Should we resist the new normal?

Battle of Ideas festival 2021, Saturday 9 October, Church House, London


The lockdown response to Covid-19 has been a unique period in our social history, and many are now asking whether it will result in a profound change in human attitudes and behaviour. Will habits of fraternity and solidarity have been damaged irreparably by so many months of anti-social measures like stay-at-home isolation, ‘social distancing’, or masks? Will the onslaught of restrictive legislation, from the suspension of the right to protest to the suggestion of vaccine passports, have knocked our faith in a free society? And have the life and death experiences of a global pandemic led to existential questions about what it means to be human?

Profound social changes often lead to such questions. But behind all this, many sense a problem: the so-called ‘new normal’. There is a tendency to depict the future of humanity as at the mercy of events beyond its control – from the threat of viruses to the demand for net zero, from endless public-health emergencies to a mental-health epidemic. Extreme conspiracy theories about a ‘great reset’ seem to capture the sense that many in power see the ‘new normal’ as an opportunity to push for big changes to society. A sense of inevitability hangs in the air – everything will be different, whether we like it or not. At the same time, there seems a widespread acquiescence to the reorganisation of public life around safety and precaution. As Lord Sumption, the former Supreme Court Justice, put it: ‘The British public has not even begun to understand the seriousness of what is happening to our country. Many don’t care and won’t care until it is too late’. Does this view disparage the public, or point to the success of official fearmongering?

On the other hand, many insist there is much to gain from an attempt to create a ‘new normal’. For one, the ‘old normal’ was no utopia – with economic stagnation, flatlining living standards and fraying social bonds. Old moral certainties have been called into question for some time, with populist upheavals representing a widespread sense of alienation from mainstream politics. What’s more, new-normal changes such as working-from-home have left many with more time for friends, family and leisure. Many argue that the pandemic legacy should be used to ‘build back better’; to tackle the inequalities and injustices that defined pre-pandemic life. Perhaps embracing the ‘new normal’ might open new possibilities.

However, critics note that most of these changes seem to have been created and enacted without much input from the public. Concerns that many felt were underlying the Brexit vote of 2016 – a sense of ordinary people being removed from those who make decisions – seem to have resurfaced. Small-business owners are grappling with new coronavirus regulations and city dwellers are waking up to overnight road closures and traffic changes. The 2021 local elections returned a spate of independent candidates, which many argued reflected a widespread feeling that traditional politicians were far removed from the concerns of the public. What was the point of a revolt against technocrats and experts if the ‘new normal’ comprises of subordinating democratic decision-making and following the benevolent guidance of public-health nudges, social justice advocates, or environmentalists?

Has the last 19 months produced a historic chance for society to revisit its priorities and change society for the better? Or are there some things worth keeping from the way we lived in the ‘old normal’? Can we rescue the idea of change from a widespread fatalism? Or is all this change itself the issue? Should we embrace, or resist, the new normal?

Kate Andrews
commentator; economics editor, the Spectator; weekly columnist, Daily Telegraph business pages

James Bloodworth
journalist; author, Hired: six months undercover in low-wage Britain

Tom Slater
editor, spiked; regular commentator on TV and radio; co-host, spiked podcast

Toby Young
general secretary, Free Speech Union; author, How to Lose Friends & Alienate People; associate editor, Spectator

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; independent peer, House of Lords; author, I STILL Find That Offensive!