“The new normal” is a phrase you will see everywhere today. It must be a contender for the 2020 phrase of the year, alongside “social distancing” of course. There is a lot of debate about what normality will look like over the next twelve months, several years or longer, and how it will be different to the old normal, whatever that was. I suggest this is the wrong argument, and a waste of time.
For years, environmentalists have been urging us to use less air travel, eat less meat, enjoy nature, use our cars less often or switch to electric vehicles, ride a bike. What we have found this year is that all of these things are happening at an amazing rate, an unimaginable rate. And a large slice of the population are claiming it to be a disaster. That slice of the population is largely the over-privileged white middle class, of which I am unhappy to report I am a full member.
We have heard that road traffic fell to 1970s levels for several weeks in the spring. What you see less often is an examination of whether this might be a good thing. I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s and you could drive anywhere you liked, even at rush hour, without getting stuck in stupid and unnecessary jams every day. I do not consider a return to 1970s traffic levels to be a bad thing.
In any logical country, given the risks around long distance air and boat travel, and given the risk of appalling unemployment at home, people would be keen to holiday locally. Not here, because so many of you prioritise guaranteed sunshine and cheap flights over everything else. As someone who has always holidayed in the UK, I resent having to fight people for restaurant tables who would rather be developing skin cancer on a Spanish beach. You are unworthy. Go to Spain. You are not wanted in Devon.
Just weeks ago, the prospect of a British holiday (incorrectly labelled a “staycation” by heathen illiterates) seemed like an undreamable luxury. One whiff of a plane to Spain and suddenly Britain is not sufficient. Well, good riddance.
I contend that the near future, perhaps permanently, will look more like the 1970s than you might think. High unemployment, less air travel, fewer Chinese-built gadgets, but with better food, locally produced by people in your village or town and sold by smaller shopkeepers. Yes, the food will be more expensive, but you will have less to invest in electronics. You might not need three cars and, if you do, you might use them less. You might take up the government scheme to help you fix that rusty old bike.
There was a lot about 1970s Britain that was good and remembered fondly by those of us who remember it. Best of all, it plays into the narrative of the Brexiteers completely. As we leave the EU, as we recalibrate our attitudes to public sector workers in the UK, and as we worry about climate change, let us celebrate the fact that a medieval virus has made us nicer people.