I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say that by the time you read this most of you will be dead, but I am genuinely fearful about how serious this pandemic is going to get. Not quite the Black Death, but possibly up there with a world war.
Part of the tragedy as well as the frustration of the past 18 months has been watching our leaders refuse to accept that a pandemic is random, unremitting and beyond reason. It doesn’t take fright when it hears we’ve got a vaccine, because it has no ears and also no emotions. It won’t back off when enough of us say, “We’ve had 18 months of masks, time to take them off and get on with our lives,” because, as I’ve said, it has no ears and no access to a calendar.
It’s a pandemic, with no thought, imagination or diploma in business studies. When the head of an airline goes on television to say, “I really think we need to get our holiday flights going again; people want to travel and why can’t we just have clarity on where we can go and when?” the interviewer, instead of replying, “Thank you for coming on and giving us your perspective,” should really sign off with, “Because THERE’S A PANDEMIC! No one knows where this will go next. I got pinged this morning in my mum’s house so I’m stuck doing this in my old bedroom, yet you think we should all just go to Turkey! How did you work that one out? Did you ring the pandemic and ask? Or did you just leave a sodding message? And now the weather with Louise Lear.”
Discourse and disaster
As the pandemic runs all over the field, climate change limbers up on the benches. Which makes it possibly a weird time to stop everything and ask: what’s the nature of political discourse, and have we got it wrong? Weird or not, it’s precisely what I’m about to do in a series of special podcasts over the next four weeks. The episodes examine whether the way we do things politically is still fit for purpose, and what might come next; but it’s really the pandemic and advancing eco-disaster that have prompted the series. How have these awful realities come to pass, and – despite all the opportunities that our mass interconnectedness offers – why have we not been able to arrive at a common message in response?
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Climate change seems more present with every flash-flood, yet meaningful action is delayed because Donald Trump and others have persuaded enough people it doesn’t exist. Rather than be howled down with facts, this minority has been offered enough bandwidth online, on screen and in the press to grow themselves into a significant electorate that certain candidates need to woo in order to win.
Meanwhile, in England at least, we’re not so much sleep-walking as screaming-while-fully-awake into Covid disaster because of the peculiar politics behind the government dropping the compulsory mask mandate. Boris Johnson’s decision seems to be predicated on keeping his own party’s backbenchers on side and not being seen to need Labour votes to keep the masks going. This is where we are in the worst crisis to hit the country since the Second World War: far better to keep your own MPs happy than heed medical advice. It’s not so much “data not dates” as “party not pandemic”. Why has it come to this, and can we do anything about it?
I spent some time working out which was the best alliterative phrase to use there. “Party not pandemic” saw off challenges from “Conservatives not Covid” and “sides not scientists”. But then, I’m a writer by profession so a lot of my day is spent fretting over words.
Johnson, however, is at present a prime minister, which is why I’d like to know how much time he spent coming up with this passage in a speech he made in Coventry on 15 July: “There is one final ingredient, the most important factor in levelling up, the yeast that lifts the whole mattress of dough, the magic sauce, the ketchup of catch-up – and that is leadership.”
Either this is brilliant or it’s insane. Either leadership is yeast or it’s a sauce, but how can it be both? And who puts ketchup on to mattress-y dough? The line has many different visuals crushed into one; it’s a super-dense sentence of words collapsing in on themselves. The point is, though: why is Johnson spending time writing this? There’s a pandemic on! Go out and prime minister the shit out of it.
Which brings me back to fractured politics. The podcasts I’ve made with the New Statesman politics team will be taking it as read that, while party leaders try to centralise control from their Westminster HQs, voters are instead looking for solutions to local, community and regional problems; that despite our interconnectedness we’ve never been so averse to engaging with those whose opinions differ from our own; that while we may be turned off from politics, we’ve never been more political – though about individual issues rather than party messaging.
I’ll be bringing together folk from inside and outside politics, local as well as national, Whitehall insider as well as outside activist, and asking if we can make any connections. I’ll be sitting down Paul Mason and Anna Soubry, and asking what they could agree if they had to form a coalition government. I’ll be talking to Ian Hislop about why very few ministers resign now, Louise Casey about how to pull the levers of power inside Whitehall when tackling homelessness, and others about the demise of local government and the rise of the unelected adviser. A lot to chew on, and I hope in a civilised manner; otherwise, we’re all doomed.
This article appears in the 21 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Chinese century