Here’s why the new normal won’t be like the old normal

The ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic are going to be profound, writes our special correspondent.

Here’s why the new normal won’t be like the old normal STV

As both the UK and Scottish governments made clear yesterday, the current lockdown measures are going to be with us for the foreseeable future.

The ramifications therefore of this pandemic are going to be profound in economic, political, ecological and cultural terms. 

The year 2020 will define much of the next decade and will likely be the spur for a fundamental debate about what we as a society value as priorities are redefined and re-ordered.

As Paul Johnson from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) put it, “the new normal is not going to be like the old normal”.

The IFS reckon that the UK Government will be lucky to escape the clutches of coronavirus with a fiscal deficit of less than £200bn next year. In Scotland, a full three-month lockdown could, in a worse-case scenario, see GDP contract by 20-25%.

Government pledges at last December’s election on personal taxation are  therefore unlikely to hold. Even when lockdown ends businesses may need ongoing support. 

There would be little point in introducing the current measures on business rates and furloughing if the only consequence is that they give firms breathing space but ultimately do not save them. The support package cannot meet a cliff edge, otherwise it will not fully protect jobs and livelihoods for the longer term.

If this crisis does not start a debate about fair rewards in the jobs market and lead to a revaluation of the invaluable work that many of our fellow citizens undertake then nothing will.

Workers in the NHS, care home sector, supermarket employees, refuse collectors, folk working in pharmacies etc are currently putting themselves at risk by merely doing their jobs. And yet some of them are among the poorest paid workers in our economy.

The way we define and reward skills simply has to change and it is one debate that needs to be had. Now is the time for all good trade unionists to agitate as never before.

Then there is the issue of inter-generational fairness. The baby boom generation are in retirement or are just about to stop working. For the most part their careers have been defined by stability, sustained wage growth, a higher standard of living with each passing decade, home ownership and the prospect of an occupational pension supplementing state provision.

The sustainability of their golden years will be paid for by the current working generation who will be lucky to enjoy a fraction of these benefits.

Generation rent, encumbered with student debt and working in a more precarious jobs market, with the bare minimum of auto enrolment pension provision will be asked to shoulder the taxes to keep the baby boomers sweet.

As one of those baby boomers with all of the aforementioned benefits I cannot see it as fair. The current levels of spending see a skewing in favour of senior citizens across a range of spending areas. A debate, therefore, needs to take place about recalibrating spending to ensure a more equitable spread of national resources.

Our politics could change too. The collective effort of the current UK Government represents the most profound choreography of state intervention since the days of Clement Attlee and Aneurin Bevan. 

Conservative politicians have binned their debate lines about the primacy of markets and their ability to deliver freedom and instead have sought refuge behind the trusty shield of Keynesian economics and ‘socialist’ intervention. 

Perhaps the near settled will about the need for a diminishing role for the state, so often seen as the triumph and ultimate legacy of Thatcherism, will not now stand the historical test of time. The response to the crash of 2008 and the current crisis will re-evaluate the resonance of Thatcher’s determined drive to liberalise labour markets.

Young people are emerging as heroes of this crisis alongside all of our key workers. With every passing vox pop I am encouraged that the future is safe in their hands. Engaged, motivated by very clear notions of civic responsibility, their broader concerns feature largely although not exclusively about the sustainability of our planet.

If politicians can confront hard realities on coronavirus then why not on other areas of policy? Why not on climate change? Targets are set and applauded, policies road tested against carbon emission targets and then inevitably a trimming exercise takes place if doing the right thing offends an interest group or might see job losses or hinders economic growth. 

To repeat Paul Johnson, “the new normal is not going to be the old normal”. The political management of coronavirus has involved a “look them in the eye and give it to them straight” attitude from our leaders. Perhaps this approach to voters should be the new norm.

There can’t be a single adult in Britain, staring at four walls and musing how surreal all of this feels, who has not pondered what really matters in life. 

It is likely to lead to a re-evaluation of personal priorities. Health does indeed matter more than wealth, to spend time with loved ones really is more important than self-advancement in one’s career. A look out of the window will tell you that there is such a thing as society.

There will be many legacies of 2020 in economic and political terms. It would be just great if the spirit of recent weeks that sees the individual and the collective as one, leads to a kinder community where we all look over our shoulder, not to see what is coming, but to ask together, where we are going?

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