Events like the COVID-19 pandemic - or indeed the financial crash of 2008, or the 9/11 terrorist attacks - are unusual in politics because they upset the assumed structural rules and constraints that individuals and states normally operate under and afford instead huge opportunities for political agency. Responding to them requires action that is at the very least uncommon and perhaps entirely unprecedented, whilst the space to do things outside of the conventional political playbook is greatly expanded when the challenge is as stark as something like a lethal pandemic. Necessity truly is the mother of invention.
Such events also leave a long shadow on politics, and the nature of the enduring influence that they exert depends very much on the lessons that are learned from them. In the case of coronavirus, there are some useful lessons that we can learn from the pandemic and how governments are acting to mitigate it, but some equally pernicious ones too from the standpoint of representative democratic politics.
The mistaken conclusion we might draw from our experiences in the past few months is that politics and dissensus “gets in the way” of scientific knowledge and consensus. This is not to advance an unhelpful relativism that says there are no objective facts or “truth” statements. There certainly are, and they have an important place in politics, particularly in moments like that at hand. The presence of experts in government decision-making on coronavirus, with a deep knowledge of a particular field, is a good thing; it pays due recognition to the fact that this is a crisis that poses questions to which there are scientifically and verifiably correct answers. We know for a fact the impact that social-distancing measures and handwashing have on infection rates, for example (we also know for a fact that the injection of disinfectant is an incredibly dangerous course of action to take, and one with potentially fatal results).
But to conclude therefore that there is an objective, scientific answer as to how to respond to the crisis generally is to fail to recognise its political dimension. It is to fail to recognise that, despite the fact that the behaviour of viruses is predictable to a remarkable degree, how to exercise the machinery of the state in response to them is a different question altogether.
This point has a wider significance. Polly Mackenzie a former Political Adviser in the Coalition Government and now Chief Executive of the think tank Demos, spoke at the Bennett Institute recently about “post-populism”1 politics, and her main message was that we need to get better at determining what “type” of problem a given political dilemma is. To combat the populist assault on politics and expertise, the key is not to treat every political problem equivalently as possessing a definitive, “technical” answer, but to distinguish more effectively those problems that do from those that do not.
Mackenzie’s point was in large part a reflection on her experiences of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom. She thought that this particular dilemma had been treated as a problem of “discovery” with a factually based solution, whereas in fact it was a problem of “consensus building” where the solution lay instead in getting wide-ranging support for a given policy. Nevertheless, her argument has import for the current predicament that we are facing. When it comes to the crisis we currently find ourselves in, asking “what is the best course of action to take to minimise virus contraction?” is a very different type of question, for example, to “what strategy should the UK pursue in the future with regards to tackling the now vastly expanded national debt?”, or “how should the UK manage its international supply chains in the future?”. This is the useful lesson we might draw from our experiences of coronavirus. That not all questions are ones of mere “opinion”, but neither are all questions one of objective “knowledge”. Politics unavoidably encompasses both variants.
The difficulty, of course, is where to draw the line. The truth is that the distinction between these two “types” of question suggested above is frequently a blurry one, not least because political judgement permeates all government decision-making. Senior health experts flank politicians when they appear on television to announce their policy decisions. Nonetheless, the decision to leave quarantine conditions will be deeply politically inflected, just as much as the choice to enter into them was in the first place.
However, it is a line we ought to try to draw. Only by doing so can we safeguard a political space in which facts and scientific expertise carry the weight that they should, but that also provides for the equally valid dissensus about how to organise our societies in response to questions like “who should shoulder the debt burden?” or “in what ways should the government be able to monitor the private lives of its citizens?” that are implied by the crisis we are facing. Whether we see politics as the defining problem to be eradicated in responding to the coronavirus pandemic, or as an inevitable, unavoidable dimension to it, will have a significance well beyond this terrible, protracted moment.
About the author
James Vitali is a Phd Candidate at POLIS under the supervision of Professor Mike Kenny. He is a former Parliamentary Assistant to Rt Hon Mark Lancaster MP, and his research is into the political thought and theory of Popular Sovereignty