Building a New Jerusalem after Corona
Updated: Apr 8, 2020
The original title of this piece was “What’s Culture without People?”. When I proposed this at the beginning of the week to Mark Wingett it seemed inconceivable – given what was already quite clearly a jobs apocalypse for our sector – that we would not have a comprehensive solution from government before today. At the very least I imagined that the unenlightened self-interest which characterises Boris Johnson would cause him to immediately delay capital spending on HS2 and other baubles in favour of emergency aid for the new millions of unemployed. After all, an 80-seat majority starts to look pretty thin when hospitals are over-flowing and the economy is broken.
It looks like by the time you read this we will have the government proposal. Briefly, let’s hope it does two things. First, allow sector companies to keep the teams they have left, because so many have already gone. Second, and crucially, it must contain a mechanism to allow the immediate reassemble of the 1m-plus staff who have already been let go. I do believe, along with the PM, that we will bounce back as a nation. But that bounce cannot happen without companies retaining their teams.
For companies themselves, if we are to survive and not break the law by trading while insolvent, we state aid right now, not loans, and an immediate suspension of leasehold forfeiture to protect sites. Again, if we don’t have sites to trade from we can’t bounce back. While there have been some sensible landlord actions re rent-free, many more are sticking by rent demands with some even seeking to profit from the crisis by demanding ‘admin fees’ for moving tenants to monthly payments. And the suspension of business rates and commercial loan repayments mean that repossessing a property no longer carries any cash risk for a landlord who sees an opportunity to profit once this crisis is past.
But what of the future after the crisis? Yes, there will be one. I have always resisted Greta-
style doom-mongering. I am profoundly optimistic that human ingenuity will beat CV-19 just as it will beat climate change. And it will do it without returning us all to the stone age, which seems to be the deep-seated wish of publicity-hungry millenarians. We humans enjoy apocalyptic thinking and somewhere deep in our psyches believe that we are authors of our own doom. We forget that we have heaven on earth already, it is the society of people working together in business, government and public services to continuously improve the lives of everyone with the perfectly healthy side-effect of making a few quid along the way.
Yes, self-interest plays a role, it has to. No, we don’t always get it right. But we learn and go again and again and again and the result is progress. The current crisis has the potential to destroy all of that by causing millions to lose faith in the very societal compact that allows these daily miracles to happen.
So the real opportunity in all of this horror is to remake society so that it works better for all. Not by a Corbynist levelling down. No thank you (although current events make this a clear and present danger). But by listening to experts, respecting the motives and validity of the state, appreciating that everyone in society is connected and all have a role to play, celebrating the fact that we are members of a global community and are subject to the same opportunities and risks. The Corona Virus is certainly an equal opportunities destroyer.
For companies it represents an opportunity to reset. Given the existential nature of current events, nothing by definition will ever be the same again. So this is the moment to look at your business – which frankly currently doesn’t actually exist – and say if I am able to how will I rebuild it. The one easy bit in all of this is change because change is a given. We have no staff, we have no buildings, we have no stuff. It’s all gone, we are in default, we are insolvent.
It may come back in some form, and Lord let’s hope it does. And when it does, let’s all be sure to build the new Jersualem. Let’s remake the perfect business. That should surely be the Corona legacy.
In Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, surely the best ever song about the end of days, the penultimate verse runs:
Oh, who did you meet, my blue-eyed son? Who did you meet, my darling young one? I met a young child beside a dead pony I met a white man who walked a black dog I met a young woman whose body was burning I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow I met one man who was wounded in love I met another man who was wounded with hatred And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall Out of all of that, I will take the rainbow.