Published on 31 July 2020
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Covid-19 – what can we learn from past crises?

Prof Andrew Gamble compares the crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic with the two world wars.

Existential crises which threaten the survival of societies and their way of life occur rather rarely. There have been several major crises affecting the UK since 1945, but none of them have been existential crises in that sense. The Covid-19 emergency is an exception. The only true comparable crises in the last hundred years are the two world wars, because like Covid they are associated with a profound disruption of everyday life for all citizens through curfews, blackouts, lockdowns, and economic dislocation, which help produce a shared experience of common danger and deprivation.

There are many important differences. Fighting a pandemic is not like fighting a war. What is common is a heightened sense of solidarity and common purpose; greater trust in the state and acquiescence in the extension of its powers to protect citizens’ security; and rising expectations about what the state might deliver for its citizens once the emergency is over.

Will Covid-19 prove to be formative in shaping the future direction of policy as many have argued that the two world wars were? Historians have disagreed over which world war was more important in this respect. One widely held interpretation argues that the First World War brought about significant social change, most notably the extension of the suffrage, but that the wider promise of social reform, ‘to make Britain a country fit for heroes to live in’, promised by the Coalition Government in 1918, was not delivered. Post-war retrenchment brought deflation, mass unemployment and industrial conflict. During the 1920s and 1930s Britain stood still, and failed to deliver on the expectations which the war-time sacrifices had raised.

By contrast the Second World War is widely depicted as ‘the People’s War’ which was fought on specific promises to improve social condition once the war was over. This time the state delivered, through the reforms announced first by the National Government and then by the 1945 Labour Government and continued by Conservative Governments after 1951. By adding social rights to civil and political rights the British state inaugurated a social democracy and a new vision of national citizenship to complement the political democracy already achieved.

On this view the two world wars were crucial in transforming the balance between social classes and allowing an expanded state to take on responsibilities for welfare funded from much higher levels of taxation. Government spending as a proportion of GDP which was below 10 per cent before 1914, stabilised at over 20 per cent after WWI and 40 per cent after WW2.

Arthur Marwick widened the focus to consider the impact of war on society as well as on the state.  He identified four main modes by which war-time emergencies by disrupting  everyday life and challenging taken-for-granted assumptions affected social change.[1] These four modes offer an interesting framework for thinking about the Covid-19 emergency and what kind of long-term effects it may have.  

The creative/destructive mode is evident in the way that major wars bring both economic dislocation and destruction, and new opportunities. The destruction creates the space for new developments, and makes certain ways of doing things obsolete. The First and Second World Wars for example transformed Britain’s place in the world, the financial dominance of London, the viability of the British Empire, and the organisation of the British economy. The international creditor status of London was lost for ever, and post-1918 mass unemployment began the first of many major restructurings of the UK economy. Will Covid hasten similar major economic changes, such as the eclipse of the high street by online retail, and the reorganisation of Britain’s service economy and flexible labour markets?

The challenge/transformative mode can be thought of as a series of stress tests of a country’s social and political institutions which existential crises such as wars impose. In extreme cases such challenges can result in breakdown and collapse, more often they highlight failings and gaps, and this can be the catalyst for major transformations in policies, structures and institutions. The two wars accelerated the advance of science and technology in many different fields, recast the party system and British parliamentary democracy, and transformed the way government delivered public services in many areas, including health, education and housing. Will Covid see a transformation of the way central government is organised, and inspire major policy innovations in areas like social care, as well as a reconsideration of devolution?

The military participation mode refers to the acceleration of social change through the participation in the war effort of social groups which formerly were excluded or marginalised. A  frequently cited example of this is the effect of both wars on the employment of women and on the emancipation of women more generally (although some historians question how far beyond the suffrage these changes actually went). Marwick also highlights the effects of the wars on the working class as a whole. Their market position improved leading to rising wages and living standards; their political and industrial organisation was strengthened which allowed many of the war-time gains to be defended when prices slumped during retrenchment after 1918.

Government gave workers enhanced recognition and status, and this was particularly notable after 1945. Marwick calculates that workers on average were 10/20 per cent better off in 1918 than before the war, and this brought lasting social change in the decades which followed, irrespective of Government policy. What will be the distributional changes after Covid-19? Will there be political will and popular support to tackle some of the deep-seated inequalities which the crisis has highlighted?

Finally there is the emotional/psychological mode. The intense common experience of living through a war-time emergency can have profound effects on values and attitudes, and through them on behaviour. These effects show themselves in particular and often indirect ways, such as party allegiances, trust in government and authority, and support for collective action. Will Covid-19 deliver similar changes in public attitudes, particularly in relation to levels of taxation and the scope of government activity? There will be strong pressures for a return to business as usual once the pandemic is over, but if values and attitudes have shifted they may be even stronger pressure for new directions.

[1] Arthur Marwick ‘The Impact of the First World War on British Society’, Journal of Contemporary History 3:1, (1968), 51-63.


The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s).


Professor Andrew Gamble

Professor Andrew Gamble

Andrew Gamble is Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield, a professorial Fellow at the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI), and Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University...

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