Notes From the Margins…

Coronavirus: Raise Your Voice and Point the Finger

  • April 22, 2020
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There are times when it’s necessary, and even obligatory,  to establish a truce or even a temporary alliance with your political opponents in order to fight an enemy that is even dangerous and harmful than they are.  Such truces might involve all kinds of unlikely compromises and political arrangements, from coalition or unity governments to a willingness to put aside long-established confrontations and find ways of working between politicians that would not normally touch each other with a barge pole.

This is why Labour politicians joined Churchill’s wartime government.  At first sight the  Coronavirus crisis ought to require a similar spirit of cooperation, and at the very least a williness to cut the government some slack.  After all, faced with an unprecedented threat of such magnitude and complexity, it’s inevitable that even well-intentioned politicians will make mistakes, and do some things right and some things badly.

In these circumstances it behooves those who are not involved in the day-to-day decisions to appreciate how difficult these decisions are, and to support what the government does well and not jump to the worst conclusions when it does things badly.

This is what the government’s supporters have asked the opposition and the public to do, and they aren’t the only ones. Yesterday, the Guardian‘s Rafael Behr published a piece on the (digital) return of parliament, arguing that Covid-19 is an invitation to a ‘more constructive politics’ and that this possibility is impeded by the default adversarial settings of the UK’s tribalist politics. Thus

It is true that hard decisions look easier with hindsight. And it is reasonable to presume that ministers were trying to do the right thing and not, as hysterical online critics allege, conspiring to euthanise swaths of the population. It should be possible to think the government messed up while also appreciating that it is staffed by human beings under stress, not evil warlocks. But Britain has never been great at measuring political performance with nuance. The two settings are hard-boiled contempt and soft-soap indulgence.

There’s a lot to unpick here. Anyone who has spent time on Twitter will be aware that there are those who have accused the government of ‘conspiring to euthanise swaths of the population’ and ‘Tory genocide’ etc.  But Behr is also promoting his own caricatures.  And the ‘constructive politics’ that he recommends require a government that a) is well-intentioned and has the health of the population has its overriding priority  b) is willing to admit to its failures and mistakes c) is realistic about what it can achieve and  transparent, accountable, and rigorously honest with the public about what the government is doing and what it is trying to do.

All these conditions have been conspicuously absent throughout this crisis.

You do not need to be a ‘hysterical online critic’ to observe that the government -however briefly – appeared willing to accept a massive death toll in order to protect the economy and flirted with a ‘herd immunity’ strategy that it now denies ever having implemented; that we are now heading for the highest death toll in Europe as a result of the decisions that were taken and not taken in February and early March; that the Prime Minister was absent from the helm at crucial points in the crisis; that Brexit undermined the UK’s ability to manage the crisis; that Tory governments have run down the NHS to the point when it does not even have enough nurses to staff its new Florence Nightingale hospital; that the UK has mismanaged its procurement programs for PPE and ventilators and promised things it could not deliver and was unable to deliver the things that it promised.

Johnson may not be an ‘evil warlock’ but on 3 February he made a speech which made it clear that he intended to seek economic advantage for the UK from the quarantines that other countries had already begun, and claimed that the Coronavirus would trigger ‘a desire for market segregation’ that would go beyond ‘what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage’.  In these circumstances, Johnson suggested, the UK could rise ‘like Superman’ and be a global flagbearer for free trade.

Such fantasies not indicate a willingness to ‘do the right thing’, but a predatory British exceptionalism, coupled with extremist rightwing libertarianism and the delusional assumption  that the crisis would somehow leave the UK unscathed.

Since then we have seen the same fatal combination of hubris, arrogance, and incompetence repeated again and again.  Day after day a succession of hapless ministers appears on our tv screens, many of whom cannot even be bothered to find out how many people have died in hospitals and care homes the previous week, who routinely avoid the few pointed questions put to them about the absence of PPE.

On Saturday a government minister promised that tonnes of PPE would arrive the next day from Turkey.  On Sunday it was revealed that the equipment was still in Turkey and that the UK government had not even made a formal request for it.

Criticize such behaviour – or even point it out – and you are likely to be accused by the government’s supporters of ‘politicizing a pandemic’ or belonging to a ‘lefty hate mob’ or lack of ‘patriotism’.  But these criticisms have not been made by Twitter trolls or even by the opposition, but by Downing Street insiders, Piers Morgan, NHS staff and officials, civil servants, the Sunday Times Insight Team, and -very occasionally – by the Telegraph. 

It’s certainly disconcerting to find someone like Piers Morgan – a self-aggrandising narcissist at the best of times – hammering hapless and dishonest frauds like Therese Coffey and Helen Whately for their inability to hold on to even the most basic components of their brief, but there is no doubt that these minions deserve to be hammered, and we would all be better off if most of them were gone.

Regardless of Behr’s invitation to be generous, their arrogance and ineptitude are symptomatic of a government that has systematically denied and obfuscated the mistakes it has made, or attempted to blame other people else for them.  At various times the government has had the temerity to suggest that ‘EU regulations’ have inhibited the UK’s response to the crisis, and that NHS staff may be at fault for ‘misusing’ PPE.

You really need to be unencumbered by a moral compass to say such things.  Only yesterday the civil servant Sir Simon McDonald claimed that the UK’s absence from the EU’s procurement programs was a ‘political’ decision, thereby contradicting previous government claims that its failure to join these programs was due a ‘communications error.’

Yet today McDonald issued a convoluted retraction, and claimed that what he said was incorrect and ‘due to a misunderstanding.’  McDonald did not explain why he was right yesterday and wrong today, but once again it isn’t necessary to believe in ‘evil warlocks’ to conclude that he has been subject to serious government pressure, to which he has shamefully capitulated.

Such behaviour suggests once again that we are dealing, not with a government earnestly trying to ‘do the right thing’, but which  wants to be seen to be doing the right thing in order to protect itself politically, and is ruthlessly prepared to do whatever it takes to control the narrative and avoid taking any responsibility for its mistakes.

This is why the government has gone to such lengths to rebut the Sunday Times allegations over the weekend.  But the ‘political decision’ McDonald refers to is not simply a mistake.It suggests a government that preferred – at least initially – not to procure ventilators from the EU, simply because it was the EU that was offering them.

No one should be surprised by this.  Johnson’s government came to power because of Brexit and in order to do Brexit.  Its ministers were chosen not because of their ability but because of their loyalty to the Brexit project and to Johnson himself.  Even now,  the government still refuses to postpone its negotiations with the EU, and is prepared to contemplate a no deal scenario that it was clearly unprepared for even before the Coronavirus crisis exploded.

So it’s very difficult to imagine how to engage in  ‘constructive politics’ with a government like this, or to avoid the conclusion that such a government deserves all the criticism it gets, and ought to receive more than it has got.

Because people have died and will die because of what this government has done, and not done, and they should never be allowed to hide from that, or make us forget it.  And if we can’t get rid of them, we can at least retain the right to raise our voices and point the finger at those who would rather we all just shut up and applauded.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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