Columnist and politician Lord Daniel Finkelstein, shared his thoughts on the fallout of the Covid-19 crisis on the UK political establishment during one of Eton Bridge’s lunchtime seminar series. He summarises his key takeaways for us here.
The famous scenes in that great classic film, in which the mayor refuses to shut down the beach because of shark attacks, are based on a real incident. However, there really were shark attacks in New Jersey that, in addition to their direct impact, closed down businesses and ruined the local economy.
Following on from this, we know what the political impact was. In the first federal election after the attacks, in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson was seeking to continue in office. He was successful, but he did significantly worse in those parts of New Jersey where the attacks had taken place.
Now, dealing with shark attacks is certainly not a federal responsibility. Voters were not really expressing a view on Wilson’s management of the incidents. Nevertheless, they were just holding him accountable for how bad they felt, particularly economically.
This is what I call the Jaws Effect, the way that politicians pay a price for disasters that happen on their watch. Boris Johnson will suffer politically from Covid whether or not he succeeds in winning the argument over his handling of the disease.
As well as seeing Jaws, I recommend studying colonoscopies. How much pain do you feel when you have a colonoscopy? It’s not, as you might think, the amount of pain at any given moment multiplied by the length of time it goes on. Instead the pain you recall is governed by something called the peak-end rule. It is a product of the pain you feel at the peak and how you feel at the end.
So, you can actually get a colonoscopy to last longer and find it is recalled as less painful because the pain faded off at the end.
In other words, timing is critical. The government cannot avoid the Jaws Effect entirely, but it does have one bit of good fortune. It has four and a half more years in office. If it can have a stronger last six months it may be able to fade the pain away and have people recall the period as less painful.
In another film reference, the other thing you have to do is to “follow the money.” This phrase is famously associated with Deep Throat advising Bob Woodward how to chase down the Watergate scandal. In fact, the real Deep Throat, Mark Felt, did not use this phrase at all. It was invented by William Goldman for the film All the President’s Men.
It’s very good advice. If you want to chase down the prospects of this government: “Follow the money”. There will be huge pressure to spend money, placed on Rishi Sunak by public expectations and also, not coincidentally, by Number 10. Yet at the same time there will be a huge and possibly structural budget deficit.
The great political struggle of the next few years will be over this – over the pressure to spend money and the lack of money.
Finally, as you work out what the next few years will bring politically, don’t forget the Aztecs. Why did the Aztecs allow themselves to be conquered despite early military victories? The answer is that they were suffering from smallpox.
The fight of man against disease goes back to the dawn of mankind and we can see how it has defined history. Therefore it will now. Expect a big impact on the national debate.
The next few years will bring a battle over nationalism, a tilt towards security over liberty and the possible end of Pax Americana with the rise of China.
Strap in. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
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