Professor Tim Evans, Professor of Business and Political Economy, Middlesex University London
The UK government is world-class when it comes to contingency planning and emergencies. Ministers, civil servants and all manner of official experts regularly rehearse and practice for a wide range of disasters and incidents. Across the National Health Service, our emergency services, and our armed forces, talent is dedicated, boundless and primed.
In terms of political economy however, a pandemic ultimately represents the moment when healthcare conjoins with national security. It is when for collective wellbeing, healthcare starts to interface with the military and the more coercive elements of statecraft.
It is in this context that the British government is rightly mobilising the NHS to be fully backed up by more than 200 of the country’s high quality independent hospitals. Together, the UK’s independent sector not only boasts more than 8,000 additional acute beds and hundreds of operating theatres, but it also offers hundreds of sophisticated intensive care and high dependency beds too.
Similarly, across education, as pupils and students remain home from their schools, colleges and universities, many are being encouraged to use private online communication platforms for their remaining lessons and studies. They are able to carry on working because of private investment and know how in the digital space and a new generation of high-tech solutions.
Looking back to World War II, everyone knows that between 26 May and 4 June 1940, things became so bad on the beaches of Dunkirk for more than 336,000 British, French and other allied soldiers, that the government had to unleash Operation Dynamo. Under its auspices, an over-stretched Royal Navy became rapidly augmented by a heroic flotilla of hundreds of private merchant marine vessels, trawlers, yachts and pleasure craft.
It was only because everyone worked across the public private divide of sea power that the UK was able to rescue so many from the Dunkirk beaches – enabling them to fight the evils of National Socialism another day.
When push really comes to shove, governments always mobilise the ‘little ships’ of the enterprise economy to cope better with the inevitable short comings of state provision. It has ever been thus and all our histories are littered with such moments. Beyond the purview of formal public sector institutions, there has always been a vast array of civilians, privateers and volunteers prepared to step up in times of national emergency.
From the first state hospitals created by the Roman military, through to the voluntary militias and privateers defending Britain during the Elizabethan age, statecraft and good governance has always oscillated between the public and private realms – variously demanding the full mobilisation of institutions rooted in different philosophies of ownership, organisation and operation.
Even beyond the state’s highly trained police and armed services, the UK also has several hundred thousand fully trained, licensed and accredited security operatives. Indeed, for every one police man and women, there are now more than two operatives in the private law enforcement sector. Overseen by the Security Industry Authority, the statutory body charged since 2003 with its regulation, licensing and standards, the sector has become ever more sophisticated and capable to support and augment all manner of necessary duties.
It is in times of national emergency that we see the veracity of Edmund Burke’s argument concerning a nation made up of vast numbers of what he called ‘little platoons’. When threatened with danger, our society has the breadth and depth to mobilise brilliantly diverse public, private and charitable organisations. We are better placed as a society because we are so at ease in conjoining tax funded air sea rescue and, for example, the voluntary genius of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
In times of calm, this rich and diverse tapestry invests, innovates and builds. Which is why in times of crisis, pandemic or war, it offers so much strength and resilience. Together, it is the ‘little ships’ in our enterprise economy that helps to reinforce us all against the rigidities and inflexibilities of one size fits all politics – with all its risky unintended consequences.
This is why those charged with leadership in governance in open and democratic societies always have to be mindful of the path dependent oscillations of history, the frailties of the human condition, and the challenges presented by unintended consequences.
It is why everyone from private hospitals, insurers, care homes, security personnel and the digital world has to be mobilised as the situation requires.
And why, a few months from now, when hopefully the worst of the Covid-19 crisis is behind us, all these ‘little ships’ must be returned successfully, having been granted up-front payments by the government, to their own economic estuaries and waterways; serving customers and clients, quietly building, ready, to serve the very next day.
“This article is based on a piece previously published by the author in The Daily Telegraph”