Lindsey German on the unfolding crisis and its implications
I don’t suppose most people reading this Briefing had too many illusions about the Tories in the first place. But sometimes it’s good to get from the horse’s mouth exactly how arrogant, callous and contemptuous of the rest of us they are.
Two examples popped up yesterday. An article in the Sunday Times claimed that Dominic Cummings had extolled the virtues of herd immunity at a private gathering in late February, claiming that he said, ‘if that means some pensioners die, too bad’.
Then came this delightful tweet from Sarah Vine, Daily Mail columnist and wife of Tory minister Michael Gove: ‘To all those sniping at a government trying to cope with one of the fastest-moving national emergencies in a generation: you haven't got a fucking clue. Not an iota. Either come up with something constructive, or zip it. Ideally the latter. FFS.’
According to both of them, we are supposed to sit back while the government follows a strategy which has failure written all over it, which refuses to take note of WHO and other medical advice, which ignores the successful practice of other countries and which above all deliberately downplays cases in Britain because there is a wilful and quite deliberate refusal to test anyone except those already seriously ill enough to be admitted to hospital.
At every single stage, the government has shown a reluctance to take measures which could halt the spread of the coronavirus, at least partly because at least some of those at its centre still adhere to the herd immunity theory. They just don’t talk about it because they realise it is deeply unpopular. But the shambolic closure of schools – with so many exceptions that many students will still be attending – shows how half-hearted the so-called u-turn about this course of action has been.
The French president Emmanuel Macron is alleged to have told Johnson on Friday that he would close the border with the UK if he did not take more stringent measures. Yet even now the government drags its feet, and says it is reluctant to introduce ‘drastic measures’. But every time markets, pubs and department stores stay open the virus is spread to more people.
There can be no question that Johnson’s reluctance is in part economic, although the government has clearly accepted that it will have to intervene heavily in the economy. But it is also partly ideological, with the Tories claiming that it does not want to limit ‘freedom’. But this is the most idiotic individualism in a society which is under threat from a new and dangerous virus.
It is reckless and dangerous. Why should we be surprised, since we know that the likes of Cummings and Vine have a narrow view of society based on individualism and based on the dictates of the ‘free market’. And why should we put any faith in the competence of this government which has brought us austerity, the Windrush scandal, a society which fails on nearly every measure. It has proved singularly incapable of delivering anything for ordinary people although increases riches for its already wealthy friends.
Yet government ministers are also fearful because they know that the emergency we are now facing – probably the biggest of our lifetimes – will place the greatest burdens on the poorest, and on working people generally. They know that they can be very quickly blamed – and will be blamed – for the shambolic response from government and for the failure to deal decisively or to test large sections of the population. That is why Downing Street called the quote about Cummings ‘defamatory’. It’s why Vine is so aggressive about people daring to criticise her appalling husband and the rest of the Tory rabble.
A government briefing has already said that it feared riots but was relieved that the first instinct of millions of people in this situation was altruism. That’s because the Tories have little understanding of how ordinary people live and how they cooperate in their everyday lives. The scale of cooperation and help for other people has been truly heartening, as it has been internationally – but it has all too often been done despite the government and sometimes in opposition to it.
Yet one of the ways the government and its obsequious followers in the media try to divert attention from its own failings is to blame the public. It blames people who are ‘panic buying’ (although as one Financial Times journalist pointed out there’s no real evidence of this, but rather of millions of households buying a little bit extra of goods they can store). Or it blames people still going out and not distancing themselves enough. But given the contradictory government advice, these actions are hardly surprising.
There are no doubt plenty of people doing stupid or selfish or thoughtless things in this situation. But they are not the main problem compared with a government which has failed to deal with the situation after years of deliberately running down the NHS.
The crisis here is in its early weeks. Already London is seeing the virus take hold and this will spread. We don’t know what challenges there will be in terms of job losses, food shortages and misery for many people. The government has moved to put a great deal of money into the economy to deal with the effects of the virus on society as a whole, but here too we know they will prioritise helping business rather than helping us.
Someone remarked to me last week that no one will want to go back to what it was like before. That’s true – but it will take collective organisation to challenge the priorities of capital and to help build a different society. The sneers at Jeremy Corbyn’s spending plans back in December now look rather stupid as government rapidly changes tack. But we will need to go well beyond that manifesto to build any kind of socialism which can ensure that those who produce the wealth decide how we distribute it.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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