Saturday, 23 January 2021

James asks: What are the implications of Covid-19 for Britain?

Due to the negligence of the Chinese Communist Party, Covid-19 has left China to infect almost every part of the world. James Rogers, Editor of The British Interest, and Director of the Global Britain Programme at the Henry Jackson Society, asks his colleagues at the Henry Jackson Society what the implications of this crisis are for the United Kingdom, both domestically, and nationally:

Domestic implications

Dr Rakib Ehsan Research Fellow, Centre on Radicalisation and Terrorism

Covid-19 strengthens national cohesion: Some people have to learn the hard way – that with freedom comes responsibility. While most British citizens took notice and respected official advice on social distancing, an irresponsible minority continued to place their individual desires over the broader collective good. Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, was left with no choice but to provide a robust political response

At the same time, the greatest national health crisis for generations has brought out the best in the nation. Following the government’s plea for 250,000 volunteers to support the National Health Service (NHS), an astonishing 406,000 offered their support. Thousands of former doctors and nurses have also returned to assist the NHS in getting to grips with the ongoing crisis. Amidst all the chaos and uncertainty, many corner-shops, greengrocers, and convenience stores – family-oriented local enterprises which form the backbone of communities across the country – have continued to provide loyal customers with a variety of sensibly-priced, long-shelf products. 

Once the crisis eventually dies down, these contributions should not be forgotten. For the British people have shown, once again, that their communitarian spirit is alive and well; indeed, the crisis might even strengthen it.

Dr Paul Stott Research Fellow, Centre on Radicalisation and Terrorism

Covid-19 obliges changes to economic policy: Boris Johnson may have considered delivering Brexit, and a programme to bind the electoral alliance that swept him to power last December, the greatest challenge of his political life. How cruelly the fates – and China’s handling of Covid-19 – have conspired against him. He is now a wartime Prime Minister, fighting an invisible enemy. For the first time since the 1940s, the commercial life of the country has ground to a halt.

The model of a flexible, service based economy, with limited industrial policy, appears a thing of the past. Britain’s stuttering rail franchise system, to take just one example, is now in the hands of the government. Half a million new benefit claims were made in a nine-day period. More will follow. Dependence on China, for nuclear power stations or fifth generation telecommunications technology, appears a political, and indeed moral, impossibility. For Boris, steering a middle path between autarky and global Britain, beckons. 

Nikita Malik Director, Centre on Radicalisation and Terrorism

Covid-19 presents new challenges for British law enforcement: The police will face a range of new challenges. This first comes from the public. Criminals, for example, are exploiting Covid-19 to sell fake sanitisers, solicit donations, and take advantage of the elderly and vulnerable. The second challenge stems from those hoping to exploit uncertainty to cause more chaos. This includes using health misinformation to build on existing conspiracy theories, which can contribute to a climate of racism: last month an Asian man was violently assaulted in London and robbed by two teenagers who allegedly shouted ‘coronavirus’ at him. 

To ensure Covid-19 does not overstretch Britain’s police and security services, more resources need to be dedicated to assist personnel in a variety of areas: spikes in criminality, challenges presented by terrorist groups usurping the crisis for their own publicity, and a spike in hate crimes. Community and civilian efforts will be needed to ensure crimes are reported and risks are contained.

International implications

Dr Alan MendozaExecutive Director

Covid-19 forces Britain to redouble on its global role: There are two options that will develop out of the Covid-19 crisis for the UK’s global role: retrenchment or redoubling.

Under retrenchment, Britain will shrink back from its international commitments. While superficially comforting, it would be a penny wise, pound foolish approach, and would sit uneasily with Brexit. The UK may well financially save in the short term, but a global crisis of this nature will require an outward-looking approach in order to protect our strategic interests.

Redoubling offers a better alternative. There will be new, emerging threats to global security and the trading system that emerge as a result of Covid-19 chaos. Britain can either meet them and seek to control them on its terms, or they will come to the UK anyway on theirs. It is surely better to rebuild Britain’s power abroad as well as at home, than have to do it when it is too late.

Dr Andrew FoxallDirector of Research and Director, Russia and Eurasia Studies Centre

Covid-19 compels Britain to focus on Russia’s renewed disinformation campaign: Vladimir Putin knows a thing or two about a crisis, having caused a number of them over recent years. But he has only recently woken up to the scale of the latest: the Covid-19 pandemic.

Nevertheless, with Western countries in lockdown, with borders re-emerging between European Union member states, and with NATO struggling to find a role for itself, Russia is likely to conclude that the crisis validates key aspects of its anti-Western worldview – the weakness of democracy, the primacy of the nation-state, and the futility of multinational organisations.

With vulnerabilities in the West’s defence and security architecture clear, the Kremlin will seek to take advantage by exploiting societal divisions, sowing confusion, and weakening democratic cohesion. It is already attempting to undermining public trust in national healthcare systems by exacerbating the health crisis. One way it is doing this is through disinformation.

Matthew HendersonDirector, Asia Studies Centre

Covid-19 obliges Britain to reappraise its relationship with China: Whenever the COVID-19 pandemic ends, it’s already obvious that Britain’s relations with China have to change. The PRC is not a state committed to the rules-based international system, but rather a land and people oppressed by a  un-elected revisionist clique whose strategy is to replace that order. For decades the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) cruel misdeeds have been whitewashed by compliant British supporters, whose vested interests have consequently flourished. Thus the UK’s China policy has long been founded on naivete, ignorance, denial, greed and fear. COVID-19 has shown us the truth behind the vacuous ‘win-win’ facade of a  cynical tyranny determined to triumph over the values and standards of the free world. Whatever power the CCP retains when the disaster it caused is over, Britain’s policy must grow from fearless, honest assessment of what serves our national interests, and what threatens them.

James concludes: As these responses show, Covid-19 is likely to have a number of lasting implications for Britain’s domestic political situation and its role in the world. But at the same time, Covid-19 has shown – like so many challenges in the past – that retrenchment, whether in the form of isolationism or modesty and introspection, are not viable options for a globally-connected country like the UK. At the very least, Covid-19 reinforces Britain’s need to rework many of the ‘core assumptions’ that have underpinned its domestic and international policies for the past twenty, if not thirty, years. The UK has to put in place new policies, strategies and frameworks for dealing with China more robustly, just as it needs to strengthen the British state and national identity. This will help Britain project itself in an increasingly volatile world and take the measures necessary to protect the British people from threats to their very lives and wellbeing. Unfortunately, Covid-19 will kill thousands of British people; it is a crisis that should not be allowed to pass by without changes.

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