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State of play

State of play
Written by Robert Colls

So, five years into Brexit and one year into Covid what is the state of play? No British government has had anything more complex to deal with since the summer of 1940. Compared to what Johnson’s government has had to do over the past year Churchill’s task was the more straightforward. Yet Boris is still at the crease.

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Getting Brexit done

We voted to get Brexit done but it’s still here. You get the feeling that Brussels could get spiteful and the UK resistance won’t know when to stop.  As for Covid, we never saw it coming and, in a way, still can’t. Every decision invites its equal and opposite reaction. You mask up to collect the parcel, but not to open it.  You stay in your bubble, but bubbles change shape. You go out, but you must stay at home, except when you must go out. You squeeze past inside the shop, but cross the road outside it. Eddie Cochrane reckoned there were only three steps to heaven (‘As life travels on and things do go wrong’) but there came a point last year when something as simple as getting in and out of a pub toilet involved so many steps it looked like the Hokey Cokey.  My friend Linda’s two proudest achievement under lockdown was to cut her fringe with her left hand, and to use public toilets without touching any surface whatsoever.  Other people spent the year learning Russian, weaving carpets, writing novels…

We all spent 2020 asking questions and hoping for guarantees. Swedish, or Danish? Imperial, or Oxford? Mental health, or physical health? This professor, or that professor? Official Sage, or Independent Sage? Hard cop, or soft cop? Save the old, or teach the young? Test and trace, or herd and shield? At what point in the cycle?  At what point in the trial? At what point in the future? The President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists says we are about to be hit by the biggest mental health crisis since 1940. Not that he has any figures. Actually, Orwell took the view that mental ill health declined in 1940 but, that said, I never knew we had so many professors and I don’t remember a time when they have been canvassed so hard. Although they couldn’t say for how long, ninety per cent interviewed by Nature magazine in February 2021 thought that Covid was something we were all going to have to live with.

But how? Dame Mary Ney’s September 2020 report for the Ministry of Local Government on the first Leicester lockdown stressed the role of local knowledge in tackling ever-changing situations. Praising the city council’s high energy commitment to tackling the virus on its own doorstep, she declared full lockdowns were not the way forward. Local action was best, she said, and everybody agreed.

Or appeared to. As patchwork restrictions got more complicated and harder to explain, and as the second wave began to rise and new mutant ‘variants of concern’ (VOCs) appeared in its wake, other public health experts like Devi Sridhar at Edinburgh started calling for blanket restrictions all over again, while the Sunday Times (29 November) retorted that blanket restrictions were just another name for government ineptitude. Even when they shared the same theory of transmission – for instance the Darwinian theory of how selection pressure caused by lockdown leads to greater infectivity in VOCs for example – experts could still come to opposite conclusions. Gupta of Oxford (Princeton and Imperial) called for a policy of lifting lockdown in order to reduce selection pressure. Whitaker of the New Statesman called for total lockdown unto zero infections. Our local barber wants to know where he stands and who can blame him? John Maynard Keynes recommended we change our opinions when the facts change but what would he recommend when the facts change every week?

I’m not sure when it happened, but slowly it dawned that everything sat on the balance of things, that all predictions could be wrong, and that Covid was not the only variable the government had to consider.  Dealing with the worst financial crisis since the Great Crash of 1929, the Treasury might yet have to learn the hard way that markets are unpredictable, that trade flows are unpredictable, that interest rates are unpredictable and, as Hayek warned long ago, that central states are unpredictable too, not so much because they are vulnerable to economic forces (though they are) but because they are woefully ignorant of those they govern.  Gradually, and entirely to the government’s surprise, it seemed to dawn on the country that scientific advice (on lockdowns for example) was conflicted, that the logistical demands (of test and trace for instance) were gigantic, and that there was nothing out there but hard choices. In other words, the nation saw that this was serious, that normal politics did not apply, that the commentariat did not count and, benefits of the doubt all round, that the government was doing its (woeful) best.

The jury is out

All governments are inefficient at the best of times, but this one found itself in the middle of a guerrilla war and has had to move quickly and sometimes erratically in order to face an enemy that has no brain, that fights in cells, that replicates swiftly and is embodied in our way of life.  For all of 2020, we were using blunt weapons – lockdowns and so on – trained on the very things, like connectivity and trust, that enabled us to fight in the first place. Vaccines are smart because they replicate like viruses replicate. But can they save us?  A third wave would truly test, quite literally, what we are made of.

The jury is out on the Prime Minister’s performance even though the level of personal abuse has been truly spectacular. Opinion columns bristle with stories of Johnson’s manifold failings. As if he alone was responsible for metropolitan infidelity and ambition, we are told he is not a fit and proper person. Last week The Observer’s chief political correspondent called him a “greased piglet” and a “serial bungler”.  Only “capitalist running-dog” was missing from Mr Rawnsley’s invective.  But ‘bungler’?  And ‘piglet’? Perhaps it’s a boy public-school thing? Maybe Allegra can step in?

In the meantime, no British government has had anything more complex to deal with since the summer of 1940, and, with three times more people killed than in the Blitz, it might be that this is the more fractured moment. Then, the national government, or the Churchill faction of it, knew what it had to do. It had to defend the English Channel, secure supply, and fight on. The nation was onside, if not ahead.  Compared to what Johnson’s government has had to do over the past year – deliver Brexit, save the economy, save the Union, save the Good Friday Agreement, save the NHS, save the old, save the young, save our institutions (from themselves), save some semblance of social justice and, most of all, save itself – Churchill’s task was the more straightforward even if failure in his case would have been beyond appalling. 

Johnson started out losing the political Battle of the Care Homes but he appears to be winning the Great Patriotic Vaccine Counter-Offensive. For every mistake he has made, other comparable countries seem to have made the same or similar. As the British Medical Journal reported last July, and the EU vaccine scandal continues to demonstrate, there are no European exemplars. Figures published by the European Centre for Disease Prevention Control for week 51, December 2020, are hard to interpret according to political system. With 16 million cases and 404,000 deaths at that point across the EU/EEC and UK, the UK, second in both cohorts, joined France, Italy, Spain and Germany as among the most mortal and infected places in the world. With an 8 January infection rate of 614 per 100,000, it was perhaps understandable that Bumbledom Tory UK was doing four times worse than slick social democratic Norway, but it was harder to understand why highly intelligent social democratic Sweden (on 790) appeared to have taken the completely wrong turn, and why middle-class affluent Netherlands (on 623) should be doing slightly worse. Undoubtedly there will come a time when the ONS looks into how we have performed compared to other countries.  Not even super-forecasters can agree on when that will be, and things might change in the meantime, but my hunch is that demography (age, obesity, household), not political system, will be the deciding factor.

On the other hand, you might say that the Conservatives had it coming. In the 1980s they allowed British manufacturing to go to the wall up to the point where we, the first industrial nation, was left scrabbling for countries that could make ventilators and proper PPE.  Thatcher, Major and Cameron weakened local government only to find they need it now more than ever, not least in housing and public health. It’s hard to know what their vision of Britain was in these years, but they didn’t seem to think it needed communities or regions. The time has come for the Secretary of State for Health to restore A J Cronin to his well-stocked book-shelf before restoring municipal medical officers of health to their former pre-eminence.

As for the public sphere, I don’t know if it can survive social media, but I do know that John Stuart Mill is not much help (On Liberty, chapter 2) and that a Royal Commission would shrink back. Mercifully, we don’t do civil disorder that often. Looking at Barnier’s unruffled laying down of the law compared to what May and Johnson had to deal with in the Commons, and the Lords, and the courts, we might remind ourselves that in spite of all that revolutionary posturing, so far, we have had no gilets jaunes at the roundabouts, no casseurs on the streets, and none of l’insécurité currently cloaking Paris. No curfews in the UK. No heavily armed soldiers on the streets. Nous marchons.

Doing the unpredictable

Even so, Mill was right to say that nations no less than individuals must consent to take risks.  Actions based on what you think is going to happen are astonishingly difficult to get right. To criticize government “dither and delay” only applies to situations we recognize and interventions that are known to work. At first, governments did not know what it was they were dithering over. They still don’t, not entirely. On the other hand, most political commentators don’t do predictions for it is not they who have to make the decisions and defend them in practice. Try this. In the face of around 700,000 infections, or 1% population, and the likelihood of new VOCs from anywhere in the world, plus the Chief Medical Officer’s recent warning that the current unlock could lead to 30,000 more deaths, should we now, at this point, enforce a more not less stringent lockdown?  And if that doesn’t work, should we ratchet up to add a huit à huit curfew and with Royal Marines on the street?   Oui ou non?

In the same way that Orwell argued that Rudyard Kipling was a very bad poet so bad he was good, Johnson might be seen as a very bad politician so bad he keeps winning elections.  Napoleon said he’d rather have lucky generals than good ones and it might be that this “oddly formidable, consistently underrated” Prime Minister (Philip Collins, New Statesman, 4 March 2021) is what we have got.

For Labour-voting people like me who voted Leave, Boris is both the instrument and the clarification. Having got us out of the EU, and having restored the idea of popular sovereignty and accountability, he has clarified who we are and what we can do.  I’ll not mention the string of legalistic coups d’etat on which the EU was built (but see Perry Anderson, London Review of Books, 17 December 2020), nor the bullying that preceded the referendum and the condescension that followed it (but see Robert Tombs, This Sovereign Isle, 2021), but no one talks about Brussels being on the side of history anymore and Covid has put paid to a lot of loose talk about the EU as an evolved form of advanced political life. Looking forward, given the long political fall-out of the past five years, it is impossible to guess how long Johnson will hold on to office, but governments are never finished, only abandoned, and there will be plenty to do when he goes and one of the middle order batsmen (Gove, Sunak or Hancock) takes over.

It is here that Labour should beware. Given the scale of the crisis, support for the government has held up. Even after a Covid Budget, YouGov put it 13 points ahead. However many mistakes Johnson has made, it is not clear, even to Labour, that Corbyn would have made fewer, or that Starmer’s own half-in half-out Brexit would have been smoother.

As leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer no less than Johnson faces an unpredictable set of variables – including not knowing which way Johnson will turn.  If the Conservatives, as of necessity, decide they are a big-state party, Labour has to decide what kind of party it is, other than big-state.  If the Conservatives, as of necessity, decide in favour of big tax rises, Labour has to decide whether to go higher or lower.  And now that their organic relationship with the working class has all but gone, Labour needs a serious argument about why they are here other than to be against stuff. Provided they can remember what it means, the Conservatives could be well on their way to being Tory again, while Labour wonders how to be socialist again in ways that don’t simply lean back on 1945 (good as that was).

What’s the state of play?  It’s a long time since Labour was in to bat and, for now, they should concentrate on fielding the venality, trying not to be over-coached, thinking about who they are playing for, and trying to come up with the sort of sledging that their vice-captain came up with in her “Eat nowt to help out” remark. In truth, Labour has to be patient because, in spite of the massed ranks of binoculars watching the wicket to see the stumps fly, Boris is still at the crease.

Robert Colls’ This Sporting Life. Sport and Liberty in England 1760-1960 was published recently by Oxford University Press.

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About the author

Robert Colls