An article written by Jonathan Morgan, former Conservative Assembly Member and Shadow Minister:
The past few months have taught us a lot about ourselves. Our resilience as a nation, our ability as individuals to adapt to a fast changing environment where work, family and social lives are thrown out of balance. Words incorporated into daily usage which are now common and part of our conversations across the road at the 8pm clap for key workers get together – “lockdown”, ‘social-distancing” and “furlough” to name a few, alongside the endless work and social meetings via Skype, Zoom, Teams, WebEx, FaceTime and WhatsApp video calls.
Whilst language is helpful as it allows us to have a shared sense of what we’re all experiencing but it can also be a threat. As we move into the phase of easing the lockdown, one phrase that seems to be creeping into discussion is the idea of the “new normal”, as if this is something that people will happily accept.
You know the type that are using it.
They are usually talking about Universal Basic Income and focusing on giving away money rather than growing the economy. Or making the case for permanently restricting freedoms because they really like the idea of people being controlled even though they won’t admit it. Or arguing you shouldn’t aspire to own your own home let alone a holiday home. Or wanting to ground planes forever so that you have to holiday in the same place as them with the added risk of bumping into them. Or arguing that electronic bikes should be the focus of transport policy at the very same time as British Airways announced a consultation on hundreds of job losses in Wales, just like the Labour Welsh Government did this week. And even in the midst of the COVID—19 crisis, they are still trying thwart will of the people of Wales, 4 years ago (next month) after that decision was taken by the people of the UK. https://gov.wales/written-statement-joint-ministerial-committee-eu-negotiations-2
To these people, the “new normal” is not an exciting prospect, where the public get their lives back to where they want to be, it’s all about using the Covid crisis to redesign society according to their own beliefs. It is pervasive and at the heart of the decisions about the shape of things to come beyond the pandemic. This is as true in Welsh Government as it is in the just one step removed space of Welsh civic society. Most of the hangers on have kept saying what they were arguing before March but with a post-Covid branding. Here in Wales, the Institute of Welsh Affairs is a classic example. Their Re-thinking Wales exercise has been pretty much just about re-packaging the same ideas that the liberal, mutually interdependent policy elite have been pushing for over twenty years. All they’ve done is added the words “Post Covid” to their submission titles.
For far too many, interest groups, Covid is the chance to push the revolution of a “new normal” by basically shaping society and politics based on preachy, narrow, greeny, idealistic and often cranky ideas. They are exploiting a crisis to push policies that are always rejected at the ballot box.
Often these people perceive themselves as liberals. They are intrinsically not. A more sanctimonious, judgemental and illiberal elite you could not wish to meet. The do as we say, think as we think, judge as we judge culture is hard wired into twenty plus years of Welsh Labour government. You see it in the charities (and non-charities masquerading as charities) and the media acolytes and the lobbyists and those who since the advent of devolution have seen their role as cheerleaders for the Welsh Government instead of providing the scrutiny it needs.
It isn’t confined to Labour either, but it certainly emanates from them. The one thing they really, really don’t want to change in the “new normal” is the ascendancy of their group think, the primacy of their philosophy, and their place at the front of the queue for the next cash handout.
For the “new normal” to them isn’t some radical change at all. It’s just an opportunity to pretend at radicalism while at the same time banging the same drums they have always banged, and cashing the same cheques they have always cashed.
All of which doesn’t mean I am not in favour of significant change. Yes, I want normal back and people will expect and want life to return to normal. Conservatives ought to be supporting their ambition and need to show how this can be achieved. I am not naïve enough to imagine things have not profoundly changed in the last few months. It cannot be denied that Covid has impacted on society in three months more than three years usually does.
The difference is that my idea of any “new normal” has to be based on things that have been genuinely learnt from Covid and this should be done quickly. Yes there needs to be an independent inquiry in Wales but I believe that all politicians need to show a willingness to understand what this pandemic has done to front line services and what it means for the future.
We need to understand how this pandemic has forced a pace of change which traditionally our public services and systems of government are not used to. There have been benefits which should be kept, and efficiencies which can be delivered long term. Decisions taken and implemented around our finances, the creativity of our front line staff where many have been redeployed to help build capacity, and projects that would have taken years in the planning and execution but delivered in weeks, if not days.
The response within health and social care to the speed at which this pandemic as taken hold has been incredible, the leadership and innovation of clinical leads, social care practitioners and nurses should be celebrated and encouraged as the norm. In local communities where our county councils have for years been undervalued by the Welsh Government we have seen local leadership, connecting and supporting people in need, prioritising services. They need to be driving the work needed to recover from this crisis, they should not be mere consultees but at the centre of local recovery.
It’s taken the biggest public health challenge in a century to do this and unless we’re careful the good stuff could be lost as our traditional reliance on managerialism becomes our comfort blanket once again. Unfortunately, as we know all too well in Wales, the default position always seems to revert to type and not really embrace change.
But this time there have been clear lessons that can be learnt, adapted and utilised. Economic support has been directed to the working vulnerable during this time. Germany has its own furlough scheme that is hard wired into economic provision to help those in work during times of recession. Perhaps we need to learn from that.
There’s also a whole book that could and should be written about how society and community developed solutions to help the most vulnerable during Covid. They didn’t wait for governments to do it for them. There’s serious lessons in that too.
And alongside all of this we’ve seen financial re-prioritisation within the UK Government and Welsh Government. A new focus on resources on what is essential and innovative, rather than simply keeping to the same old spending patterns. Because certainly in Wales the same old patterns don’t address the same old problems.
A Welsh Conservative government will need to look at these real life lessons, and learn from them. We have to be guided by realities not by dogma.
As Conservatives, we have always been the party that thinks and adapts quickly. It is one of biggest strengths. Let’s make sure we really learn the right things from the current crisis. That way the future can combine the best of the normal with the new.