It’s a grim coincidence that the tanks are rolling into Ukraine in the same week as Britain declared victory in its domestic battle against coronavirus.
But even before the deep shock of the unprovoked invasion of a European democracy, Brits weren’t exactly chucking masks on the bonfire and belting out The Winner Takes It All in celebration of the end of Covid restrictions. And with good reason.
The pandemic has laid waste to the economy, damaged our prospects as a nation and fundamentally changed our relationship with the state. In the face of all this, boasting about being ‘the freest country in Europe’ right now is only so much bread and circuses.
Let’s start with the economy. My colleagues Robert Colvile and Karl Williams have written a deep dive into the public finances, which is as depressing as it is detailed. But instructive though inflation stats and debt to GDP ratios are, we don’t need figures to tell us we’re in trouble. The cost of living crisis is already hitting people where it really hurts, and forthcoming tax rises and a £700 hike to energy bills will only make it worse. And that’s before you factor in the costs of Russian sanctions, spiraling oil prices and the impact on food supply of war in a region that produces 10% of the world’s wheat.
In short, Britain is facing an almighty economic headache, mostly caused by factors over which ministers have very little control. And the political context makes it even harder for the Government to reassert fiscal responsibility. After two years of the Chancellor promising to do ‘whatever it takes’ to keep households afloat during Covid, Labour will find it incredibly easy to say, ‘you ‘found’ (read borrowed) the money for the pandemic, why can’t you find the money for (insert hobby horse here).’
And in any case, the Government doesn’t seem especially keen to downsize. We’re heading for the heaviest tax burden since the heyday of state socialism under Attlee. And, as I have argued elsewhere, the entire ‘Levelling Up’ agenda is animated by paternalism. It’s based on the patronising idea that when people voted for Brexit what they really wanted was a big government to heal a broken nation. They didn’t – they wanted to leave the EU.
The irony is that the state is assuming an ever greater role in our lives at a time when trust in the Government is so low that the Prime Minister is being threatened with a no-confidence motion by his own MPs. His defenders claim that he got ‘the big calls’ right, but how significant will that be in the final analysis? Take the vaccine roll-out – we were certainly among the first out of the blocks, but the rest of Europe caught up with us pretty quickly, and we are now slightly behind France and Italy. Moreover, the snail-like pace of last year’s ‘roadmap’ to unlocking squandered most of the gains of our head start.
Then there’s the refusal to lock down in December while other countries were panicking – a decision that has been vindicated now that we know Omicron is less severe than other variants. But let’s not forget the circumstances in which this decision was taken. The Prime Minister was politically weakened by Parliamentary rebellions and revelations about rule-breaking by his own staff, so couldn’t seriously look the British people in the eye and ask them to submit to further restrictions.
And even if we credit the Prime Minister with these positive successes, that doesn’t mean there weren’t passive failures. A sort of collective confirmation bias seems to have convinced us that lockdowns, and all the attendant depredations, were inevitable. But there were always different choices available. Sweden never imposed draconian rules, but instead relied on voluntary behaviour change. Epidemiologist and SAGE member Mark Woolhouse argues that ministers dithered and panicked before finally imposing the lazy solution of a national lockdown when much more could have been done to shield the vulnerable.
Now we’re left surveying the wreckage.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Britain is well-placed to recover quickly as long as we make the right choices now. It’s encouraging that the Chancellor sent out an unapologetically pro-free market message in yesterday’s Mais lecture, even quoting CapX favourite Adam Smith. He is right to repudiate the idea that the level of government intervention we have got used to is ‘a new normal’. Rolling back the state isn’t just essential to promote growth – it’s a moral necessity.
The Government has given us back our civil liberties, let’s take back our economic freedom too.
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