Looking back across history, unique to our experience of a pandemic will be both the achievement of a vaccine, and the fact we lived through it without a national identity to cling to, or a religion to offer support. Looking for comfort, people turned inward, and in England this helped create a dangerous form of regional identity.
The story of Othello stands as the opposite of that of mankind. As the play progresses, Shakespeare takes the audience from the grand if promiscuous civilisation of Venice, to the tiny and claustrophobic setting of a single bedroom. As Iago’s corrupting influence takes hold, the world narrows. Othello transitions from stories of a boundless landscape filled with ‘anthropophagi whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders’, to plunging he and Desdemona into a murder of darkness.
In contrast to Shakespeare’s narrowing of the play, human history is one of expanding horizons. Our community was once limited by that which we could see, and thus became centred around tribal societies. With the onset of industrialisation however, a larger community was born. Out of necessity Germany and Italy united their regions.
This was a national community, bigger and more powerful than anything we as an individual could personally see or hold. Benedict Anderson explains ‘it is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members’. Although imagined, this was a community our ancestors were prepared to die for at tragic levels.
By 2020 the human story has progressed still further. In universities, it is global causes that attract the most attention. The killing of George Floyd energised racial protest at an incredible rate across the world. To be a global citizen is an aspiration, whilst a pride in one’s country attracts derision from intellectual classes.
If the national community is eroding, and global networks of economic, political and social flows are determining the world today, are we about to enter a new global community? After all, technology now allows one to form virtual communities distinct in interests and priorities from our geographical neighbours. In the context of a party or moving to a new house, individuals like to be with people more like them. Is it really that unrealistic to suggest that virtual communities today, may become physical ones tomorrow?
Covid-19 settled this question. The UK is not about to enter a new global community, but rather because of the impact of globalisation, stands more likely to fall back on a form of regionalism more akin to the days of our tribal ancestors.
The first post-nationalised, secularised pandemic
As the UK has been impacted by increasing global trade and investment, governments have attempted to promote a global identity. This involved the eroding of symbols and institutions which upheld our national community. Intriguingly, this occurred at the same time as a period of secularisation. From the 1970s, the Church of England was in decline, leaving only 64% of Brits saying they were Christian in 2000, compared to 80% in 1950.
This meant Covid-19 was the first pandemic to occur in a post-nationalised, secularised world.
In 1665, it was the vicar William Mompesson who instructed the Derbyshire village of Eyam to sacrifice themselves for the rest of the country, once their village had become infected with the plague. During the Spanish Flu, the inhabitants of Zamora sought solace from its churches. Whilst urging authorities to enforce strict lockdown rules, the city cathedral remained packed and Zamora’s new bishop Alvaro y Ballano became the people’s leader.
In each case, it was a language of national benevolence and religion that was employed by those wishing to enforce the rules, and to motivate those living under them.
Before Boris Johnson announced lockdown, he will have climbed the steps of Number 10 Downing Street, passing the portraits of his predecessors. Hartley’s immortal line that ‘the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’, must have never seemed so apparent.
At the founding of the NHS, it was Atlee’s Minister of Health Aneurin Bevan, who championed it as ‘real Christianity’, as well as a service for the whole national community.
During conflict, Churchill and Thatcher found the rhetoric of a national community was needed to justify and inspire. Faced with crippling debts, William Pitt used war with France to persuade wealthy citizens of the need for the first ever income tax.
The NHS was our religion
Faced with neither the rhetoric of nationalism, the armoury of the church, or any new global identity, Boris Johnson had to appeal to something else. It was the closest one can find to a national religion: the NHS.
Johnson urged the nation ‘to stay at home, protect the NHS, and save lives’. Millions were soon taking part in the weekly clap on a Thursday evening. The coming together of a community, the sounds and feeling it created; this was an action that in the past would have been saved for the national anthem, or Sunday prayers.
Yet by September such emotional rhetoric was no longer effectual. Cases were climbing once again, and the Government was forced to turn guidance into law, in the face of rule breaking. On October 12th, the country entered a new phase in this pandemic. One where restrictions would be determined by what area of the country you lived in. It quickly turned from a national effort, into a regional one. The scope to our lives became smaller.
We were not to behave for the good of the NHS, or for the country, but rather for our local area. Leicester and Manchester were encouraged by local leaders to prove to those outside what they could achieve. It was claimed that London escaped Tier 3 for its position of national importance, whilst the north was punished by politicians in Westminster.
The discourse became regional, and although punctured by the four week national lockdown, politicians turned to localism to motivate people or to justify new measures. This narrowing of our horizons was compounded by the impact of working from home.
Coffee shops, pubs, the high street and public transport, are all vital to ensuring places do not divide along employment lines. With many of these locales closed, and those in the services sector working from home, urban centres became areas for mainly manufacturing and secondary sector workers. It was the building of rail routes into poorer areas that made the governing classes of the nineteenth century, namely Benjamin Disraeli, aware of the plight of the poor. Without such human interaction, this division only increases current polarisation.
Retreat into our local community
What did a retreat back into our narrower, smaller, local communities lead to? In the vacuum of nationalism, regional identities were reinvigorated, with memes of Andy Burnham as the ‘King of the North’ shared widely. But there was also a more disconcerting side.
As the country retreated, and communities shrunk, our reason d’etre altered slightly. If you have broken social distancing rules, ask yourself why. For many, this was because we looked around us and decided those who we might infect were not as vulnerable. This was the thought process behind many lockdown breaking acts at universities. On students’ return home, the surrounding community was now older and more vulnerable. Behaviour thus altered.
Underlying this, is the concept that such regionalism promotes. Criteria for action is based on a far more limited number of aims. Judgement becomes narrower, more personal and thus more emotive. Ask anyone living in the greenbelt if more homes need to be built, and the answer is ‘no, high demand in the cities will not ruin our rural communities’. Whilst this regional nimbyism has been limited to only housing so far, in recent months the potential impact of such in other areas has been revealed.
Numerous institutions and authorities refused to accept testing, in case it resulted in moving their locality to a higher tier. Residents in cities with university students complained that education remaining open would infect their locality. Such ignored the fact that testing would enhance the national effort, or the wider national benefit education brings. Localism breeds emotion, because debate becomes closer to home.
Progress is not linear
History is not a linear process. After the great empires of Greece and Rome, human progress went backwards, especially when the latter was broken up by barbarians into several smaller kingdoms. What followed were the raw beginnings of European feudalism, where men were organized by local lords for military and agricultural purposes. Any form of wider identity broke with the Empire. It was not until 1870 when Italy reunited as one nation.
It’s unlikely such a dramatic collapse could occur today, but the rebuilding of regional boundaries – politically and socially – is entirely plausible. The referendum result and recent elections have revealed a clear divide between areas, whilst the UK has more interregional inequality than the US, France, Germany, and Spain.
As we head into Christmas, two parallel stories can be told. On the one hand, the movement of more areas from tier two to three, the lack of progress down the tiers, and the accompanying emotionally charged accusations of unfairness, proves this form of regionalism cannot work in a crisis. Indeed looking ahead to climate change, when migration from coastal areas to inland regions is likely to be required, such drawing up of local boundaries, will make persuading populations to welcome flooded citizens much harder.
Comparatively, the exit strategy from this virus will be one implemented nationally, with the vaccine rollout having started across the UK in GP surgeries this week.
Looking back across history, unique to our experience of a pandemic will be both the achievement of a vaccine, and the fact we lived through it without a national identity to cling to, or a religion to offer support. Our ancestors would be amazed at both factors. But could we really say to them, that such localism has made it an easier experience?
For more on Covid-19 see The Inside Story: How Three Months Transformed The Modern World And Left The UK In Lockdown.