During the first coronavirus lock-down in 2020 I often saw posts on social media sites of people proudly stating their intention to “get their life in order” after all of the Covid disruption was over. Covid-19 caused such a jolt to the normal way of living life that it served to act as a reboot for many people who used the time to reflect on the status of their lives. This reflection can be seen throughout the western world, with many people deciding to change career, dump their partners, or to use the opportunity to pick up a new hobby or learn a new skill.
At first, all of this led me to believe that the lock-down would cause a societal revolution, which in turn had the potential to impact wider politics. Perhaps some of this is evidenced with the “Black Lives Matter” movement, which gained momentum in the summer months of 2020. If this thesis is pushed further, then the community-bounding of lock-down could be stated as a larger reset of society, in which we would become more caring and considerate to our neighbours and those in our community. The western world would come out of lock-down refreshed and revived.
I speculated on such an impact in May 2020, when I compared the war-time “blitz spirit” with the first lock-down. In this post I noted:
there have been some features of that so-called “blitz spirit”: more people are willing to nod and say “hello” whilst out walking, and lots of people in communities all across the country have helped those in need.
However, on ending 2020 I re-considered this thesis. Rather than be swept away with my own experience I looked back to what the past can tell us about how societies react to massive upheavals, and the most relevant example was what happened after the west dealt with the impact of the First World War and the Spanish Flu a hundred years ago.
These events had a much larger impact on countries such as the UK and the USA, with a high loss of life; the UK suffered almost 900,00 fatalities in the First World War, with a further half-a-million dying as a result of the pandemic in 1918/19. Of course, there was a large impact in terms of wider politics in the world: the rise of extremism, as evidenced with the growth of communism and fascism. However, in the UK itself it could be argued that these shocks did not result in revolution, but rather more of the same.
This can largely be seen in the continuation of familiar politics. Yes, the Labour Party formed their first government in 1924 (and again in 1929), but both were limited in terms of their duration and overall significance. The most successful political party in the inter-war period was the Conservative Party, with the country sticking to the status quo. It could be argued that people largely continued as they were.
Furthermore, the example of the USA supports such a position further. The First World War and pandemic could be stated to have had a massive impact on Americans, however, after 1919 they appeared to reject revolution and innovation. President Woodrow Wilson failed in his plan to place the United States in the innovation that was the League of Nations, and voters rejected such idealism in favour of middle-of-the-road politics. Wilson’s successor – Harding – was applauded for his promise of a “return to normalcy”. The larger quote reads:
“America’s present need is not heroics but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution but restoration.”
All of this suggests that rather than stimulate change, many people simply desired a simple life devoid of change, innovation, and disruption. At the moment in UK society people are celebrating a modern-day return to normalcy: of getting back into pubs, of getting back into coffee shops, and of returning to their former lives. Perhaps this means that this urge to obtain what was lost – the former status quo – over-rides the zest for change; a restoration rather than revolution, as Harding stated a hundred years ago.