Newnham Politics and Debating Society welcomed Sir Oliver Letwin

Newnham Politics and Debating Society hosted Sir Oliver Letwin last week for a insightful talk and Q&A session via Zoom. This was an opportunity for Newnham students and guests to hear directly from the former Chancellor, Home Secretary and author of the famous ‘Letwin Amendment’ to the Brexit Withdrawal Amendment Bill. Sir Oliver is one of many distinguished speakers joining the Politics and Debating Society over the year, and this was another though-provoking discussion. 

Sir Oliver spoke about the ‘implications’ of the COVID pandemic, in which he distinguished between the short-term consequences (disruption to education; isolation and loneliness; disruption of family life and severe economic dislocation) and the long-term consequences (the decline of the office and school as external from the home; a change in carbon emissions; changing relations within the family structure; growth of online retail; changes in demand in the housing market; shift in rural and urban relations.)

Through an exploration of these ‘implications’ he sought to illuminate the “profound nature of a global shock of this kind for underlying features of our culture, societies and governmental systems.” The first implication he predicted was a change in the way we perceive GDP as an accurate economic measure – lamenting the “absurdity of the use of money as economic activity.” Using the example of the increased demand for flour, due to the rise of home baking, Sir Oliver highlighted how GDP does not account for the greater volume of consumption and greater generation of welfare – merely measuring a decrease in demand for cakes and confectionary and an increase in a comparatively inexpensive commodity of flour.

The second implication he predicted was a change in our perception, calculation and response to risk and crises. Drawing on his work in the Cameron government as Minister for Resilience, he outlined how crises are commonly assessed on the factors of impact and likelihood. Those that are deemed ‘most impactful’ and ‘most likely,’ sanctions funds to generate ‘preparedness’ to respond to the threat in question. He asserted the COVID pandemic may instigate a change to the response to threat – describing how the surplus model underpinned by the ‘insurance view’ to healthcare in Germany has clearly prevailed as supreme over the historic approach of the UK and French healthcare models that prioritise efficiency. Thus, the pandemic may create a shift in mentality to sanction government spending (including spending on potential crises that may not ever occur) as legitimate use of government funds.

The third implication he predicted was a change in medical research and medical licencing. He believes that the pandemic will cause changes in the testing of medicines’ (including vaccines) safety and efficacy, their licensing and finally their distribution within healthcare systems. Such changes – that capitalise on new technologies – would increase the speed of access to medicine, meaning processes previously taking approximately 20 years may now only take 2-3 – “improving the quality of life of billions.” Building on this, he argued the pandemic has exposed that the “healthcare gap between ‘developed’ and ‘less developed’ nations [is] appallingly wide”: an issue which should be addressed with increased vigour going forward.

Hence, Sir Oliver’s speech ultimately illuminated how the implications of the COVID pandemic are not only multifaceted, but incredibly nuanced, and may indeed have “profound” changes in “the way we do business, the way we measure things, the way we prepare for things and the use of technology – especially in the medical field.” Indeed, he concluded with the remark that “shock waves precipitate reconsiderations that later come to be more important that any of the direct consequences of the shock itself.” Thus, the pandemic is likely to prompt “huge and enormously beneficial shifts in the conception of what is possible and what is necessary”, that may have the potential to “become a rather inspiring part of political history.”

The next guest speaker for the Newnham Politics and Debating Society will be Hilary Benn MP, on 7pm, 4th March, via Zoom. All members of College and guests are welcome.

Report by Mia Sawjani of the Newnham Politics and Debating Society