The role of chance in politics is often underrated. The impact of Covid in different countries might illustrate this.
Take New Zealand and the UK, for example. It’s difficult to think of a time when the mood in each country – to the extent that such a thing can actually be gauged – has been so divergent.
In the UK, disappointment and failure predominate. The trial-and-error development of the government’s policy has been painful and at times inept. Heroic celebration cannot divert entirely from failures by the health services in managing Covid and maintaining other vital services. Even the miracle of rapid vaccine development seems less of a magic bullet than first thought. And many Brits are aware that their neighbours (and indeed they themselves) have not always been scrupulous in following sensible guidance.
While it would be wrong to say that the process is out of control, it is clear that some aspects of the crisis are beyond any government’s control.
In New Zealand, it couldn’t be more different. The system worked. New Zealand had the good fortune to be able to close its borders (glossing over the Trumpian precedent) and a heavy-handed lockdown made up for limitations in tracking and tracing. Relief and pride overwhelmed irritation, and the electorate gave the government a thumping mandate. If there is a dominant mood, it is satisfaction, with charitable concern for the difficulties of others.
But surely these moods should be regarded as transitory? After all, both countries must make their way in what we hope is a post-Covid world. Both governments have incurred expenditures which must be paid for by economic growth, higher taxes or restraining public expenditure.
So it is the impact of Covid on expectations which may prove the most interesting – and even decisive – factor in the next electoral cycle.
After the grim UK experience, many yearn to throw off the shackles of Covid restraints. But at the same time, there is a lurking understanding that the privilege of making choices again will almost certainly come with burdens. And it is probably dawning on the middle classes that they will have to carry the weight of supporting those who had their livelihoods crunched (assuming that the government continues to set policies to equip Britain for global competition by attracting the entrepreneurial and mobile).
New Zealand’s success, however, is more likely to have created an expectation of continued outperformance. And this may lead to problems.
On the one hand, the electorate appears relatively risk averse, which could hamper the government’s efforts to restore economic growth and indeed restore elementary freedoms to New Zealanders at the same time as the rest of the world.
On the other, there is little sign that voters have abandoned their hopes that the government will deliver on its transformational promises of abundant housing, carbon neutrality and making poverty history (among groups hitherto resistant to government-sponsored social engineering) – all without excessive taxation or painful reform.
While there is no guarantee that expectations in the mother country and the antipodes will converge any time soon, you have to think that those in New Zealand will be harder to manage, and much more vulnerable to the actions of chance.