The human ego is programmed to believe that today’s moment is of historic importance—because that makes the people living through it important too. We are constantly experiencing changes that feel significant at the time, but that shrink from the collective view the further we pull away from the immediate drama, as we navigate new crises and challenges. In fact, moments of genuine historic change happen rarely, and most of us will exist during periods of time that future historians will ignore.
Still, as the world starts to recognize the scale of the challenge posed by the coronavirus outbreak, the most immediate sensation one has is that this might be a moment that does not fade, but instead grows in importance, putting recent events—particularly those here in Britain—into perspective.
For starters, it’s hard not to feel like the coronavirus has exposed the utter smallness of Brexit. With the global economy heading for potentially the greatest shock since the supposedly once-in-a-century crash of 2008, the costs and opportunities of Britain’s exit from the European Union boggle the mind—not because of their enormity, but because of their lack of it. In Britain, we have spent four years arguing about this issue, whether and how to Brexit, for what purpose and what price. Real understanding, however, comes with perspective. And now, as the outbreak spreads, one could be forgiven for asking: What was all the Brexit fuss about?
If the worst fears are realized, the scale of the health and economic challenges posed by the coronavirus may well dwarf Brexit. Although the hardest of Brexits available, in which Britain and the EU fail to agree on a trade deal by the end of the year, is forecast to cause a recession, the mainstream view is that most other scenarios largely involve bargains of greater British autonomy in exchange for lower rates of economic growth. Take one example: On Monday, The Guardian published a story claiming that Britain leaving the Erasmus student-exchange program would “blow a hole” in its economy. What size hole, one might ask? About £243 million, or $315 million, a year—a tiny fraction of Britain’s £2.8 trillion economy. Equally, the British government estimates that the economic benefit of a trade deal with the United States—the big prize after Brexit—would amount to just 0.16 percent of GDP.
The point is not to question the wisdom of Brexit—or even to dismiss the cost of leaving Erasmus, the single market, or the customs union—but to put Brexit in perspective with the challenge of a global epidemic. Ultimately, Brexit is a regional argument wrapped up in power and history, territorial disputes and pride, principles and high ideals. A cynic might argue that this debate has now moved on to the extent to which European economic hegemony is to be expressed in law and in practice. These are not unimportant issues, but they’re hardly the conversion of Constantine. Ultimately, Brexit is not a matter of life or death, literally or economically. The coronavirus, meanwhile, is killing people and perhaps many businesses. Its potential impact, if not managed and contained, is closer to that of the 2008 financial implosion. And like that crisis, it has the potential to radically change societies and even political regimes.
Take the small and the big. In Britain, the government’s scientific advisers believe that draconian social restrictions can hold only for a limited period of time—the working assumption being about 12 weeks. If and when the outbreak is deemed uncontainable, the government will inevitably impose restrictions and introduce emergency legislation to ensure that public services and the economy are able to cope. The government has insisted that any such measures will be temporary.
Yet the temporary often proves the most permanent. The permanent presupposes human foresight; the temporary has no such vanity. Income tax is the classic example: It was first introduced as a temporary measure in Britain to fund the Napoleonic Wars, and now it’s a fixture of life. The German constitution was written only for West Germany, and specifically stipulated that it would be dissolved upon reunification with the East. In the end, the West simply absorbed the East. Smaller examples include the Eiffel Tower, meant to last only 20 years; the London Eye, which had initial planning permission for just five years; and British pub opening hours, introduced by the Defence of the Realm Act 1914 to last for the duration of World War I, but which have remained in place long after. Ironically, the Northern Irish border—the main point of dispute in Brexit—was not supposed to be a permanent settlement, until it was, and then it almost derailed Boris Johnson’s eventual Brexit deal.
So what temporary measures is the British government now considering? News reports have speculated about proxy voting in Parliament, new online teaching methods, flexible retirement to allow doctors and nurses to return to work during the emergency, mass home working, and improved sick-pay rights. The question is not necessarily about the government’s sincerity in returning to pre-coronavirus rules, but whether it is possible to unlearn what has been learned through these “temporary” changes.
Is it conceivable that electronic proxy voting for members of Parliament will be removed if it has been shown to work well? In the case of flexible retirement, if one can officially stop working but keep open the option of returning should the need arise, might this not be a model for a country with an aging population, outside the current crisis? In child care and working conditions, the revolution might be most intense: Should, and could, the British government’s recent extension of sick-pay rights really be undone? What if new, more efficient, and more effective models of educating children are discovered through necessity? Should they be dropped to arbitrarily return to what existed before?
Perhaps the coronavirus will not be as serious or long-lasting as many now fear, and will not bring about any lasting social or political change. Perhaps we are being egotistical. But it’s not unreasonable to suppose that it might, and to prepare for that. After all, neither the virus nor its consequences can be contained in one country. How one government handles the outbreak will also affect how it is perceived, and in turn how its political system is perceived, potentially affecting some regimes, democratic and autocratic. This is a global epidemic with global repercussions that go far beyond the relatively limited economic impact of Brexit, which largely affects Britain and its closest trading partners in Europe.
Crises come and go, changing the world by their very fact. For the past four years, a good chunk of Britain has been trying to rewind the clock to a world that existed before the 2016 vote to leave the EU—a task destined to fail even if it had succeeded in keeping Britain in the bloc, because the referendum result changed Britain. Similarly, the world after the coronavirus will be different from the world that came before. The real question is to what extent.