Ed Hall is a management consultant and a former BBC broadcaster.
Looking for silver linings at the moment risks sounding a wrong note amongst the cacophony of stories observing the doom and despair around us, especially with Boris Johnson in intensive care, but I think something quite profound and positive is quietly underway, resetting the relationship between the individual and state: a quiet velvet-gloved Little Britain Revolution is taking place.
Millions of us are facing serious economic hardship unexpectedly, and dramatic restrictions on our rights to conduct our lives as normal are in place, and may be increasingly firmly enforced. What is clear to me, is that the view that the state is the organ that fixes everything, manages everything, funds everything, plans everything, houses us, feeds us, cares and even feeds our children, brings us home from broken holidays or provides emergency cash for food and drink is misplaced.
Around me in the villages near Chipping Norton, I see Chippy Volunteers providing direct assistance to those who need drugs delivered, help with pets, or just a phone call. I see the Chippy Larder providing food boxes by the hundred (I am delivering with them this week).
I see apps designed by private bodies tracking the virus spread, companies designing pressurised oxygen systems, supermarket companies keeping their shelves filled, and small shops around here creating their own delivery services, and I see local online appeals to provide safety equipment to hospitals and health workers.
Meanwhile, the Government has announced schemes of hundreds of billions which from my own experience, have already failed their own test of getting money to businesses quickly and required complex revision. I don’t actually know anyone who has yet received a penny from the aid and support programmes designed to help businesses stay on their feet. Our NHS needed the British Army to manage its own logistics, and Public Health England looks as though it is struggling to get mass testing underway.
Meanwhile, all around me I see action at community, parish, village, and town level which is already up and running. I see businesses and volunteers taking action to do stuff to help, and last week we learned on the news that there were professional Nobel Prize-winning laboratories that hadn’t even been asked to help with testing until now.
The challenges and slow responses which are the source of many complaints and questions are caused by centralisation and dusty state-managed institutions that have risk-averse public sector management at their heart. It’s not that long ago that British embassies stopped keeping lists of local volunteers and wardens that could be relied upon in a crisis, because managing the risk of untrained volunteers acting in the name of the government was considered too high.
Yet in an actual crisis, the NHS has signed up 700,000 volunteers to take prescriptions to the homes of the elderly or vulnerable. Private cars driven by ordinary citizens are working happily with no risk assessment forms, just offering common sense advice to volunteers.
The part of Britain that is working well is the part of Britain that is not waiting for 47 people in a risk-averse chain of centralised command to make a decision. NHS workers are clearly our national heroes in this crisis, but can the same be said about the machinery that runs them? The jury will stay out on that question until the crisis is over.
Schemes set up by restaurants and pubs to feed NHS workers, private companies making protective equipmentarmy or maybe even ventilators, volunteers delivering drugs and food to those in need, self-employed delivery drivers, and a panoply of town and village-specific initiatives will win the war against this virus, and the more they are supported to do so, the more fit and willing our society will be to bounce back.
Discussions at Whitehall level to save airlines is one thing, but £10,000 sent to every parish council this week to be invested in whatever the hell they like would be better. Asking banks to lend money against their own government-designed and enforced affordability criteria was obviously going to be a nightmare, but that about repaying every company with turnover less than £50 million their last quarter’s VAT payment on request?
That would be much simpler: putting the decision-making about how to spend the money back in the hands of the people most affected and best placed to find solutions. I just don’t trust our perfectly pleasant and helpful bank manager to be able to assess our business plan for weathering this storm before granting a loan, do you?
When all this is done and dusted, it will I think become clear that it was Little Britain wot won the war, and it is the same Little Britain that will provide the jobs, community support, entrepreneurship and spirit that will see us through the recovery. Looking to the state to fix everything looks more and more wobbly as a strategy by the day. Big is not beautiful: government is synonymous with neither good nor God.
The limitations of the big state are becoming clearer by the day, as European people look to their nations instead of the EU, US citizens look to their states instead of the federal government, and we are turning to our local communities for support.
My parents and grandparents were of the Dad’s Army generation, they rolled up their sleeves and did stuff. They joined committees, set up charities, ran concert clubs, and Scout groups and baby-sitting circles, and many stood for local office. As they got old or passed away, many of their community groups died with them. We turned instead to the state, and expected it to provide homes, education into adulthood, healthcare at global tip top standards to everyone, and even bring us home from exotic foreign holidays if we forgot to buy travel insurance.
I think we are learning again, as previous generations did before us, that our communities are at their best when they are allowed to support themselves, making their own decisions, spending their own money, and using good old-fashioned common sense to create the rules and regulations. So, as the crisis comes to an end in the months to come, I am expecting a paradigm shift in the way we view power: people will remember who fed them, who delivered their medication, and who helped to save their business by paying their bills or forgiving a debt. Or who built a pressurised oxygen system to help them breathe.
I suspect that when we finally come to count our victories, very rarely will it be the state that won them, and that when tea and medals are awarded, it will be Little Britain that wins them, and that will be no bad thing.