Pandemic-hit Britain could learn from this dystopia past

You can learn important lessons today by examining presumptions of the past. I recently finished reading a novel of dystopian science fiction set in Britain in the early 21st Century that contained a revealing detail.

UK Flag (CC Stefano Brivio)

The Stone That Never Came Down, published in 1973 by John Brunner, portrayed a UK plagued by permanent unemployment, its streets menaced by violent Christian culture warriors assaulting and mugging strangers, urban decay, poverty, terrorism, power cuts, and a Glasgow occupied by soldiers routinely attacked by out-of-work Scottish squatters.

Yet even in this dark vision of the future of Britain, there was a staffed, but overworked, Epidemic Early Warning Unit, made up of “people who run a computer watch on notifiable diseases [and] try and catch an outbreak before it spreads”.

Looking at the futures past is a great way to understand the expectations of the time. Even for a book with dystopian elements that ring true – in The Stone That Never Came Down Italy is in an economic and trade crisis that threatens its place within the European Common Market – the presence of the government in public life is much more discernible than it is today, at least from watching reports of the British government handling coronavirus today.

Even in a dystopia, it seems, the government had an undisputed role in protecting the lives of citizens.

Meanwhile, today, the UK like the US, both seem afflicted by a kind of dissociation between government and the public. Watching Boris Johnson defend Dominic Cummings’ road trip to Durham, or watching Donald Trump golf as tens of thousands of Americans die, there is a disconnect made possible by the reigning ideologies of past decades, populist disregard, and of course, communitarian communication technology that allows people to simply opt-out of information they disagree with.

A book written in 1973 is an interesting exercise in understanding the perception of the role of the government in the past. The year 1973 was less than three decades since the end of World War II, an event the British people could not have survived without a strong government. Now, as a real pandemic kills tens of thousands in the UK, the question is: how much longer do modern citizens of democracies have to endure the laissez faire hangover of the late 1990s? How much lower will the credibility of the Anglo-American model of government fall before a new iteration, a new relationship between the citizen and state comes to pass?

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