The British state has rolled out its biggest weapon at this time of crisis in a clear ideological intervention, argues David McAllister
Our Queen has spoken. Millions of workers, healthcare staff, teachers, self-employed people, coronavirus patients and their families have received reassurances from a woman who is pretty much unmatched in her remoteness from their daily experience.
The monarchy, we are told, is neutral and politically impartial. Indeed, the Queen makes no mention of the government or the actual handling of the crisis. But as socialists, we have to be clear that this was a highly politicised intervention by the British State which serves a number of purposes.
Firstly, it aims to continue with the framing of individual self-discipline as the primary solution to this crisis, as opposed to transformative measures such as renationalising private healthcare, introducing mass testing, or disciplining employers who continue to put their workers in danger. The Queen praised everyone’s behaviour, and Sky News was quick to reinforce that she has provided a ‘template for how people should behave’ – as if the outpouring of mutual support and solidarity from ordinary people has not already been happening for weeks, but instead relies on some sort of instruction from a Monarch.
It is important that we resist this narrative which repeatedly lumbers ordinary people with the brunt of the responsibility, and emphasises the need to police our daily routines while not doing nearly enough to actually protect us.
Secondly, this is the latest attempt by the British state to place itself on top of events. It was only after a huge backlash to the government's hands-off ‘herd immunity’ approach that it was compelled to change course. It was only after pressure from teachers and parents that the schools were closed for the majority of children. And it is only after repeated demands from health and social care workers for testing and PPE that the debate has shifted more recently to what the government is doing (or not doing) to provide this.
Yet, by joining in the clapping for the NHS (a grassroots initiative) and repeatedly praising its staff, we are meant to believe that they are somehow at the head of all these events, which happened in spite of them rather than because of them. The state’s strategy is to adapt, then appropriate. But we have to keep making these demands. Our government remains vulnerable to popular pressure, however much they try to deny it.
Thirdly, it seeks to reinforce myths of ‘national unity’ in a time of crisis. We see the political utility of the plural pronoun applied to full effect here - 'we, our, us' - to gloss over the fact that Britain is in fact a heavily class-divided society where obscene amounts of wealth sit in the hands of a tiny minority, whilst millions of ordinary people have to live hand-to-mouth propping it up. Much was made of the Queen's 'wartime experience' in order to cast her as the main representative of the 'wartime spirit'.
Yet the most interesting parallel between the current crisis and WW2 is that the British State was painfully slow to act. The first ones to respond to the rise of fascism were working class people who stood to lose the most. It was workers and their organisations who confronted the Blackshirts at Cable Street and who went to fight Franco in Spain. It was ordinary Londoners who occupied the tube stations and demanded they be turned into air-raid shelters. Finally, it was the working class that demanded no return to 'business as usual' and voted in a Labour government which introduced the NHS and the welfare state.
'Wartime spirit', therefore, was experienced in radically different ways by the working class and the ruling class. We should resist any attempt to recast community solidarity as a part of the 'national character'. We should instead take our inspiration from one another and workers throughout the world.
The coronavirus crisis has turned up the volume on all the inequalities and injustices of modern capitalism, and the ineptitude of governments who are still committed to maintaining neoliberal economics at the expense of the rest of us. If only the media treated the concerns of healthcare workers over testing and PPE with the same reverence they poured upon the Queen's four minutes of platitudes.
We have to keep the pressure on our government to provide workers with the protections they desperately need. We are entering a period which is beginning to show the potential of ordinary workers to unite and become a powerful social force. Britain is flush with wealth and resources and we should demand its redistribution.
The £67 million in tax we pay the royal family every year might be a good place to start.
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