Britons woke up to the news today that inflation in the UK has hit a 40 year high of 9%. Recent increases to power bills, fuel and groceries have in no small part driven this inflationary pressure and indications are that prices could increase further. The bank of England governor has called for wage restraint fearing that this could drive inflation even higher, though with the cost of living rising so quickly this call will likely fall on deaf ears. The recent losses in local body elections and lacklustre polling for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives is in part due to the rising cost of living. But is this all just a case of bad economic management by the Conservatives?
My usual reference point is comparing and contrasting the UK and New Zealand situations, having lived in both countries. New Zealand’s inflation rate is at a 30-year high hitting 6.9%. A friend in NZ recently asked if I could send petrol over from the UK as the cost had gone up too much over there, the joke soon fell flat when I told them how much a tank of petrol cost here in the UK. In New Zealand, the opposition has been quick to blame the Labour Government in New Zealand for this, at a time when support for the government is falling fast. Having won a record majority in 2020 for their handling of the pandemic, Jacinda’s government now faces a backlash over coronavirus restrictions and is taking the blame for current economic challenges. Commentary in the New Zealand media also tends to focus on inflation as a domestic issue, as such much of the commentary is often wide of the mark.
In Australia, the country goes to the polls for their first federal election since the pandemic. Whilst polling numbers are still fairly close there is a real possibility the right of centre Liberal Coalition Government led by Scott Morrison may lose, in no small part due to inflation and the rising cost of living. Whilst there are plenty of good reasons to vote out the Coalition government, not the least their inaction on climate change, like in Britain and New Zealand, is the cost of living increase in Australia really down to the federal government?
In the US, President Biden and the Democrat controlled House and Senate are facing an uphill battle in the November midterms against a Republican Party now very much aligned to Trumpian politics. For the Biden administration there appear to be few options to control inflation in the short term. I have previously blogged about the limitations of the US political system and it is no surprise that many Americans yet again feel frustrated. However, it is clear that this is not a crisis limited to any single nation-state, what we are dealing with is a global inflation problem.
Previously, I have written about the importance of global governance and how our current global governance institutions are not up to the challenges we face in the 21st century. The current crisis illustrates this more than ever. At the current time, we turn to the nation-state and in democratic countries we as voters can hold our leaders to account for what happens, including economic management. In reality, how much can Jacinda Ardern, Boris Johnson, Scott Morrison, Ursula von der Leyen or Joe Biden or any other world leader do? When finance Ministers do the national budget each year, many of the key economic factors are determined by external factors, not by their government’s decisions. Likewise, we can beat up the Bank of England, the Reserve Bank in New Zealand or other central banks for not controlling inflation within the targets they have been set, but they did not cause a global pandemic, invade Ukraine or control many of the key drivers of international inflation at that time.
This is not to let governments off the hook, as they still have the power to mitigate the effect of high inflation. Governments have the power to reduce or remove sales taxes, regulate pricing or support people on low incomes through benefits or policies that help lift wages. On the global stage, finance ministers when they attend the yearly Davos meeting, or leaders who attend the G20 meetings, need to be doing more to develop a global economic strategy that can protect against these sorts of shocks. Further, they need to create global governance institutions that can ensure a stable global economy that delivers for everyone, not just now but into the future. This is what we should be demanding of our governments.
Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s the big push was for globalisation, which in reality was a push for removing tariffs and international market liberalisation. The anti-globalisation movement of the time often took the position that this agenda weakened the nation-state and undermined democracy. The problem, which neither side really understood, is that in a world where we for a long time have depended on international trade but also on the movement of people, relying on national governments to resolve this will inevitably fail. Margaret Thatcher, in the introduction to her memoir The Downing Street Years, claimed the following:
An internationalism which seeks to supersede the nation-state, however, will founder quickly upon the reality that very few people are prepared to make genuine sacrifices for it
Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street years, page 11
Yes, in terms of consciousness people still hold nationalism and their own country in high regard. But where we increasingly see countries with governments of all different colours struggling to control the cost of living, at some point we must face the fact that an international response is required. People may not believe in current global governance institutions or be “prepared to make genuine sacrifices” for them. But they may do if these institutions were in fact giving people a better quality of life by controlling inflation and the cost of living. At the time of writing, this all seems somewhat academic, with there being little likelihood of an international response, other than some short term cooperation to control the immediate crisis without looking at the underlying long term problems. Yet it is clear that we will continue to face these economic challenges with tools that are ill-equipped to face the problems. Only a truly international response can create an economy that delivers for all.
On February 24 2022 Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian military to invade Ukraine, a nation that declared independence from Russia on August 24 1991. This is not the first time in Ukraine’s 30 years of independence that the Russian Federation has attacked Ukraine, having annexed the Crimea region back in 2014. Vladimir Putin has made no secret of the fact that he believes Ukraine has been ruled by forces hostile to Russia. Whilst many were surprised by the Russian government’s decision to take this hostile action toward Ukraine, there were plenty of warning signs that this may happen.
It is not my view that war is inevitable, be it in the Ukraine, Palestine, Syria or elsewhere. However, there are often only small windows of opportunity where a lasting peace can be built or negotiated. In the case of Russia and Ukraine, there have been plenty of warning signs over the last 30 years and potentially different responses to these may have produced a different result. What-if-isms are of little comfort or help to those now forced to flee Ukraine or those who are now staying to defend their homeland against Russian invasion.
Russia is the aggressor in this conflict. The targeting of civilians and shelling during a so-called Cease-Fire are acts committed by the Russian forces, and the US President is correct to call President Putin a ‘war criminal’. Those who justify or use moral equivocation by citing the presence of the far-right in Ukraine or that this was in response to NATO expansion miss the point. Yes, the far-right does have a presence in Ukraine and yes they also have joined the resistance to the current invasion. But the logic that this somehow justifies the Russian invasion is incredibly warped. For one, the war gives the far right in Ukraine space to recruit and win support by being part of the resistance. Secondly, if the correct response is for Russia to invade every European country that has an active far-right then very few nations are not at risk of invasion.
On the left, many are still influenced by the analysis of Lenin during the First World War and just before the 1917 Russian Revolution that in an inter-imperialist conflict socialists should be standing up to their own ruling class. During the First World War, there were strong arguments for working people not to align with the Tsar in Russia or other imperialist leaders in that conflict. It is dangerous to simply apply this idea to the current conflict without understanding that the context is different. There is a strong argument that people should be holding their own government or ‘ruling class’ to account during any situation like this. Ultimately, the decision to invade Ukraine was Russia’s, but there is still a question of what the governments and in particular NATO members could have done to help prevent this and what they can do now. Sadly, some on the left and drawn both bizarre and quite dangerous conclusions based on the premise that their role is to stick it to their own ruling class. Bizarrely, some socialists still mistake Russia to be some sort of socialist/anti-imperialist power, thinking that there is some residue influence of the 1917 revolution.
In my late teens, a became involved with radical left politics largely influenced by opposing the invasion of Afghanistan and later Iraq. I began studying the history of US foreign policy in places like Chile in 1973 or Iran in 1953. In 2001, just before the attack on the Twin Towers in New York, Australian journalist John Pilger released a documentary called The New Rulers of the World, which clearly outlined the role played by the US in installing the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia. This in turn meant that country allowed western manufacturers to move production to that country where labour standards were very low and clothing and other items could be produced cheaply. Whilst Pilger has always been prone to being an evangelist for his cause and being a polarising figure, in the past, he has played an important role in highlighting the shortcomings of western governments. Pilger’s bizarre article written days before the Russian invasion is selective with which facts it includes and effectively paints President Putin and the Russian state as victims of Western propaganda. Pilger like many others on the left is so determined to expose their own ‘ruling class’ that they’ll downplay or ignore the countless human rights abuses committed by Russia under Putin’s leadership.
Many on the left, and some on the right or centre focussed their attention on NATO. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is a Cold War military alliance designed to stand up to the Soviet Union. After the end of the Cold War, there is a legitimate question as to whether this alliance should have continued. Many continued to be nervous about Russia, a nation that is resource-rich and historically has been very influential. It also does not have a strong history of democracy and instead has had a brutal history of state control both under Tsarism and later when it was the USSR. Certainly for the nations like Lithuania and Ukraine which were ruled by Russia for many years this nervousness is justified. Whether retaining the NATO alliance was the best way to counter this is a fair question. However, to say that the threat of Ukraine joining NATO provoked or even justified the Russian invasion is just wrong. Kier Starmer’s threat to withdraw the whip from any UK Labour MP who supported the Stop the War coalition who is calling for No NATO Expansion is an overreaction. That said, the optics of the coalition’s slogan are really bad. Whatever faults there are with NATO, it is Russia that has just invaded a sovereign country resulting in death, destruction and people being displaced. Trying to deflect from this is not a credible position at all.
The other argument put forward is moral equivalence, whereby people argue that the decision of the US and its allies to invade Iraq was just as bad so who are we to go criticising Russia. The decision to invade Iraq was wrong and few would still defend that action. That does not mean Britain or the US should not criticise Russia for what it is doing in Ukraine, if anything it places a greater responsibility on these governments to uphold human rights now. This is even more important when there is a real chance of forces more sympathetic to Russia taking power. Former US President Donald Trump continues to describe Vladimir Putin in glowing terms. Trump continues to exert considerable influence and control over the Republican Party, who currently stands a strong chance of gaining at least one house in the midterm elections later this year. In such a scenario there are no guarantees that the current pressure being applied to the Putin regime will hold up.
One of the problems has been the inconsistent approach to Russia since the end of the Soviet Union. The recent pressure for Roman Abramovich to sell Chelsea Football Club has brought to light some of the corrupt practices he and others used to make their fortune including the purchase of an oil company from the Russian government in a rigged auction in 1995. The UK allowed these characters to invest this ill-gotten gain into its economy, right up till earlier this year. When the current Russian regime attacked Chechnya in 1999, invaded Georgia in 2008, invaded Crimea and parts of Donbas in Ukraine in 2014 and engaged in a proxy war in Syria it was met with only mild responses including limited sanctions against Russia or mealy-mouthed speeches. Meanwhile, the city of London continued to be awash with ill-gotten money from Russia. That the current UK Prime Minister gave a peerage to Lord Lebedev, owner of two major UK newspapers and friend of Boris Johnson and other senior Conservatives despite security concerns being raised at the time indicates the level of influence Russian money now has in the UK.
Back when the Eastern block fell, the priority was to integrate them into global markets. This was of course at the end of the free market 80s where the naive view was that through economic liberalism democratic political reform would also occur. This maybe a generous view, for many, access to Russian markets and resources was an opportunity for profit. Whilst opportunistically making money from this new market, the political response was to leave NATO intact and treat Russia as a potential foe. Whilst trying to impose Western-style democracy into Russia rather than letting the people of that country decide on their own future would have been an error, to assume that a country with a history of little else than totalitarian regimes would be quick to embrace liberal democracy, free speech and human rights was foolish. What the best approach would have been in hindsight is still unclear, but it seems to profit from post-soviet Russia whilst at the same time treating it as a potential military and political threat has not led to a good outcome.
The invasion that began just over two months ago will have a profound impact on global politics for many years. The conflict is unlikely to end quickly and will take a toll on everyone involved. In the end, it will likely result in a military defeat for Russia and humiliation for Putin. This could mean a much more volatile situation in dealing with a state that has a permanent seat on the UN security council and has nuclear weapons. Much of Europe currently relies on Russia for oil and gas and moving away from this will cause considerable economic upheaval. And Ukraine will take years to recover from this invasion even once the conflict has ceased.
I answer the question posed in the title by returning to what I wrote on my blog when Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson became Prime Minister in 2019:
Make no mistake, Boris Johnson has talent. He knows how to make a stirring speech and can tap into people’s hopes and fears as a politician
My blog post written shortly after Johnson became UK Prime Minister
Now one might think being the Prime Ministers of the worlds fifth-largest economy requires a great deal more than this, and indeed it does. It requires a mixture of luck, animal cunning and being able to use both to maximum effect.
My last post in December outlined some of the issues the Conservative Government in the UK had been having in the latter half of 2021. Yet the position still seemed quite recoverable, indeed only a few months earlier, the former Red Wall constituency of Hartlepool had been won by the Conservatives. Local Elections in May 2021 also were very positive for the Tories. Things were bad by the end of 2021, very bad in fact, but it still did not seem fatal.
2022 was not the start of the year the government were hoping for. Despite repeated denials that there was party’s at 10 Downing Street during the lockdown, further evidence emerged that there were, including a photo showing the Prime Minister with staff sitting in the garden at 10 Downing Street having “a work meeting” where there was wine and cheese in May 2020, when social gatherings were illegal in the UK. This was at a time when people could not visit dying loved ones and the public were told not to socialise in this way.
The investigation by Civil Servant Sue Gray found that there were “failures of leadership and judgment by different parts of Number 10 and the Cabinet Office” in allowing these events to occur, and then a number of these events are now being investigated by the Metropolitan Police. None of this was made better by the Prime Minister’s response that nobody had warned him that these parties were against the rules, rules that he had announced as Prime Minister in March 2020.
Former Conservative Prime Minister John Major has said that Johnson broke the rules by holding these parties and believes he should resign. Others close to the Conservative Party including financial donors have also called on him to go.
As Conservative polling takes a hit and MPs get increasingly restless, it is still a surprise to many that Johnson stays on. Indeed most other PM’s would have resigned by now. So why does Boris Johnson stay on and why do the Conservatives let him. For Johnson, he knows if he leaves office now, he’ll likely never return. Having only served in the role just over two and a half years and most of that time leading (badly) during a pandemic, he has to try and stay on. But why on earth do the Conservative Party let him? Because despite everything, including the quite serious long term damage to the reputation of the party and indeed of the United Kingdom, he is probably still their best chance of winning an election.
Boris Johnson does not play by the normal political rules. Many claim Johnson uses the Trump playbook, and his election outcome in 2019 certainly benefited from Trump’s intervention which helped get the Brexit Party not to stand against the Conservatives in crucial leave voting constituencies, specifically the so-called Red-Wall. Yet Johnson plays by his own rules, which include fast and loose morals, including talk of beating up journalists. He has a level of confidence that has helped him get away with things other politicians simply would not. His clown reputation and building the brand “Boris”, the clown who got stuck on a zip wire at the 2012 London Olympics during his time as Mayor.
Johnson won the London Mayoralty by seeing an opportunity, specifically that London voters were tired of Ken Livingston. Further, the clown reputation meant Johnson’s opponents underestimated him in not just one but two London Government elections.
His ascent to the Conservative leadership was far from smooth, with his first attempt in 2016 being undermined by Michael Gove. His record as Foreign Secretary was also far from successful, especially regarding the Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe issue. Yet his stance on Brexit, specifically undermining Theresa May’s attempts to negotiate a withdrawal agreement, paid off.
He proved ruthless in his first few weeks as the leader, withdrawing the Tory whip from 21 MP Conservative MPs who would not back his Brexit plan, including his own brother. His decision to prorogue parliament when he could not get MPs to agree to a general election ultimately worked for him. Despite losing legal challenges to this prorogation, eventually, he got MPs to agree to an early election, winning the best result for the Conservative Party since 1983.
His victory in 2019 was due to two things, tapping into the hopes and fears of those frustrated by attempts to thwart Brexit and a deeply divided opposition. His performances as an orator during this campaign were far from his best work, and despite arguable receiving fairly favourable press coverage during the campaign, felt the need to hide in a fridge to avoid doing a media interview days before the election. Those who in recent weeks, having previously supported Boris Johnson, now believe he is not fit to be prime minister seem to have only just worked out what he is really like when the signs have been there from the start.
One of Johnson’s strengths throughout his career has been his ability to bring people in that can carry him. Dominic Cummings, loathsome as many may find him, was a driving force behind the Brexit campaign in 2016 and the 2019 Conservative election victory. There were of course plenty of others, including some who have been with him since he was mayor of London who has recently quit. The problem with being an advisor or a ‘back roomer’, is that ultimately the candidate will not always do what you wish they would. It is immensely frustrating to feel you are the brain behind the power, yet never to get credit, and worse to have your clever strategy ignored.
The other issue Johnson faces is that despite his show of strength, for better or for worse, in getting Brexit done, he is not ideologically in step with much of the traditional Tory base. This in part explains his appeal to voters who traditionally have not voted Tory, certainly, this proved the case both in London and in the 2019 election. For many Conservatives, winning a strong majority and remaining in power was worth the compromise, even if it meant accepting a level of what the late Margaret Thatcher would have decried as corporatist policy. The recent decision to increase National Insurance has certainly tested the tolerance of many Conservatives who subscribe to the Thatcherite philosophy of low taxation and small government.
As I have written earlier, social care has been a blight on the political landscape and one that neither Labour nor Conservative governments have adequately addressed. With demand for social care increasing, governments have been under pressure to increase funding. Both Blair’s New Labour and Cameron’s Conservative Governments lacked the political courage to increase taxes to pay for social care. Whilst there are strong arguments against the way the government have decided to increase taxes, specifically that rather than an across the board increase to National Insurance there were other options whereby the heaviest burden would have fallen on those best placed to contribute, nonetheless, an increase in taxation to pay for social care was inevitable. Any serious analysis of relying on the private sector and savings to address this need show this is not viable.
Is it a coincidence that the announcement of the National Insurance increase in September 2021 happened just before the government and in particular Boris Johnson started having problems? It would be a mistake to think that the open civil war within the Conservatives under Theresa May was only about Brexit or that the 2019 election result put these to bed. It is quite clear that the stories of lockdown parties and other scandals have been disclosed by people within the government. Plenty of Tory MPs would be quite happy to see Johnson fall or to apply maximum pressure on him so he backs down on the National Insurance increase. Boris Johnson may not be a Thatcherite ideologically, but so far it does seem he is not for turning and understands that doing so would ultimately be more harmful.
For small-government laissez-faire Tories, a leadership challenge may not serve them well. Were Johnson to go, the likely successor would be Rushi Sunak who talks free market but in practice has been one of the most interventionist Chancellors in modern times during the COVID-19 crisis. It is unlikely that Sunak as PM would reverse the National Insurance increase, given he has been its main advocate thus far. The rights favoured candidate, Liz Truss, is simply not credible.
Boris Johnson remains Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. He does so, for now, due to the lack of a strong viable alternative within the Conservatives. Despite everything, he is still the leader most likely to help the party regain support, despite him now being severely damaged. Some in the Conservatives may be thinking it best to leave him in place at a time when the cost of living is increasing significantly when the May Council elections will likely not be good for the Conservatives (the particular boroughs having elections this year are less favourable to the Tories, but a backlash to “party gate” will likely play a role) and the National Insurance increase. Better to find a new leader nearer to the election. But this is a risky strategy, as the Prime Minister has damaged not just his reputation, but that of the Conservatives and the government he leads. His attempts at statesmanship during the Ukraine crisis may have helped him a little, but his reputation on the global stage is also tarnished by what has happened at home.
Boris Johnson, should not on balance still be Prime Minister and in the long term, the Conservatives risk being severely punished for not removing him. But despite everything, he remains in post and still, we cannot write him off.
The year was 1993 and the British Conservatives had been re-elected for a rare 4th term in office. The then Prime Minister John Major used his conference speech in Blackpool to announce his government’s Back to Basics campaign promoting family values and calling for a return to ‘old core values.’ This speech was soon subject to criticism and ridicule after a series of scandals that became known as Tory Sleaze. The most famous of these was the Cash for Questions scandal where it was alleged that two MPs were bribed to ask questions on behalf of Mohamed Al-Fayed the owner of Harrods. However, it was not just financial impropriety that rocked the Government, a series of sex scandals rocked that Government. In 1994 Conservative Eastleigh Stephen Milligan was found dead wearing only stockings and suspenders. Milligan’s death was blamed on Autoerotic asphyxiation whereby the practice of sexual self-stimulation while causing oneself to experience hypoxia. The other notorious example of Tory Sleaze at that time was Heritage Minister David Mellor after being caught having an affair with an actress.
These financial and sex scandals in addition to internal divisions within the Conservative Party over Europe contributed to the party losing the 1997 general election and Tony Blair’s New Labour coming to power.
The current accusations of Tory sleaze began earlier this year with opposition party’s hoping that once again a Tory Government could be brought down through allegations of sleaze 25 years later. Owen Peterson, the former MP for North Shropshire was forced to resign after being found to have repeatedly lobbied the government on behalf of two companies that were paying him more than £100,000 a year. This was followed by revelations that MP Geoffrey Cox has continued to work as a lawyer and has earned more than £5.5m while continuing to work on his legal career since becoming the Tory MP for Torridge and West Devon in 2005. This was made worse by allegations that he did this legal work from his parliamentary office.
For most of 2021, the Tory’s have enjoyed a commanding lead in the polls as has Prime Minister Boris Johnson. In recent weeks these scandals have begun to hurt his polling numbers. This will likely get worse for him after today’s announcement that the refurbishment of the Prime Minister’s flat at 10 Downing Street broke electoral law. The Electoral Commissions today ruled that the Conservatives were negligent in failing to “fully report a donation of £67,801.72 from Huntswood Associates Limited in October 2020,” the proceeds of which were used for the flat renovations.
The attitude of the Government shows arrogance and contempt for the British public. But is it really sleaze? One can see why Labour, trying to win back some of the “swing” voters it gained in the 1990s might want to revisit the Tory Sleaze tagline. Aside from the fact that voters under 40 generally won’t recall what happened back then, it’s also a lazy attack line. The fact that journalists have also copied it without question shows the weakness of the fourth estate at this time. In fact, what is happening is the governing party have a strong sense of entitlement and do not believe they have to obey the same rules as everyone else.
The likes of Peter Mandelson may enjoy reliving their hay day with Tory Sleaze 2, but it fails to describe what is happening. In 2019 some of the poorest constituencies in the country, particularly in the North East of England, voted Tory for the first time in many years, believing their promises of delivering Brexit and the expected benefits of this. Further, many voters trusted the “one nation” rhetoric and believed the cliche that the Conservatives would govern for all. Many of these voters would have had family or loved ones in care homes during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic who were needlessly exposed to the virus due to lack of testing and PPE. Most would have been unable to celebrate Christmas with friends and family in 2020 due to coronavirus restrictions. Very few of these “red wall” voters who helped the Conservatives win in 2019 would earn anything like £82,000.
Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock may have lost his job after photos emerged of his kissing an aide and this was a breach of social distancing rules. But this pales in comparison to the taxpayer money wasted on a track and trace system that didn’t work or discharging patients from NHS hospitals to social care settings in March 2020 without doing COVID-19 test, causing thousands of preventable deaths. An unlawful Christmas Party at 10 Downing Street may well do lasting damage to Prime Minister Boris Johnsons tenure in office, but again this is minor compared with failing to act earlier to stop the spread of coronavirus in 2020 during both the first and second wave, and again now by only just implementing ‘Plan B’ enforcing mask-wearing and vaccinations passes in public spaces to stop the spread of the Omicron variant. Kissing aides and Christmas Party’s are the straw that broke the camels back for many voters, to win back their trust a there will need to be a change not only in the style of political leadership but also the substance.
In 1993 the Conservatives back to basics campaign backfired as it raised the moral bar by which its MPs were expected to live and inevitably many fell far short of this standard. By contrast, Boris Johnson never tried to place himself on a moral pedestal so talk of sleaze will not have the same impact. Voters in the UK are increasingly tired of this government, what they are looking for is a credible alternative whether from within the Conservatives or the Opposition. When Boris Johnson first became UK Prime Minister I wrote a blog post acknowledging his talents. The Prime Minister is a strong campaigner and even now could well go on to win the next election. This thing that will stop him winning is not sleaze and scandal, but a viable alternative.
The withdraw in August of US and allied troops from Afghanistan saw the return of the Taliban in control of that country. This sadly was always going to be the outcome once the US and its allies withdrew. I opposed the intervention in 2001 and have done so ever since precisely for this reason.
It brings me no pleasure at all that 19 year old me, dragged out of a New Zealand Labour Party Conference for yelling at then Prime Minister Helen Clark, still only a few months out of secondary school, with long flowing hair and an enormous amount of frustration and anger at the world was so completely right. That thousands died in a conflict that ultimately achieved very little is tragic, made so much worse than it was so obvious from the start that this was indeed the only likely outcome of sending troops into Afghanistan. There were many like me who opposed this war, yet we were not able to stop it from happening in 2001 or for the following two decades that it continued.
US President Jo Biden has taken a hit to his approval rating since the withdrawal of US troops especially with the reporting of so many Afghani’s opposed to the Taliban unable to leave the country and the hectic scenes at the airport after the Taliban took control of the country. This is not a post trying to defend Jo Biden or his presidency, but if anyone actually believes that a) there was a way to withdraw from Afghanistan without the Taliban taking control and b) that a more orderly and humanitarian withdrawal of troops whereby any Afghani who wanted to leave could, then you were very sadly mistaken. It was in fact Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump who negotiated with the Taliban and began the process of withdrawing from the country. As I outlined in my 2018 blog on the former US President, the man may be many undesirable things, but he is no fool. Trump, and indeed his military advisors will have worked out that the incompetent and corrupt regime running Afghanistan would not last long once the US left the country and that any withdrawal would result in the Taliban making gains. Further, he no doubt also knew that when the withdrawal finally happened it would be a PR disaster, thus leaving it until his second term or for his successor to face the fallout.
The problem with Afghanistan was from the start, the purpose of going there was flawed. When President George Bush Jr declared his War on Terror after the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001, the stated purpose was to find and capture Osama Bin Laden. It was on this premise that US troops were sent into Afghanistan in October 2001, based on intelligence that Bin Laden was running his terror network Al-Qaeda from that country. A decade later in 2011, during Barack Obama’s first term in office, that Bin Laden was captured and killed in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. It is not clear whether Bin Laden was still in Afghanistan at the time of the World Trade Centre attacks, but it seems for much of the decade after this until his capture, that he was living in Pakistan. Unlike Afghanistan, Pakistan is a state with nuclear weapons and where there is an extremely fragile peace with India and an ongoing border dispute in the Kashmir region. A potential conflict with Pakistan was not something the US were up for in 2001. Sending US troops into Afghanistan and overthrowing the Taliban after they refused to give up Bin Laden was a way of showing the World US military strength after the 11 September terror attacks. Despite the fact that the US had earlier supported the Mujahideen when opposing the Russian occupation of Afghanistan in the 1970s and 80s, in 2001 they were quite happy to show that they had overthrown a regime that denied women education, destroyed world heritage sites and was brutal and repressive to their population. However, like the Iraq war in 2003, the short term victory of toppling a regime is the easy bit, whereas trying to establish a new government and order as outside foreign power is much much harder. And Frankly, the US history of invading other nations and successfully creating functioning democracies is pretty poor.
In 2011 a friend of mine from university was visiting Wellington having lived overseas for a few years. She at that time was working in a humanitarian role in Afghanistan and had seen a fair bit of the country. I recall asking her what she thought would happen when the west withdrew from Afghanistan to which she quickly replied “it’s fucked.”
This view of my friend was widely held by people who’d been or knew anything about Afghanistan. It is therefore not surprising that Barak Obama, who in his first term had to oversee the withdrawal from Iraq, only to later have to face the rise of ISIS, was not surprisingly reluctant also withdraw from Afghanistan. At the time Obama’s Vice President Jo Biden supported withdrawing troops, having himself supported the invasion a decade earlier as a senator.
There are many who still try to defend the last twenty years of intervention in Afghanistan. Former NZ Prime Minister Helen Clark, the same Prime Minister whose conference speech I interrupted in 2001 continues to defend the decision to go into Afghanistan claiming the western intervention in the country needed to be a “long term project”, akin to the commitment to the United States made after the Korean War, deploying 50,000 soldiers in the country for decades. Clark after serving as New Zealand Prime Minister went on to become the head of the United Nations Development Programme, described the present situation as “surreal and devastating.” The Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair also opposed Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan claiming it was “tragic, dangerous and unnecessary” and believed the US and its allies had an obligation to fight the Taliban. In both cases, the view seems to be that there needs to be a permanent military presence in the country to stop the Taliban. The question is, if that is the correct thing to do in Afghanistan, then it must also be the right thing to do in any nation where there is no democracy, women’s rights aren’t upheld and where there are brutal regimes in charge. By this logic, a great many other places would also require military presence, including nations currently considered allies to the US.
Those in power in 2001 no doubt wish to protect their legacy, rather than to reflect on the fact that the decision to go into Afghanistan was poorly thought through and was always going to end in failure. This sort of justification of military intervention has however has been the dominant thinking since the end of the Second World War, that the US and its allies have a right to intervene and interfere in other countries they do not know and attempt to change cultures they do not really understand. That doing this, in no small way contributed to the tragic events on 11 September 2001, only to do the same foolish thing again costing more lives and creating far greater instability is indeed “surreal and devastating.”
What has happened in Afghanistan has been “tragic, dangerous and unnecessary,” yet the unnecessary decision was not to withdraw but the earlier one to intervene in the first place.
All national identities are a construct that evolves and change over time. That the identity of Britain has evolved is in no way unique to this country. The concept of the national state or borders is a relatively recent concept in human history. Britain, as we know it today, is just over 300 years old with the 1707 Acts of Union where the Scottish and English Parliaments agreed to a merger. Ireland formally joined in 1801, through English conquest and rule over the much the Island of Ireland dated back to the Norman Invasion of 1169, then in 1922 much of Ireland became independent leaving just the six counties in the north. The Welsh have a much longer association with England, having been part of the Roman occupation and became part of the Kingdom of England under Henry VIII in the 16th century.
Of course, the national identities of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales are also constructs. The Kingdom of England was formed on 12 July 927AD emerging from various Anglo Saxon Kingdoms. The Kingdom of Scotland is slightly older being founded in 843AD, though the clan system dominated Scotland until the battle of Culloden in 1746. Wales was slightly later to form in 1056 having previously been divided into various kingdoms. Ireland, after 800 years of English/British dominance gained independence in all but six counties in 1922 and became a republic in 1949.
It is little surprise then given this history that questions over Scottish Independence and a United Ireland continue to simmer. But regardless, the United Kingdom or Britain has during its three centuries constructed a strong national identity. One of an empire that for a time dominated half the planet and “ruled the waves.” French revolutionary Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac claimed the British were a “nation of shop keepers” a quote commonly attributed to Napolean who famously used it as an insult while at war, in fact, has been taken as a point of pride by many Brits who see themselves as traders and entrepreneurs.
Like many nations, Britain defines itself by its conflict with other nations and powers. Modern British identity is cloaked in the language of the Blitz and constant references to Churchill and the Second World War are made. As one English friend commented to me recently “to hear them speak you’d think everyone in Britain over the age of 60 was actually at Normandy for the D-Day landings.” The British identity is that of the great power who in her ‘darkest hour’ stood up to fascism and ‘never surrendered.’ Like all narratives, this national identity based on Britians glorious role in the Second World War is subject to historiography and interpretation of evidence. For example, whilst the British sacrifice and effort during the war was formidable, had it not been for the Nazi’s decision to attack the Soviet Union and that nation’s ferocious defence the outcome of the war may have been very different (a historical fact many wished to downplay during the Cold War and after). Nor is much made of fact that fascism had many supporters in 1930s Britain, including by many at the top of British society. But one cannot dispute the war effort of the British and allies was pivotal in defeating Nazi Germany in the 1940s. Moreover, doing so came at enormous cost to Britain which faced years of rationing and rebuilding after the war.
As I pointed out in an earlier post, The COVID-19 pandemic has been the greatest challenge Britain faced since the Second World War. Very quickly the narrative has been one of war with a virus where stoicism is expected, and NHS medical staff have been clapped as ‘frontline heroes’ in this conflict with a virus. In this context, it is little surprise that Captain Tom a Second World War Army Officer rose to national prominence during the pandemic starting walking laps of his garden to raise money for the NHS Charities Together. Likewise, when Queen Elizabeth the second made a rare public address outside of her yearly speech at Christmas she talked of how she and her sister Margaret, like many other children during the Second World War were evacuated from London and at this time she and her sister recorded a message to provide comfort to children separated from their parents. She followed this by saying “once again, many of us will feel the painful sense of separation from loved ones, but now, as then, we know, deep down, that it is the right thing to do.” This emotive appeal to the spirit of wartime Britain from a member of The Greatest Generation and Britains longest-serving monarch was quite deliberate and important for establishing Britain at war narrative against the virus.
Current British Prime Minister, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, is a great admirer of Churchill and in what John Kampfner of The Observer described as a “not so subtle attempt to draw a parallel between Johnson and Churchill,” Johnson authored The Churchill Factor where he says of Churchill “he alone saved our civilisation.” This inflated sense of national pride along with the ‘great man of history’ outlook gives us a great insight into the current British PM’s worldview. Churchill’s role in the Bengalis massacre or the botched Gallipoli landing is of course played down, as to be fair they are in most historical accounts of his life. With regards to Johnson’s own leadership to date, his government’s apparent support of herd immunity as the response to COVID-19 in early 2020 had much more in common with Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy in the 1930s than the Battle of Britain.
The Johnson view of Churchill and Britains place in history is not universally shared by all who live in Britain. Increasingly many are becoming aware that British imperialism, in particular the slave trade that Britain participated in for many years. When the Black live matter movement erupted in 2020 in response to the murder of George Floyd by Police in the US, this prompted protesters to pull down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in the English city of Bristol and throw it into the harbour. This divided people as many thought this was petty vandalism or an attempt to censor history. Others however could see the link between the slave trade of Britain’s past and how this has contributed to discrimination and injustice against black people in the US and the UK today. To celebrate Colston’s Philanthropic works in Bristol without acknowledging that he gained his wealth through slavery causing misery to so many is wrong.
The Bristol statue toppling was followed by protests outside parliament. Soon security were having to cover up the statue of Winston Churchill in parliament square for fear that his statue may be thrown into the Thames. These debates absolutely polarised public opinion as for many Churchill is the man who “saved civilisation” without whom we’d “all be speaking German”. Voted the “greatest Briton” in a 2002 BBC poll, for many his legacy is above question. To others, he represents a British establishment that profited from the empire at the expense of its colonies. For example, Churchill was on the wrong side of history during the Irish civil war for independence after the 1916 uprising, motivated by holding together the empire above all else.
Coming from New Zealand, one feels connected with this history, yet also like an outsider. In New Zealand, the narrative that has developed since the disaster at Gallipoli is that of the brave young men, ANZAC’s, from Australia and New Zealand who were sent to their death due to incompetent decisions by stuffy British generals. New Zealand history, since colonial times, is heavily connected to Britain and this continues to dominate this countries narrative about who it is in the world to this day. When New Zealand’s first Labour Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage declared war on Germany in 1939, technically a few hours before Britain due to time zone differences, he famously said of Britain “where she goes, we go.” It is slightly jarring these days to hear New Zealand’s celebrated first Labour Prime Minister being so deferential and subservient to Britain. By contrast, New Zealand current Labour Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has made political mileage by juxtaposing her government’s response to COVID-19 compared with that of Britain. In response to a journalist question, Jacinda said she was “not willing to risk a UK style ‘live with COVID’ policy.” In this way Jacinda connects with the ANZAC narrative of common sense kiwi’s (and Aussies sometimes) doing things better than those stuffy old Brits, which many white New Zealanders are descendants from.
Back in the UK, recent divisions over Brexit have challenged national unity. One bizarre event earlier this year to try and combat this was the song put out by the ‘One Britain, one nation’ campaign. Then Education Secretary Gavin Williams, who since has been sacked due to his poor performance in the role, tried to get every student in the UK to sing this song at school on 25 June. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told the media she thought it was a spoof, also that it showed the ignorance of politicians in Westminster as the 25th of the day Scottish students started their summer holidays.
The current push to unify and create a modern “British” identity is actually about “English” nationalism. Very little in the ‘One Nation’ rhetoric British politicians espouse, is about Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales. Of the 66 million people who live in Britain, 55 million live in England. If you want to win a majority in the House of Commons, you need to win English voters primarily. At a time when nationalism dominates the world of politics, it is increasingly clear that what is cloaked as “British” is increasingly about the dominant nation in the United Kingdom. This English dominance is nothing new, however, in post Brexit Britain counter-narratives by nationalist groups in the other nations of the UK have gained far greater potency. During the 2019 general election, I commented on the increased support for Scottish independence since Brexit. I will explore this topic further in another post, but it is clear that the conflict over Scottish independence will continue to hover like a dark cloud over the British establishment.
The COVID-19 pandemic since March 2020 has changed peoples lives considerably. Whilst some hoped that facing a crisis on this scale may ease divisions caused by Brexit. This is clearly not the case. For those supportive of Brexit, the fact that the UK were quicker to roll out the vaccine than EU nations was seen as proof that leaving was the right thing to do, ignoring the fact that UK COVID-19 infections rates were considerably higher than most European nations at the start of 2021. Vaccine nationalism ignores the fact that the virus does not respect international borders and any long-term effective response must be a global one. This is a sentiment that was shared by former UK Prime Minister Theresa May who complained that the virus has been “treated as a national issue for countries to deal with alone” and that “the global impact of Covid-19, and our inability to forge a coherent international response to it, have raised new questions about the effectiveness of a system of cooperation through shared institutions.” May’s more outward-looking internationalist view of course represents a different strand of the British establishment and indeed of the British Conservative Party to that of the current Prime Minister and his ministers who use more inward-looking nationalism as a way of achieving short term electoral success. The long term consequences of this tension for the future of the British state will be fascinating to watch.
The British identity is one many still hold onto as a key part of who they are and their overall worldview. Increasingly though this identity is being challenged and interrogated by those who do not feel part of this dominant narrative and those who believe it would be better if the United Kingdon broke up. It is important to remember that all national identities are a construct built on a selective interpretation of historical events. National identities can and do change over time and it is clear that the identity of Brexit Britain is still being challenged and contested far more than it was even a decade ago.
But whatever the future holds for Britain, that narrative of Britain at War is likely to hold fast regardless of whether the union stays together or not. The “spirit of the Blitz” is etched deep into the psyche of the populace and will reliably cause an outpouring of national pride when mentioned. Increasingly though, many do now question this history and counter this narrative. Certainly, for Winston Churchill, his earlier canonisation as the patron saint of all things good in British politics, is now in doubt. And as the country tries to recover from Brexit division and COVID-19, constant references to Britain and WW2 may have diminishing returns for Boris Johnson and his allies in Government.
In a nation that has suffered over 100,000 COVID-19 deaths, one maybe somewhat taken aback to see the latest YouGov Poll where The Conservative Party enjoy a 15% lead over the Labour Opposition. 17 months after the Conservatives won the 2019 General Election, it would be easy to conclude that the Government are still enjoying the support they gained during this campaign. The last year and a half have been anything but normal with a pandemic creating the greatest social and economic crisis in decades. As we are still living through this crisis, it is too soon to really understand what the long-term consequences of it will be. However, the recent elections in the UK do highlight some important trends and issues.
The downside to Party Political council elections is that the media interest is primarily what the impact of local council elections on national politics. This has included projections for how many seats each party would get in the House of Commons based on these results, despite the fact that not all councils were up for re-election. More importantly, while some will be voting on party lines, many others are likely to vote on local issues. Someones vote in council elections may not reflect how they would vote in a general election.
English Council Elections – 5 May 2018
It remains true that too much emphasis is made of how local election results may translate to voting intentions in a general election. Many people when they vote, are doing so based on the performance, or lack thereof, of their local councillors or mayors. However, many do use these elections as a chance to send a message based on the performance of party leaders nationally. And in 2021, the gains made by the Conservative Party, in particular Labour losing their majority on councils like Durham were part of a national trend.
Of course there were not just council elections being held on Thursday 6 May, but also the Scottish and Welsh assembly elections and the Hartlepool by-election.
Hartlepool saw the Conservatives win in a constituency Labour had held for 57 years. The official response from Starmer’s leadership team was that Labour were still suffering from the result in 2019 where the Party had lost its ‘Red Wall’ seats and implied that the fault lay with the previous leader Jeremy Corbyn. Labour held Hartlepool in both the 2017 and 2019 general elections, and in 2017 Labour’s majority actually increased. Two major factors at play in Hartlepool were a) voter turnout falling to 42% whereas in 2019 turnout was 57.9% and b) in 2019 the combined Conservative Party and Brexit Party votes were ahead of Labour meaning in 2021 much of that Brexit Party vote went Conservative.
Another problem for Labour, and one which highlights the current poor decisions being made by Labour’s current leadership was the decision to select former Stockton South MP Paul Williams, from a shortlist of one, as their candidate. Williams, a vocal Remainer, was an odd choice for a constituency where support for Brexit was high. Williams was also forced to apologise early on in the campaign for an inappropriate tweet sent a few years earlier. When running for Labour Leader Kier Starmer tweeted that Labour needed to be “more democratic” in the way it selected candidates and should end “impositions” from the national leadership. Yet Paul Williams was ‘imposed’ and voters responded accordingly.
The current success of the Conservative Party is certainly in part due to the vaccine roll out. Unlike the expensive Track and Trace system that did not deliver, the NHS have rolled out a successful COVID-19 vaccination programme which has significantly reduced transmission and hospitalisation of this virus. Added to this has been the British media gleefully highlighting the problems the EU have had rolling out the vaccine, confirming to those who voted Brexit in 2016 and/or the Tories in 2019 that getting out of the EU was the right thing to do. Despite the pandemic, the Government made a point of delivering the promise to “get Brexit done.” Whilst this has not helped political stability in Northern Ireland, it keeps a promise made in 2019 which plays well with a strong section of English voters.
The re-election of the Scottish Nationalist Party, despite the recent controversy over Alex Salmond, will have disappointed those opposed to Scottish Independence. Any thoughts that Scottish Labour’s new leader Anas Sarwar would improve the fortunes for the party that once dominated in Scotland were dashed with the party coming third and only holding marginal seats like Dumbarton due to tactical voting by Tory and Lib Dem voters to stop an independence candidate winning. The media, particularly in England, and the Westminster establishment make much of the claim that having failed to win an outright majority there is no mandate for another independence referendum. This says more about the ignorance of the political and media establishment within the London bubble than about Scottish nationalism. The proportional voting system Scotland uses makes a party getting an outright majority highly unlikely. That the SNP were one seat shy of this is impressive. Further, the Scottish Greens also ran on a pro independence platform meaning there is a pro independence majority in the Scottish Parliament. Independence is still far from certain in Scotland, but as I wrote after the 2019 general election the calls for independence have and will continue to get louder.
The results were not all bad for the opposition Labour Party on 6 May. Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham was elected with 67.3% of the vote to the Tories 19.6%. Andy ran on a progressive platform of improving buses and public transport in the city. He also has been given the nickname ‘King of the North’ after standing up to the Government in late 2020 calling for greater support for the region during the lockdown. In Wales, Labour was re-elected with their leader Mark Drakeford claiming the Welsh Governments response to COVID-19 helped them stay in power. In London Labour retained control of the Greater London Authority and Mayor Sadiq Khan was reelected. Khan’s majority was small than his 2016 result, with many voters dissatisfied with his handling of transport issues in the city.
The picture these results paint is one where the Conservatives won largely as it was their voters who had greater motivation to vote. Those satisfied with, or at least more forgiving of the Governments response to COVID-19, were more likely to go to the ballot box and vote Tory. The polling data shows the combined support of opposition parties to be greater than the Tories, but under a First Past the Post electoral system this helps the Tories. The current poll shows the Green Party, who currently has one MP in the House of Commons, enjoying 8% support. An increase in the Green vote to this sort of number will likely split the progressive vote in marginal constituencies and help the Tories. By contrast, the Conservatives no longer face serious competition on the right having mopped up the Brexit Party/UKIP support. Further, despite performing fairly poorly in Scotland and Wales, the Conservatives remain the dominant Party in England where the vast majority of UK voters live. As an English nationalist party, the Tories are able to motivate enough people in England to keep voting for them and keep them in power.
The COVID-19 pandemic was an opportunity for oppositions parties, in particular the Labour Party, to have made gains. Although a small-c conservative country, the governments handling of the crisis has upset many. Yet a combination of voter disengagement, and competition with the Greens and Lib Dems, has meant Labour continues to perform poorly, except in areas of the country where the party has local leaders who are prepared to step up. My next blog post will turn once again to the UK Labour Party to understand why 18 months after the 2019 election defeat the party is slipping backwards in terms of support nationally.
People overseas often have preconceived ideas about British society. On moving to the UK I was told that in Britain people will try and place you based on your accent, the school you went to and your job. This does happen, especially in the south, as a way of identifying someone in terms of their class or status or even just to understand where one fits. However, there is one question, one identifier, which I believe takes precedence over all others, that is of course which football team do you support.
Being obsessed with sports is hardly something unique to the Brits, in fact, most nations have a few sports they avidly follow or excel at. But the British love affair with football goes well beyond a passion for this sport. The football team one supports is core to one’s identity and it says where you are from or what your family heritage is. It is the glue that binds communities across the land and as a nation brings people together. It is a critical part of peoples lives and the communities they live in.
This second post in my blog series on what COVID-19 has taught us about British society was not initially going to start with a post about football. Yet this weeks news and the response to it illustrates how much football matters in this country and why to understand British culture and predisposition then football is the obvious place to start.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in February 2020 former Conservative Cabinet Minister Michael Portillo was interviewed on Radio Four as part of a panel discussion, in which he argued that British society would not tolerate football matches being cancelled in response to the pandemic. On 13 March the Premier league was halted and did not resume for three months. There were fears that this would be the first British Football season not to be completed since the Second World War. In June the season did resume and Liverpool FC were able to win the league.
During the second and third lockdowns, Football continued to be played throughout Britain, though the teams played in empty stadiums where only a small few spectators were allowed in to watch the games live. Also as part of restrictions on pubs reopening, live screenings of matches were not allowed. Yet despite these restrictions and difficulties, football carried on from professional Premier League sides right through to local clubs. Continuing football has been an absolute lifeline for many during this very difficult year. My local pub has a Fantasy Football league which has run for a few years now. Being able to stay connected, analyse games, give cheeky banter to those who support Arsenal and generally share something as a community in these times has been so important.
The proposal to establish this European Super League is elitism and self-selection at its worst. Britain may not be known for being the most egalitarian of societies, but the magic of football is that even the crappiest low budget team still has a chance. When Leicester won the Premier League in 2016 their fans were absolutely elated and anyone who put money on them at the bookies suddenly was very rich. This was the true rags to riches small-town side taking on the big boys and winning story that people love. It is this that every fan of a struggling side wishes will happen to their team one day. This proposed league takes this magic away. It self selects historically strong and more importantly wealthy teams and creates their own league. Twelve European teams, including six Premier League sides, have signed up to this. Fans of these teams have spoken out against their clubs wanting to join this League, fearing that already expensive tickets to see matches will become completely unaffordable. Further that these few clubs, having made money through this league, will own all the best players and make it even harder for smaller clubs to compete.
The loss of spectators during the COVID-19 pandemic has hit many clubs hard financially. In terms of community clubs encouraging kids to get into football, a recent report claimed that 10% of grassroots clubs did not think they will survive the next 12 months due to lack of membership dues. Outside the Premier League, many local clubs have struggled to maintain their grounds or buy decent players for many years and the pandemic has only made this worse. Rich and poor clubs is nothing new and there is a reason that certain football teams have been more successful than others. In recent years this gap has widened.
Top tier football is big business and it involves big money. Manchester United Midfielder Marcus Rashford had a transfer value of £150 million in January 2021, for many clubs even if they sold their stadiums and all other assets could not afford this player. At the same time many of these big clubs show nothing but contempt for their loyal fans, charging them obscene amounts of money for tickets. Fans will get themselves thousands of pounds in debt to watch their team play both home and away games. Such is the loyalty of many football fans, they literally will spend all their savings to support their team whose players often are reluctant to sign shirts for their loyal follower after games.
Football culture in Britain is not always pretty. In 1985 English football clubs were banned from playing in Europe for five years after hooligans caused the deaths of 32 Juventus fans in Italy due to drunken and violent behaviour. More recently players have been subject to racist chants or abuse from fans from opposing teams, prompting the Show Racism the Red Card to be formed. One should not romanticise British football culture. Football holds a mirror to this society showing both the best and worst of British culture and social attitudes.
There are few things that stir the passion of Brits like football. And it seems in a country so deeply divided in recent years and having in the last 12 month gone through so much, this European Super League proposal has united people in a way that few other things can.
People living overseas who hear of this cannot make sense of what has happened in the UK. Likewise, those opposed to the current Government in the UK have taken to despairingly remark – what does this say about our country now?
In my next blog I will address the immediate issue of UK polling, which in part is due to the COVID-19 vaccine roll out, but also includes other factors which help explain current polling numbers at this time.
But beyond parliamentary politics, I believe the question of what the pandemic says about British society should be explored more broadly. The last 12 months have seen this country tested and challenged to an extent not seen since the Second World War. It is far too early to assess what the long term social and economic impacts of this crisis will be on either the UK or the world, but one year on from when the first lockdown began, we can start to assess the the impact this has had on society. Also, to assess the responses, both good and bad from the Government and the population as a whole.
There are many aspects to this, but at first we must understand what Britain as a nation is or at least what it is perceived to be. This is now highly contested ground and the term British means very different things to different people. The recent census for example asked people whether they identified as British or English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish or other. For some all people within the United Kingdom are British and are all are part of one country, whereas others see themselves as distinctly Welsh, Scottish or Irish or English. Underlying this are debates about maintaining “the union” and increasing calls for independence in Scotland, Northern Ireland and to a lesser extent Wales. All of this heavily impacts on the response to the coronavirus pandemic as devolved Governments has often responded differently to the crisis and in Scotland this has been used as a political tool to campaign for independence.
The next few posts will explore this issue of Britain and its response to the pandemic, starting with the political response and repercussions.
I think on this day I should just really repeat that I am deeply sorry for every life that has been lost and of course as I was prime minister, I take full responsibility for everything that the government has done. We did everything we could to minimise suffering and minimise the loss of life and will continue to do so.
Boris Johnson addressing the nation Tuesday 26 January 2021
Back in May 2020, I wrote a blog which listed the many failings of the UK Governments handling of the crisis. The Prime Minister and his colleagues ignored scientific advise and allowed the virus to take hold throughout the population in February and March 2020. The Prime Minister, in particular, took pride in the fact that he planned to keep the country open even when most other European nations were going into lockdown. It was only when NHS hospitals were near breaking point that Britain followed other nations and implemented similar restrictions.
Probably the greatest failing by the Conservative Government in the fight against COVID-19 was not its response to the crisis but the decade of underinvestment in the country’s public health system. Sir Michael Marmot from the UK Institute of Health Equity published a damning report in December 2020 which highlighted that during the last decade of Conservative Government:
people can expect to spend more of their lives in poor health
improvements to life expectancy have stalled, and declined for the poorest 10% of women
the health gap has grown between wealthy and deprived areas
place matters – living in a deprived area of the North East is worse for your health than living in a similarly deprived area in London, to the extent that life expectancy is nearly five years less.
The report also made clear that the above trends, in particular the health gap between wealthy and deprived areas, corresponds with data during the COVID-19 pandemic which found those from poorer parts of the UK were hit harder by the virus.
In May 2020 I posted a blog about the state of UK Social Care where for decades successive governments have failed to resolve the funding crisis, or indeed to build proper links between the health and social care systems. In October 2020 Amnesty International published its report As if Expendable which outlined how many older people were kicked out of hospitals and placed back into residential care homes, without first even being tested for COVID-19. This shameful action, along with not supplying social care providers adequate supplies of PEE was responsible for many thousands of deaths. The Amnesty report highlights that the UK Governments treatment of people in the social care system during this time breached both domestic and international law:
The UK is a state party to international and regional human rights treaties which require it to protect and guarantee fundamental human rights relevant to the concerns addressed in this report, including notably, the right to life, the right to highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, the right to non-discrimination – including on the grounds of age, disability or health status – the right not to be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment.
As if Expendable, Amnesty International report 2020
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has yet to atone for what happened during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in the social care sector. Whilst this was not just the fault of his government’s failure, his statement on Tuesday shows he still accepts no-fault and claims they did all they could to ‘minimise suffering’ and ‘loss of life’, a claim the Amnesty International report demonstrates is false.
On the issue of face masks, the UK Government lagged behind most many other nations, initially implying that these were not effective, only later to make them mandatory on public transport. The justification for this U-Turn is that by mid-2020 there was more scientific data, which is fine except many other nations applied this scientific advice much earlier. A Centres for Disease Control and Prevention paper published 2004 found that during the 2003 SARS outbreak that wearing a face mask frequently in public places, frequent hand washing, and disinfecting one’s living quarter were effective public health measures to reduce the risk for transmission. Nationalist Britain knows best self-confidence could well have been a factor in the UK Governments refusal to learn from international experience.
The failure to develop a functional track and trace system has led to one of the greatest policy failures that have contributed to England being in its third COVID-19 lockdown. Very few people would disagree that having schools closed and students having to learn remotely is negatively impacting on students. And most people can understand how difficult it is for any government to balance public health against long term educational outcomes. But when the Conservative-leaning paper The Telegraph runs the headline The biggest mystery in politics: why is Gavin Williamson still in a job? you know that the Education Secretary has performed poorly. The recent example where after Christmas schools reopened for one day in January before closing again due to high infection rates, despite the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) warning the UK Government on 22 December 2020 that with the new strain of COVID-19 leaving schools open was contributing to the rising infection rate. A poll conducted earlier this month found that 92% of teachers believe Gavin Williamson should resign as Education Secretary, which is hardly given surprising his abysmal performance in recent months.
Yet the blame for schools does not sit fully with the Government. Her Majesty’s loyal opposition can also take much of the blame for this fiasco. In April 2020, at the height of the first wave of coronavirus pandemic in the UK, newly elected Labour Party Opposition Leader Kier Starmer called on the Government to set out plans to end the lockdown. Starmer, former head of the Crown Prosecution Service and a QC would argue that he meant that there should be a plan which included contact tracing, social distancing guidelines and other measures to make it safe to reopen. But the optics of the call was pressuring the UK Government to lift restrictions and specifically calling on them to reopen schools. Unlike in a court of law, in politics, it is about the key message, not the detail buried on page 7 of the affidavit.
The Oppositions position on schools has been nearly as confusing and contradictory as the Governments. The Party, still recovering from its 2019 election loss (which I wrote several blogs about in early 2020), under a new leader was trying to rebrand, reposition and appeal to voters it had lost. This has not been helped by the internal factionalism (which I also blogged about in May 2020) and the party still not being clear where it sits politically and ideologically. In April 2020 shadow Education Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey’s position was that schools should reopen when safe, a position that was consistent with the education unions. Shortly after this Long-Bailey was replaced as Education Secretary by Kate Green, who has been clear that she wishes to distance Labour from the education unions in an attempt to present the party as more ‘moderate’.
Green and Starmer’s position throughout this has been motivated by a policy of triangulation and policy by focus group whereby they are appealing to middle-class parents who want their kids back at school. Like the Tories, Labour’s position has been motivated by politics, not science. That former Conservative Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt called for schools to close earlier this month before the opposition is telling. Meanwhile the leader of the opposition was being grilled by media for his confusing position. Many believe that Green was appointed due to her loyalty to Starmer just as Williamson has kept his role due to loyalty to Boris Johnson. One would be more concerned if either appointment were based on ability as this would say a great deal about the capability of the other 648 MPs in the Commons if these two are the best and brightest on offer for education.
The issue of schools reopening is a personal one for me. In my blog earlier this month, I told of how my partner who works as a secondary school teacher in London caught COVID-19 and how we both spend Christmas and New Year recovering from the illness. When Greenwich Council tried to close schools in the borough due to skyrocketing infection rates, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson threatened legal action to keep the schools open. By this time, most schools in the area had a significant percentage of students sick, or in isolation having been in contact with someone infected. In many schools, pupils were sent home due to the number of teachers off sick with COVID-19. To argue that continuing with this situation is any better for secondary school students is nonsense.
Much of the concern over school closures is the impact on students’ grades. When the Government announced GCSE and A-level exams would be cancelled once again in 2021 this added to the anxiety. One of the issues here has been this Government’s shift towards having student grades mostly assessed through examinations. This style of assessment favours certain learners over others, as exams favour those with short term recall skills. Many other countries have moved away from a full examination model of assessment to a mix of exams and course work assignments during the year. But aside from implementing a poor education assessment model for students, the pandemic has highlighted the risk of placing so much emphasis on examinations as, if for whatever reason, these cannot go ahead, it becomes difficult to determine student grades. The UK Government’s position on education and assessment is blinkered and ideological, which has meant it struggled to come up with sensible pragmatic solutions to this problem during the crisis. Worse, the Education Secretary has demonstrated he lacks the intellectual rigour and leadership to address these issues.
A coherent and strong opposition would have easily made political mileage during this time, however to date, the opposition has opted for triangulation and timidity. The opposition MP who has made the clearest and most articulate statements regarding school closures during the pandemic has been Lisa Nandy the Shadow Foreign Secretary, who came a distant third in the 2020 UK Labour leadership contest. What Nandy had to say was hardly earth-shattering, merely that the Government needed to get testing and track and trace working properly before it would be safe to reopen schools. To be fair, Starmer, Green and Long-Bailey probably also thought they were saying the same thing, but what people heard was quite different.
Prime Minister Johnson’s non apology on Tuesday was an insult to the British public. Yes, this was a difficult crisis and all governments have made some mistakes at this time. But the UK has done particularly badly and the statement on Tuesday shows he has learnt nothing. The Conservatives won the 2019 election with the sizeable majority that they did largely due to Brexit (see my blog post immediately after the 2019 UK election) and divisions within the opposition. Boris Johnson is not a strong leader and in this crisis, he has proved to be woefully inept. It is well known that Johnson likes to compare himself to former Conservative Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in which case the COVID-19 pandemic has been his Gallipoli.
At a time when the country is in its third lockdown, when over 100,000 people have died, when the economy is in recession and the number of jobless is set to rise, few now are looking to the next election which will likely be held in 2024. Yet that still motivates leaders of the UK’s two main political parties. Polling numbers in recent months have been fairly close between Labour and the Conservatives. Where polling has been much more consistent is in Scotland, where the SNP maintain a strong lead heading into the Scottish Parliament’s election on 6 May 2021. Support for Scottish independence also maintains a strong lead and as I predicted in my blog post nearly a year ago this issue continuing to feature prominently on the political agenda, despite fierce opposition from political leaders in London. Without a doubt, independence campaigners in Scotland, as well as Northern Ireland and Wales, continue to win support for their independence calls on the back of the UK Governments inept handling of this crisis.
There is however hope on the horizon. The Governments rollout of the COVID-19 vaccinations will hopefully in time slow the movement of the virus to a point where current restrictions can be lifted. It is a wonder of modern science that within a year of COVID-19 emerging that scientists, including those at Oxford University, have developed a vaccination. Despite concern by some about the speed with which this has been released, the evidence so far is that widespread vaccination will stop the spread and save thousands of lives. Credit where credit is due, the UK Government have been quick off the mark to get this vaccine available to the most vulnerable with the aim of immunising as many people as possible over the next year. And to the oppositions credit, they have supported the Government on the vaccine rollout.
There is still a long way to go until this crisis ends and the Government have a lot to answer for badly mishandling things to date. The Prime Ministers apology on Tuesday did not cut the mustard and was an insult to the families of those who have died. Lessons from the mistakes over the last year need to be learnt and with this, the Prime Minister needs to cut the bombast and bravado and instead learn humility and humbleness. The successful rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine will be essential not only for ending the crisis but also for rebuilding trust in public trust British state after it has managed this pandemic so badly.