The Coronavirus Makes Politics Look Small

If the worst fears are realized, the scale of the health and economic challenges posed by the coronavirus may well dwarf Brexit. Although the hardest of Brexits available, in which Britain and the EU fail to agree on a trade deal by the end of the year, is forecast to cause a recession, the mainstream view is that most other scenarios largely involve bargains of greater British autonomy in exchange for lower rates of economic growth. Take one example: On Monday, The Guardian published a story claiming that Britain leaving the Erasmus student-exchange program would “blow a hole” in its economy. What size hole, one might ask? About £243 million, or $315 million, a year—a tiny fraction of Britain’s £2.8 trillion economy. Equally, the British government estimates that the economic benefit of a trade deal with the United States—the big prize after Brexit—would amount to just 0.16 percent of GDP.

The point is not to question the wisdom of Brexit—or even to dismiss the cost of leaving Erasmus, the single market, or the customs union—but to put Brexit in perspective with the challenge of a global epidemic. Ultimately, Brexit is a regional argument wrapped up in power and history, territorial disputes and pride, principles and high ideals. A cynic might argue that this debate has now moved on to the extent to which European economic hegemony is to be expressed in law and in practice. These are not unimportant issues, but they’re hardly the conversion of Constantine. Ultimately, Brexit is not a matter of life or death, literally or economically. The coronavirus, meanwhile, is killing people and perhaps many businesses. Its potential impact, if not managed and contained, is closer to that of the 2008 financial implosion. And like that crisis, it has the potential to radically change societies and even political regimes.

Take the small and the big. In Britain, the government’s scientific advisers believe that draconian social restrictions can hold only for a limited period of time—the working assumption being about 12 weeks. If and when the outbreak is deemed uncontainable, the government will inevitably impose restrictions and introduce emergency legislation to ensure that public services and the economy are able to cope. The government has insisted that any such measures will be temporary.

Yet the temporary often proves the most permanent. The permanent presupposes human foresight; the temporary has no such vanity. Income tax is the classic example: It was first introduced as a temporary measure in Britain to fund the Napoleonic Wars, and now it’s a fixture of life. The German constitution was written only for West Germany, and specifically stipulated that it would be dissolved upon reunification with the East. In the end, the West simply absorbed the East. Smaller examples include the Eiffel Tower, meant to last only 20 years; the London Eye, which had initial planning permission for just five years; and British pub opening hours, introduced by the Defence of the Realm Act 1914 to last for the duration of World War I, but which have remained in place long after. Ironically, the Northern Irish border—the main point of dispute in Brexit—was not supposed to be a permanent settlement, until it was, and then it almost derailed Boris Johnson’s eventual Brexit deal.