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10 February 2021

Where are we now?

The Prime Minister is more popular as a leader than progressives would wish – but does he know his own country?

By Robert Colls

We decided early a) not to get Covid and b) not to lose touch with the grand- children. When these dual aims have collided, as they must, we have consented to take calculated risks, and just about everybody we know has done the same.

Living in Leicester has not helped. With an infection rate of around 140 per 100,000 at the end of June, we were the first place in the UK to go into special lockdown. Bradford led the peloton as the next highest, with a rate half of that. The UK’s curve flattened over the summer, only to take off again in December, with Brentwood in Essex reaching a staggering 1,442 cases per 100,000, or ten times the figure that put Leicester into special measures six months before.

So, where are we now?

Mentally, despite the vaccines, it still feels like we are in the middle of nowhere. Whatever you think, it is questionable. Whatever you do, is asymmetrical. You stay in your bubble, but bubbles float. You can go to work, but must stay at home. You can go out, but must hurry back. You squeeze past people inside the shop, but cross the road to avoid them outside it. Eddie Cochran 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. Common sense. That’s the thing. It doesn’t exist of course, but I use mine all the time, not least when trying to close a pub toilet door with both elbows.

[See also: A kingdom of fragments]

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Fire-break or circuit-break? One home government or four? Rule of three or six? The Swedish approach or the Danish? This professor or that professor? Mental health or physical? Save the old or teach the young? Test and trace or herd and shield? Behavioural science or just human behaviour? One dose or one and a half? Immunity or transmission? Symptoms or no symptoms? Covid long or Covid short? Cobra committee or Cobra effect? Above one or below one? At what point in the cycle? Have we passed the peak?

Dr Adrian James, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, says we are about to be hit by the biggest mental health crisis since 1940 (Orwell, by the way, reckoned that mental ill health declined in 1940). Not that he has any figures for 1940. I like to think of the country as closely gathered together around its experts. But isolated.

John Maynard Keynes recommended we change our opinions when the facts changed. But what would he recommend when the facts changed every week?

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Resounding election victory one year, can’t put a foot right the next, Conservatives must have learned by now to be careful what they wish for. Yet for every mistake they have made, other governments have made the same or similar. As the British Medical Journal reported in July, on procurement there were no exemplars, in Europe at least, and that hasn’t changed. Quite the reverse. Figures published by the European Centre for Disease Prevention Control for as of week 51 of the year (13-19 December 2020), are impossible to interpret according to political systems. With 16 million cases and 403,000 deaths across the EU/EEC and UK, we were placed alongside France, Italy, Spain and Germany as among the most infected and the most mortal countries in the world. With an infection rate of 475 per 100,000, it is perhaps understandable that at the end of last year Tory UK was doing four times worse than slick, social democratic Norway. But it is harder to understand why highly intelligent social democratic Sweden (on 878) took the wrong turn, and why the UK was doing appreciably better than the Netherlands (on 765). There will come a time to see how we have performed compared to other countries, but not even super-forecasters agree on when that will be. After allowing for errors of judgement, my guess is that culture and demography will have been the deciding factors.

***

On the other hand, you might say that the Conservatives had it coming. They let British manufacturing decline to the point where, humiliated, we were left scrabbling for countries that could still make ventilators and PPE. They impoverished local government first under Margaret Thatcher and then under David Cameron, only to find now they need it more than ever, not least in public health. The time has come for the Secretary of State for Health to read his AJ Cronin again before restoring municipal medical officers of health to their former pre-eminence.

Mary Ney’s September 2020 report for the Ministry of Local Government on the first Leicester lockdown stressed the role of local knowledge in dealing with civil emergencies. Praising the city council’s energetic commitment to tackling the virus, she declared local action to be the way ahead, and everybody agreed.

Or appeared to. Through the autumn, as the patchwork of localised intervention became more complicated and its rationale harder to explain, the second wave began, and a new mutant “variant of concern” (VoC) appeared. By November, other public health experts, such as Devi Sridhar at Edinburgh University were calling for blanket restrictions, while the Sunday Times (29 November) retorted that such restrictions were just another name for administrative convenience – aka government ineptitude. So many interviews, so little clarity. Even when perspectives share the same evolutionary theory of infectivity – on how “selection pressure” caused by lockdowns leads to greater infectivity in new VoCs – they can come to opposite conclusions. Thus, Professor Sunetra Gupta of Princeton, Imperial and Oxford calls for a policy of lifting lockdown in order to reduce selection pressure, while Dr Phil Whitaker of the New Statesman calls for total lockdown unto zero infection.

[See also: By sacking Joanna Cherry, Nicola Sturgeon has made her nemesis more dangerous]

The concept of zero Covid is a big problem in itself. How far should it go and how long should it last for how many cases? Central states are inefficient at the best of times, but that none of us are well served by techno-corporate developments in how we give and receive information should be obvious. I don’t know if a rational public sphere can survive Twitter and all the rest, but I do know that John Stuart Mill is no help (see On Liberty, chapter two “Of the liberty of thought and discussion”), and January’s évènements in the US show how bad national self-delusion can get when there are no rules.

Even so, Mill was right to say that nations, no less than individuals, must consent to take risks. This is because actions based on what one thinks is going to happen are astonishingly difficult to get right, and any prime minister who said he had a policy of changing his mind and taking risks would not last long enough to get out of the studio.

Most media commentators avoid making falsifiable predictions, and it’s not as if we are keeping score, for it is not they who have to make the decision, commit, do it, live with it and face the consequences when it doesn’t work out. Asking how many op-ed columns it would take to make a half-decent policy is like asking how many film critics would it take to make a half-decent film.

The point is, we are in the middle of a guerrilla war, not an Oxford Union debate, and we have had to move quickly and sometimes erratically in order to beat an enemy that fights in cells, replicates swiftly, and is embodied in our way of life. Up to now we have been using blunt weapons – lockdowns and so on – which target the very things, like trust, that enable us to fight together in the first place. Vaccines are smarter because they fight like viruses fight, but how long will they take and how many variants can they deal with?

***

We have now passed 100,000 deaths from Covid-19 in the UK (more than twice those killed in the Blitz). Probably no British government has had anything harder to deal with since the summer of 1940, and it might be that this is the more complex moment. Then, the national government, or the Churchill faction of it, knew what it had to do. After the retreat from Dunkirk, it had to defend the Channel, secure supply, and fight from there. Compared to the task before Johnson’s government – save society, save the economy, save the Union, deliver Brexit, save the NHS, save the old, save the young, save the north, save some semblance of social justice and, most of all, save itself – Churchill’s task was the more straightforward, even if the consequences of failure were the more immediate and beyond appalling.

Everyone claims to know Boris Johnson, yet an enigma he remains. He is no Churchill of course, but it is to his credit that he’s no Cameron or Theresa May either. Not a man for detail, he is capable of presenting the big picture. No orator, he has a voice, doesn’t condescend, and understands that if saying what you mean carries penalties, not saying what you mean carries penalties as well. Unlike Jeremy Corbyn, he knows his history but, like Corbyn, he doesn’t give the impression of knowing his country. Does his country know him? Once out of London and the south, Johnson becomes the maybe-prime minister, and in Scotland not even that.

Opinion columns bristle with stories of his manifold failings. Accused of exaggerating the new strain’s transmissibility in order to justify cancelling Christmas by one lot, he was accused of not cancelling Christmas enough by another. The level of personal abuse directed at him has been truly spectacular, the worst in living memory. We are told he looks baffled, callow, chaotic, tired, rakish, populist, fascist, shifty, shallow and short. Liar, cad, and useless are the least of it. On the matter of personal decency I prefer to speak as I find. Perhaps it’s a boy, public school thing? Maybe Allegra Stratton can advise?

And then there’s that lazy general abuse of Tories that progressives dish out daily. The Guardian recently managed to publish an opinion column covering the whole of British history (“Throughout history Britain’s ruling class has created crisis after crisis”) without a single historical fact in it, apart from a quotation from Orwell that omits to mention that the great man’s real target in “The Lion and the Unicorn” was ruling-class highbrows like Guardian commentators, not ruling-class lowbrows like Johnson. If you want to explain Johnson, far better to take Orwell’s essay on Kipling. In the same way that Orwell argued that Kipling was a good bad poet, Johnson might be seen as a good bad politician: so bad, in fact, he keeps winning elections.

***

For Labour-voting Leavers like me, Johnson is the instrument and the clarification. Having got us finally out of the EU, and having restored the idea of popular sovereignty and more direct accountability to a system we can hardly claim to control, but understand (or feel we understand) far better than anything that goes on in Brussels, he has clarified who we are and what we can do. How long he can hold on to office, given the long political fallout of Covid, is anybody’s guess. His critics want the virus to lose but they do not want the government to win. Governments are never finished in any case, only abandoned, and there will be plenty to do when Matt Hancock or Rishi Sunak takes over. Meanwhile, full of their misplaced clarities, like Jacobites of old, Remainers will grow even more deracinated drinking to their prince across the water.

And it is here that Labour should beware. Given the scale of the crisis, support for the government has held up. However many mistakes Johnson has made, it is not clear, even to Labour, that Corbyn would have made fewer, or that a Labour Brexit would have been smoother. Given that many have loved ones working round the clock to get things done, Keir Starmer must remember that any attack on that process can come across as an attack on them. For now, he should concentrate on revealing the venality (in government contracts) and fingering the incompetence. The larger narrative can wait until Labour works out what it is.

The people voted to take back control. Whether that will be enabled by an Oxford laboratory we still don’t know for sure. There’s a lot we don’t know, any more than our professors and politicians know, and there comes a point when we cannot expect a greater moral authority from the state than we might reasonably expect of ourselves. A little humility and toleration might not go amiss all round. In the meantime, we find ourselves crossing a darkling plain following a star in the sky that, with 12 million jabs, just got a little bit brighter.

[See also: While Boris Johnson remains in charge, the Scottish independence movement is unstoppable]

This article appears in the 10 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, End of the affair