Notes From the Margins…

One Nation Under a Virus

  • March 17, 2020
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I’m not a huge fan of Winston Churchill.  He was racist, devious, and ruthless: a romantic imperialist who was as willing to celebrate the slaughter of ‘barbaric’ peoples who opposed the British Empire as he was to turn troops on striking Welsh miners or Greek communists   But that doesn’t mean that I don’t recognise the qualities that led the British public to accept  him as their wartime leader in 1940.

Unlike his parliamentary colleagues, Churchill came to that position after years in the political wilderness because of his determination to oppose Nazism – a position that he held even when his own party was falling over itself to appease Hitler.   As a wartime leader, he was able to unite a country that needed clarity, honesty, and determination from its government, and because he was able to articulate the national spirit of resistance in passionate and eloquent speeches that remain genuinely stirring to this day.

Read his 13 May 1940 ‘blood, sweat, and tears’ speech – or better still, listen to it, and you have a leader saying exactly what needed to be said at the time, who told his audience exactly what they could expect with no illusions, ambiguity, or false promises:

We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.

Of course it took more than stirring speeches for the British public to put their trust in a Tory politician who many working people recognised as their natural enemy in any other context.

Churchill’s wartime governments were national governments that were stacked with key figures from the Labour movement.  Attlee, Cripps, Bevin, Dalton, Morrison – all these politicians were able to reach parts of British society that Tories do not normally enter.  Without their presence in government, and without the movement they represented, Churchill’s speeches would have amounted to so much eloquent hot air.

Why do I mention this?  Because we are now being led into the most serious national crisis since the war by a prime minister who idolises Churchill and has even written a book about him, and yet is manifestly devoid of even the most basic qualities that defined his idol in his finest moments.  Yesterday, Johnson announced that the country was about to enter the kind of lockdown that we have seen in Italy, Spain, and China.

This announcement followed weeks of confusion and ambiguity, in which the government appeared to be pursuing a strategy of ‘herd-immunity’ based on the notion that infections would be allowed to increase until the majority of the population had become immunised against the coronavirus

Though supported by some doctors and experts in the UK, including the government’s own scientific advisors, this strategy had been challenged by the WHO, by scientists both in the UK, and across the world, who warned that it was likely to produce a huge death toll without necessarily achieving its ultimate objectives.

On Sunday, only two days after the government’s scientific advisor Patrick Vallance appeared on ITV to defend the strategy, Health Secretary Matt Hancock denied in the Sunday Telegraph that this was part of the government’s planning:

We have a plan, based on the expertise of world-leading scientists. Herd immunity is not a part of it. That is a scientific concept, not a goal or a strategy. Our goal is to protect life from this virus, our strategy is to protect the most vulnerable and protect the NHS through contain, delay, research and mitigate.

To add to the confusion, it was revealed yesterday that the government had in fact been pursuing a herd-immunity strategy after all,  based on  modelling by Imperial College’s MRC global infectious diseases research centre, and that new modelling revealed that the death toll from this herd-immunity strategy might be 250,000, whereas more stringent suppression might bring the death toll down to 20,000 or even lower.

If the new modelling is correct, then the government is coming late to a suppression policy that has already been put into practice in various countries,  and which the WHO urged the UK government to undertake weeks ago.

Yet for more than seven weeks, the government has adopted a strategy of ‘containment’, in which key policy decisions were filtered through trusted journalists as outliers, to the point when it was not always clear what was the strategy required from the public.

Throughout this period the government ignored criticism from the WHO, and from British and foreign doctors and scientists that its containment measures were inadequate and ineffective.  Commenting on the Imperial College’s modelling today, Dr Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the Lancet, tweeted.


Why did the government ignore these voices?  If herd-immunity was the goal, who decided on this policy, and why did they choose it, despite warnings of its high death toll?   Why did the government ignore the suppression and intensive testing/contact tracing methods adopted with some success in China, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, or other countries?

We certainly don’t need to take claims of ‘Tory genocide’ seriously, but we do need honesty and transparency about why these choices were made, and why new choices have been made this week, because otherwise we would have to assume that we are dealing with a catastrophically inept, blinkered, and dysfunctional government that does not know what it’s doing, and refuses to admit that it may have made a terrible misjudgement.

Even yesterday’s lockdown measures were fudgy and ambiguous.  Pubs, cinemas etc were ‘urged’ to close and Johnson’s instructions were peppered with shoulds rather than musts.  In making that announcement, Johnson repeated an already unfunny joke about ‘squashing the sombrero’ in describing the ongoing attempt to flatten the pandemic ‘curve’ and mitigate its impact on the NHS.

And today, it emerged that during an on call conversation with various CEOs on the need to produce more hospital ventilators, he described this goal as ‘Operation Last Gasp’.

Call me humourless, but having read stories of coronavirus victims asphyxiating in isolation wards because they don’t have these machines – in part because Tory governments did not produce more ventilators even when the need for them was identified years ago in their own pandemic contingency planning – I just don’t feel like laughing.

This is like Churchill whistling the can can during his 1940 speech.  It shouldn’t need explaining that mass death events and pandemics that overturn societies and wreck lives and futures are not to be mined for gags, and that a prime minister who thinks it is ok to do this is not inspiring or reassuring, but callous, disrespectful, and entirely lacking in empathy or understanding of the gravity of the situation.

These failings are not just failures of leadership or failures of character.  Given the dire situation in which we all find ourselves, they ought to confirm that a government led by a man like this is actually quite dangerous.  Because everything suggests that we will need an enormous civil mobilisation to manage this crisis -something that we have never undertaken in peacetime.

We will need to requisition buildings – including private hospitals -to treat coronavirus victims.  We need wartime levels of production regarding ventilators, masks, protective clothing for NHS workers.  We will need support systems for the elderly, and for our friends and neighbors.

We may even need a food distribution program to match the huge logistical efforts in China.   We will need creative solutions to help people cope with isolation help key workers cope with childcare.  We will need rent moratoriums, increased sick pay, compensation and support for local businesses, pubs, and cinemas.

Some of this is already happening locally, but it also needs national coordination and organisation. To achieve all this, we will need the labour movement, just as Churchill once did.  We need a coalition government that reaches out beyond the yes-men and yes-women who got their positions merely because they helped Johnson do Brexit.

The problem is that Johnson is not Churchill and he is not even Kitchener – even though the tabloids tried to echo this old finger-pointing imagery this morning. This unprecedented crisis would challenge any government and any leader, led alone a government led by a man who can’t unite the country and can’t mobilise society because he can’t be trusted to do the right thing, say the right thing, or even tell the truth about what he is doing.

The government is trying to spin its latest change in strategy as a response to the virus that was always anticipated.

But it is impossible to look at this terrifying buffoon without reaching the conclusion that the virus is only part of the problem, and that the dangers it poses, and the anxieties that it induces, are partly due to him, and that if we are going to get out of this crisis more or less intact, we need him gone.



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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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