Monday , July 4 2022

How I learned to stop loving and worry about the Con(servative government)

At 10pm on the 12th December 2019, I was pleased as Big Ben bonged. The pleasure in the main owed itself to the fact I had a bet on with a mate for fifty quid that the Tories would take 330 seats or more. After slipping the notes into my wallet with a grin on my face, the satisfaction of having just voted for the winning side for the first time in my life set in, having previously voted everything but Tory and never did my vote go to the victor. I looked forward to the Brexit debate being knocked on the head, and largely, that has happened. While we might still be embrangled in some of the EU’s bureantics, the relationship moulded by May at least prevents the Board of Trade from ‘taking us out into the world’, or rather, selling us out to the world.  On the campaign trail Boris had spoken in whispers about the opportunities state aid would bring once we left the EU, and though ‘plans’ is too strong a word, he certainly made overtures about the building of public works and infrastructure to ‘level up’ the country. This choice, set against the then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, was a no brainer. Corbyn’s 2017 manifesto had been quite good, it promised to end Free Movement, give us new bank holidays to mark festivals to our patron saints, and pledged to nationalise key pieces of infrastructure. His 2019 offering though, pledged a Remain v Remain second referendum, scheduled to take place at the peak of the Coronavirus outbreak, so in other words, never. Democratisation of football and new bank holidays took a back seat to a woke ‘race and faith’ manifesto which promised reparations, and his sensible plans to bring water back into public ownership were overshadowed by free broadband for all and an uncosted pledge to compensate the WASPI women. In short, it was a turgid blend of Blairite Euro fanaticism and Liberal London woke identity politics. Boris was the easy choice. I made it, and I liked it. 

At the onset of the Covid crisis the expectations I had of the freshly elected government were simultaneously satisfied and utterly confounded. This Schrodinger state of somehow being both pleased and utterly aghast at every government policy has been my experience ever since. On the one hand the government fulfilled their pledge to repay the votes of those who had put them into power, particularly working-class people who had traditionally voted Labour, or in more recent times, UKIP.  The government have spent hundreds of billions on Covid relief, paying workers 80% of their salary to stay at home, provided self-isolation payments, dished out incredibly generous grants and loans for business, threw the kitchen sink at vaccines, increased universal credit, extended free school meals through summer and Christmas holidays, banned evictions, temporarily abolished business rates, gave mortgage holidays, put on Eat Out to Help Out, and much more. Many of these programmes are still in effect, over a year out from their introduction. The naysayers who said that this government would be some kind of Thatcher 2.0 and that provincial and northern workers and retirees who elected them were buffoons who would be punished, were proven wrong. Which was good for them and a relief for me. The government have now spent almost as much as Brown spent bailing out the banks, the difference is, this time the money went to the people, not the bankers. This was one of the world’s best attempts to insulate citizens from the effect of lockdowns. 

On the other hand, the epidemiological response, which we now know to have been, in part, driven by bad scientific advice, was abysmal. And that the advice was abysmal, does mitigate the government’s culpability, but not entirely. Michael Gove told us they’d had enough of experts, yet he and his cabinet colleagues sat in thrall to flawed experts. This was the Vote Leave Brexit government who were about unshackling from tired old establishments in favour of believing in Britain, or believing in the bin as Rory Stewart once wrongheadedly argued.  While our scientists were telling us to sing Happy Birthday while washing our hands, not to wear masks, and to put up ventilation impeding Perspex screens in the workplace, the average man and woman in the street was thinking ‘why not shut the borders?’. As an island nation our foremost defence is not singing children’s songs, or hiding behind plastic screens, it’s the natural border which has kept us safe from harm for over one thousand years. And yet, the government, and their advisors, comically named SAGE, couldn’t see that. Perhaps, due to the exponential spreading capacity of Covid, and the fact our chemicals industry meant we were slow off the blocks to test in comparison to neighbours like Germany, meant that the small percentage of the population who had been infected before anybody could reasonably know about it, would always have led to a spike, and the virus becoming endemic in the society. But we could have slowed it, managed it, prepared for it, all the while acquiring ventilators, PPE, and building up a testing capacity and building toward the vaccine. But instead, the government stood by while a thousand and more people died in Italy per day, and kept telling us to sing Happy Birthday. The virus pounced on us, and our lack of preparedness and incompetence at the heart of government, particularly in the shape of the now disgraced Matt Hancock, meant that many people paid with their lives. The first lockdown came too slow, and was too lax. It harassed walkers in the Peak District but couldn’t act against BLM protests or block parties, and the time it bought was not exploited well enough. 

The government were so shell shocked by the initial calamity, and the second spike over Christmas, that they reneged on their fatal laissez faire impulses to undergo a metamorphosis and become totalitarian tyrants, spending months hanging the threat of vaccine passports over our heads like some sword of Damocles, and have made the jab compulsory for a large number of medical and care workers. A virus which is lethal to a tiny fraction of the population, virtually all of whom have had two vaccinations, is, according to the Prime Minister, cause enough to exploit emergency powers for two years and more. And this from the same government who oversee the most porous border in Europe if not the world. Hundreds pour in illegally from Calais every day into the UK, none of them have any kind of passport, let alone a vaccine passport, but all are entitled to be housed in a four-star hotel. As has been remarked before, the only way to get around in the UK freely is to enter the country illegally, for which you’ll be rewarded with more freedoms than her citizens. 

According to the polls, overwhelming majorities support vaccine passports, significant minorities support a perpetual 10pm curfew and I, like many of you, know personally people who are still not engaging in the society in the ways they did before this virus broke out. Arrogance and apathy have given way to tyrannical overcorrection, mandated by opinion polls which now seem to be the rudder which steers the government. If 70% of YouGov poll respondents wanted everyone in Barnsley to wear Hazmat suits until the year 3000 it’d be anyone’s guess as to whether that became government policy. 

This government, which began far too liberally, has overcorrected the course, now the Telegraph reports that the Prime Minister is set to launch an app that will track what you eat, and how much exercise you do, and award you discount on food in return for optimal performance. It’s been said for some time now that we are lurching toward a Chinese social credit system, and I have been sceptical of this line of thought from the beginning. But with each day it passes the implementation of such a system looks increasingly plausible. Who’d have thought the man to do it would be one in the same with the man who opposed the smoking ban. Unusually though, for an authoritarian government that wants to see your passport to get in the pews, and your daily steps when the shop works out your bill, it remains reticent or incapable of policing the streets or the border. It really is some kind of madness. 

Our Home Secretary, Priti Patel, is condemned by her opponents as far or hard right, and is frequently made the target of vicious cartoons in left wing media outlets. And yet the border protections we have are leaker than a sieve. All the while knife crime reaches record levels in our capital city and riots and road blocking protests go on unabated. The schizophrenic tendencies of this government extend to almost every area of policy. Post-Brexit Britain is being reborn as ‘Global Britain’, formerly under the stewardship of the previous Trade Secretary, Liz Truss and her board of trade. It’s looking to slash and burn protections on British industry so our financial services sector can make an extra buck in Zimbabwe. This was not the Brexit that was promised, and the government know it, so they had to temper Truss, the mad axeman, with the odd protectionist policy, and state aid. The result is a cocktail of confusion that at times delights and at times utterly astounds. Recently, a government body, the Trade Remedy Authority, recommended that tariff protections on fifty percent of British steel products be dropped, including steel used in the production of Royal Navy ships. Fortunately, these recommendations were roundly rejected by the government, in so small part to the 2019 intake of Tory MPs who lobbied for their constituent’s jobs which would invariably be lost to China in the event the TRA’s nutty recommendation be approved. This decision marks a continuation of the protections British steel products enjoyed under the European Union, and a good thing too. But this decision does not square with the trade deal struck with Australia, which will yield all protections on British beef to our Aussie cousins. Australia doesn’t have a comparative advantage in beef, they have an absolute advantage. Their cows, unlike ours, are not grass fed, their largest ranch is 10 percent of the size of the entire UK, they can be travelled for extended periods without water, and are treated with hormones. British farmers are not at liberty to use Australian methods, and even if they were they do not have access to the same geographic advantages. Even the US puts quotas on the import of Australian beef to protect their producers. Yet our trade secretary decided that the British farming industry can do better than the US industry, and our Prime Minister thinks that to err from that assumption is to ‘do down’ our farmers and crofters. They’re either mad, or bad, because no sane person could think this to be the case, and no good person could wilfully sentence to death an industry a viable industry with a several thousand-year histories. Like in every area, there is no trade strategy, just a series of whims. 

The state of play in the UK sees one thousand migrants illegally crossing the channel as an uneventful day. Boris is being overtaken by events, and the opposition, mostly by virtue of not being the government, are appearing to gain some ground. This government needs to get a grip of itself, and stop manifesting that metaphor so often trotted out by Cummings, of the trolley, which it increasingly resembles. Most of all, it needs to stop being led by the nose by YouGov, and take some real decisions, on the border, on law and order, and on levelling up, and to fail to do so would to be to squander the biggest Tory victory since 1987. We’ve still got a few years left, so here’s hoping. 

 

About Mario Laghos

Mario Laghos is the editor of Just Debate.

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