The slate is wiped clean. It does not matter what political spectrum any of us are on. So said Lee Cain, director of communications at 10 Downing Street, as the British government began to marshal the country to deal with coronavirus.
The urge to unite in the face of a national emergency is a noble one. The British like to talk about the “Blitz spirit”, invoking the memory of the country’s finest hour in the second world war. Similar calls for the abandonment of political partisanship can be heard all over the western world as governments from Warsaw to Washington struggle to respond.
There are already some powerful examples of bitter political adversaries coming together. The US Congress — a byword for paralysis and partisanship — was able to bury differences and pass a $2tn stimulus package. In the UK, a recent poll gave Boris Johnson a 78 per cent approval rating for his handling of the crisis — numbers which may get a further sympathy bump now the prime minister himself has the virus. Other national leaders, including Italy’s Giuseppe Conte, Emmanuel Macron in France, have also seen their poll ratings rise.
But look a bit harder, and the familiar partisan divisions are usually just beneath the surface. This virus will not kill off those political disputes. On the contrary, as the human and economic damage caused by Covid-19 mounts, so old political divides are likely to re-emerge, widen and become more bitter.
The wartime analogies that are currently so commonplace are imprecise. In a war, domestic enemies are displaced by foreign enemies — and those enemies have faces and names. It may be harder to unite a country for a long struggle against a disease — which is an invisible, inhuman foe.
In the US, one tell-tale sign of the persistence of partisan division is the stark difference in attitudes to coronavirus between Republican and Democratic voters. Polls taken on a state-by-state basis show that Democrats are more likely to say they are extremely concerned by the Covid-19 outbreak.
Attitudes to Donald Trump’s performance reflect the same divide much more directly. For his most ardent critics, the US president’s daily appearances provide incontrovertible proof of what they have thought all along — that Mr Trump is fundamentally unsuited for high office. The president’s critics are incredulous that his approval ratings have actually gone up since the beginning of the crisis.
As the health and economic situation worsens in the US and the presidential election heats up — this Trump-induced polarisation will probably become even more rancorous. Any suggestion that his administration may seek to delay November’s vote because of coronavirus would make the situation explosive.
In the UK, the health emergency has made normal politics, and even the Brexit debate, irrelevant — but the bitter political antagonism between Remainers and Leavers has not disappeared. Many Remainers still firmly believe that Mr Johnson is an incompetent liar. Any evidence that he has mishandled this emergency, or been less than frank, will be taken as confirmation of this long-held belief.
Meanwhile, Brexiters are alert for any sign of a Remainer conspiracy to thwart Britain’s exit from the EU. The suggestion that Britain’s trade negotiations with the EU should be extended, to allow the government to concentrate on the pandemic, is treated with the utmost suspicion. The notion of forming a national unity government as happened during the second world war is also dismissed by many Brexiters as a great Remainer plot.
The American and British pattern, in which the outbreak simply entrenches political partisans in their most deeply held beliefs, is also holding inside the EU. Advocates of common European debt instruments have seized upon the crisis as proof of the urgent necessity of the thing they have wanted all along — eurobonds. But the Dutch and German governments are still suspicious of the idea. Attitudes have not shifted but there has been an increase in the bitterness of the language used.
António Costa, the Portuguese prime minister, has dismissed statements by the Dutch finance minister that southern countries had failed to carry out necessary economic reforms, as “repugnant” and warned that “recurring pettiness” threatens the future of the EU.
Familiar divisions are also widening within some European nations. In Spain, the confrontation between the government of Catalonia and the central government in Madrid has flared up again — this time over whether the Catalan government has the right to demand and enforce stricter lockdown measures within its own region.
The clash between Catalan and Spanish nationalists is a classic form of identity politics, which was always likely to prove impervious even to a life-and-death emergency like this. Put under extreme pressure, people are even more likely to fall back on group loyalties and core beliefs. They will see the crisis through those lenses — and will be alert for any evidence that groups they already despise are at fault or conspiring against them.
It would be nice to think that this crisis will allow western nations to get beyond identity politics and political partisanship and pull together. But I would not count on it.
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