to normal members of the public.

When the history of this turbulent period in British politics is written up, one chapter is going to be about how a Conservative prime minister deployed socialism to steer the country through a short-term crisis and by doing so prevented doctrinaire socialists in the Labour party from getting up a head of steam long-term.

In other words – and this may soothe the nerves of those actual right-wing ideologues out there who are dismayed at all the Big Statism going on just now – it will all have been worth it.

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