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14 October 2020updated 15 Oct 2020 11:18am

How the Covid-19 crisis has turned the UK into a “Frankenstate”

Boris Johnson’s calamitous response to the pandemic has exposed Britain’s deep democratic decay.   

By Paul Mason

When legal scholars use the term “democratic decay” it calls to mind the power-grabs in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, or Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey: rigging the judiciary and fusing the party with the state. But there is no better example of democratic decay than what Boris Johnson has inflicted on the UK during this chaotic autumn, in which he has lost control of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The executive, which spent months earlier this year ramming home the message that its actions were aligned with the science (even when they were not), took a decision in secret on 21 September to flout the advice of science. It refused calls by Sage for a short, “circuit-breaker” lockdown and ignored warnings that its £12bn privatised test-and-trace system was only having a “marginal” effect on the virus.

Having promised businesses – again privately – that there would be no second national lockdown, the government was forced to introduce a “national system of local lockdowns”, dumping responsibility onto local authorities that have scant powers to enforce them.

But the areas targeted for the new local lockdowns are exactly the areas that have already been in local lockdowns for weeks, with no discernible effect on transmission. At breaking point, Labour mayors and council leaders in northern England demanded a break with the party’s accommodating approach, and Keir Starmer delivered it with precision. He called for an immediate, England-wide, two- to three-week national lockdown, with financial support for workers, businesses and local government. In one brief televised address, Starmer ended the strategy of bipartisanship, and not a moment too soon.

[See also: Keir Starmer’s call for a “circuit break” has many benefits and few downsides for Labour]

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The result was the reappearance of something essential to the Schumpeterian concept of democracy: parties competing for votes by advocating alternatives. That political commentators could describe the move as a “gamble” shows just how atrophied our democracy has become in the face of the pandemic.

This is what democracy is supposed to look like: you listen to evidence, you formulate responses, you take votes and live with the consequences over time. So Starmer’s move was not a gamble: it was an essential response to a breach of principle. You can’t parade scientists on primetime television in the Spring, then ditch their advice because you promised your mates in the commercial property sector you would get the footfall rising in Pret a Manger by Bonfire Night.

The crisis has exposed faultlines in our democratic structures that can no longer be ignored. The first is that between devolved parliaments and Westminster. 

I’m writing this from Wales, where I’ve come to shut down my caravan for the winter because I correctly anticipated a travel ban would be implemented. Earlier today, the First Minister announced people from areas of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland with high rates of coronavirus will be banned from travelling to Wales from Friday 16 October.

In England, there’s the problem of mayors: some cities and regions have them; others don’t. So if Johnson needs to offload some blame and responsibility on Manchester he can talk to Andy Burnham. But there’s no mayor of west Yorkshire, and there won’t be one until 2021. So important cities such as Leeds and Bradford are cut out of the conversation. Not only do the powers of mayors differ, none of them has a regional version of the infrastructure standing behind the nation state: Sage, the Joint Biosecurity Centre and the civil service.

Finally, there is the House of Commons itself. It has been effectively sidelined in this crisis: MPs reduced to Zooming, its votes sporadic and often meaningless. In its place has arisen an ersatz executive power: Dido Harding and her team of used-car salesmen running test and trace; appointed non-execs in the Cabinet Office; Serco, Deloitte and all the other freeloading private companies getting contracts without competitive tender or public scrutiny.

Kim Lane Scheppele, professor of sociology at Princeton University, coined the term “Frankenstate” to describe decayed democracies such as Hungary and Turkey where, despite ticking the box for elected parliaments and the rule of law, all the pieces of the body politic are assembled wrong. A Frankenstate, she wrote in 2013, “is composed of perfectly reasonable pieces, and its monstrous quality comes from the horrible way that those pieces interact when stitched together”.

Today Britain resembles a Frankenstate. It has a Scottish Parliament where a majority of MSPs want out of the Union. It has a Northern Ireland Assembly whose role is to freeze sectarian warfare in a lollipop of fiscal largesse. It has a Welsh Assembly, which is sovereign enough to have a social-democratic health strategy, but not sovereign enough to raise the money to pay for it. And it has a patchwork of local authorities and mayors at war with each other over whether towns or cities are to be the engines of growth in the 21st century.

[See also: Why the Conservatives block a second Scottish referendum at their peril]

As we are about to discover, the Frankenstate is a highly receptive body for Covid-19. It orders schools and universities to reopen but cannot manage the epidemiological consequences. It tells the civil service that a “hard rain” is coming to wash their traditional competence into the gutter; but their replacements – appointees from a Cosa Nostra of private equity firms – fail miserably on first contact with reality.

A lot of things have failed during this pandemic: Public Health England, the biosecurity of Downing Street; broadcast media journalists, panting so hard for attention in the press conferences that they can barely complete their sycophantic questions. But the biggest thing that’s failed is accountability.

There’ve been no elections; no physical party meetings; no packed benches in the Commons; and the rule of law has veered from petty over-enforcement to ludicrous leniency, often depending on the skin colour or social class of the offender. So if this winter’s wave turns out to be the last, and 2021 becomes the rebuilding phase, one of the most important things we have to rebuild and regularise is our democracy.

It may be that, in the coming decades, we face regular pandemic threats such as this; we will certainly face extreme weather events due to climate change. And the Treasury will be sitting on a debt pile unimaginable last Christmas. If so, there needs to be a single, equitable principle underlying the distribution of power, resource and responsibility at the level of nations, cities and regions.

If Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford has the power to impose an emergency response to the virus, he should have concomitant powers to raise taxes and run the whole executive – including emergency services, the police force, a public health body and a civil service adequate to the task. But it makes no sense for the west Midlands, which has double the population of Wales, not to have such powers. 

Germany’s superb response to the crisis has not just been the result of a strong, pre-emptive national government and a socially cohesive culture. The länder system unifies all local responses at the same tier, with finance, health strategy and democracy focused at the regional level and accountability to regional assemblies with similar powers.

[See also: To understand Germany’s successes, we must concentrate less on Angela Merkel]

I’m not suggesting that Scotland or Northern Ireland should have less devolved power. But every region of England would, in the light of this fiasco, be better off if it had at least the same powers as the Welsh Assembly. Concomitantly the “towns” lobby – which has resisted the formation of city regions and is wary of the power of Local Enterprise Partnerships – would have to accept it has lost the argument.

The only rational alternative would be to re-centralise control and responsibility at Westminster for the whole UK. But it cannot work, nor should it. As Johnson will find out if he ever tries to countermand a second Scottish independence referendum, the moral authority of Westminster there has long evaporated. The same process is at work in the popular response to the northern English lockdowns: anti-London sentiment there is at the strongest level I’ve seen since the miners’ strike.

The devolution process has given birth to a chaotic mismatch between power, responsibility and accountability. We accepted it because it seemed to work, and because local populations were hostile to “more layers of government”. But Covid-19 is pulling at the stitches of the Frankenstate, and bits of it are coming loose.

It’s time to end the self-deception: our democracy needs a moment of renewal and regularisation. The prorogation crisis of 2019 and the Covid crisis of 2020 both showed that. If the challenge  – as it likely will  – falls to a coalition between Labour, the progressive nationalist parties and the Greens, the price tag should be a constitutional convention to distribute power fairly between towns, regions, nations, central government and their electorates.

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