The Burner Episode #235: Your Fault

Boris Johnson changes the lockdown rules – but is he also trying to shift the blame?


Good morning. I’m James Butler and this is The Burner. It is Monday May 11, 2020. And we are still in lockdown.

Or at least sort of. In a much anticipated – especially among the right-wing press – televised address to the nation last night, Boris Johnson announced that he would be easing some of the lockdown measures and replacing the national messaging, the slogan with which we’ve all become familiar, with a new one: the stunningly vague “stay alert, control the virus, save lives”.

Not everybody was impressed.

Nicola Sturgeon: For Scotland right now, given the fragility of the progress we’ve made, given the critical point that we are at, then it would be catastrophic for me to drop the “stay at home” message, which is why I am not prepared to do it.

I’m particularly not prepared to do it in favour of a message that is vague and imprecise. I feel very strongly that… And it’s a responsibility I bear and feel very heavily… I’m asking all of you to do things right now that are not normal in everyday life and therefore I have a duty to be able to be clear to you about what my messages to you involve in terms of what you can do and what you can’t do. “Stay at home except for X, Y, and Z”, is a clear message and it’s one that I think allows you to make the judgments about what you can and can’t do, should and shouldn’t do.

I don’t know what “stay alert” means; presumably we all live our lives at normal times staying away to danger. But if I say to you my message now is “stay alert” and you say to me “but does that mean I stay at home or no?”… I can’t give you a straight answer to that. Therefore, I am feeling in my duty to be clear in terms of what I’m asking you to do.

JB: That of course was the Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, speaking yesterday, where she also made it pretty clear that she was displeased that the first she heard about the coming measures was via the press yesterday morning.

Sturgeon [is] also talking in that clip with a British sign language interpreter, something that has been noticeably missing from the government press conferences, and indeed even this pre-recorded broadcast of Johnson’s yesterday. And that seems to me pretty inexcusable actually. It’s a small thing to people who aren’t deaf, but to people who are, it’s frankly extremely, extremely insulting.

Sturgeon, however, wasn’t alone in voicing her dissatisfaction and disquiet over this slogan switch-a-roo. Devolved administrations in Wales and Northern Ireland will also be sticking with the “stay at home” slogan and diverging from the path taken in England – though other devolved administrations have been less forthright in their criticism of the government than Sturgeon has been.

So, who’s right?

Well, let’s start off by reminding ourselves where we are. The UK has the worst death toll in Europe. The reproduction rate of the virus is still high, though there’s decent evidence that it has dropped under one (R>1) as a consequence of the lockdown.

We still do not have adequate supplies of personal protective equipment across the health service, let alone in retail settings for consumers and workers alike; or for use in close quarter workplaces like in manufacturing.

Popular sentiment in opinion polling does not suggest any great clamour for easing off the lockdown, although there’s pretty obviously increased appetite for being outside this weekend.

The main motive force against the lockdown appears to have been a cluster of right-wing papers, most of whom took briefings earlier this week that changes were coming to declare the lockdown over. Just like that.

It’s this contradictory picture, this extremely serious crisis, while there’s this manufactured pressure from the right-wing press to ease lockdown, which lands [amid] Johnson’s change of tune last night, which gave rise both to the vague slogan and the contradictory advice.

And while there was much in the way of vague promise, the actual concrete measures were few. The most significant was the change in emphasis in advice, now urging those who cannot work from home to return to the workplace immediately. In the examples he cited there were manufacturing and construction. He suggested avoiding public transport and also that possibly primary schools may reopen for some people’s next month. The unspoken premise there being that those are the kids that actually need looking after to permit people to return to work.

Unlimited exercise, which has already actually permitted under the legal framework, is to be allowed. Allowed by whom and how… It’s very confusing message. We are to be permitted to meet one other person outside while observing social distancing.

Promises of bigger fines, and an outline of a five-tier alert system – much like the old terror alert system – and quarantine at some point for all new arrivals to the country. Those are the measures, or those were the things alluded to at some point by Boris Johnson last night.

And from other briefing, garden centres may be allowed to reopen this week. One thing this period has really revealed to me as the mysterious power of the garden centre lobby in British political life. Who knew? Perhaps their location in conservative constituencies has something to do with it.

What’s not in there is, as important as what is, nothing in the message anticipated or mentioned face masks or face coverings, which many had anticipated as a means of controlling transmission in public.

There was also nothing on much trail plans on expanding the social bubble – that is permitting people to list limited contacts who they can then socialize with. That, of course, would have rapidly become a virtual impossibility to enforce. So, instead of these, we get the vague slogan “stay alert”. And I say vague because, even if you look at various apologists for the regime, you find incredibly different interpretations among all of them about what exactly it means.

Indeed, the government itself briefed out a 137-word clarification of what “stay alert” actually means yesterday, including staying home.

As I said last week, clarity in government communications during this period will be essential. And that’s another test the government of spin is failing spectacularly. I mean really, just listen to this…

Robert Jenrick: I do think this is the right moment to update and to broaden the message, so “stay alert” will mean stay alert by staying home – as much as possible – but stay alert when you do go out by maintaining social distancing, washing your hands, respecting others in the workplace and the other settings that you’ll go to.

This will be a cautious message because the rate of infection is still high and the public are understandably anxious.

That was Robert Jenrick – secretary of state for housing, communities and local government – yesterday.

Now, it’s obviously a cliché to say that something in British politics is like something out of The Thick Of It, which is after all a satire based on British politics, but it certainly resembles those moments where a slogan is chosen and can’t be rode back on so ministers have to creatively expand its definition simply by deciding, like Humpty Dumpty, that words mean whatever they choose them to mean.

What’s really going on here?

It looks to me like, in effect, the government really hasn’t reached where it wanted to be by this point. And really it should want the infection rate quite a lot lower before trying any of this. But [the government is] trying nonetheless to press on with its plans to reopen the economy, especially in part because of the pressure within the Tory party itself.

But the government also has its eye onto other things. The risk of a second spike in infections, thus the stress on the alert levels and transmission rate, and on the question of political culpability. That, I think, breaks down in two ways in the immediate and in the longer term.

In the longer term, the government is very aware that it needs to look at least like it’s taking the pandemic seriously, even while it moves to reopen the economy, not at least for any inquiry which eventually paws over all of its messaging. Thus, on the one hand, it stresses the seriousness of the situation while on the other it [stresses] the relaxation of measures and rather toothless guidance to employers. Now, whether that contradiction is sustainable is an open question.

Shorter-term political questions also abound here. Whether the press might actually notice that contradiction? With how far the public are happy to go along with these shifts? And above all, how far [do] they think the government is responsible?

Because that to me is the most significant aspect of these policy changes.

The government is shifting the locus of responsibility away from itself and towards the public, emphasising that it’s the public’s responsibility now far above the government’s and perhaps, as ever, the public is an awful to the government.

The reasoning behind the advice and the change of slogan, which at first appears pretty incoherent and contradictory, becomes a lot clearer when you see it in those terms; above all, a desire to get as much of the economy moving again as possible and a desire to shift the responsibility away from the government towards the public in general.

Now, that’s not an unusual move in British politics, which is surprisingly often represented by pet stenographers in the press as virtuous politicians trying to lead an indigent and feckless public and which delights in setting up systems of diffuse responsibility where no one person or group of people can be held to blame for anything that goes wrong.

So, the question of social management during a pandemic somehow flexes back onto individuals in their various guises as workers or consumers. And, effectively, last night the government placed the responsibility for the infection rate on the public taking sensible decisions. So if – and I’m afraid to say, I think it’s probably when not if – infections and deaths go up again, it’ll be the public, not the government that caused it. Whose fault?


It’s not to say there aren’t difficult decisions here, although the ones being taken at the moment seems to be basically in total denial about the seriousness of economic hit and the recession that we’re entering; thinking that most things will basically be all right again if they can just get things moving.

There are difficult decisions about where in a functioning democracy you leave decisions up to individuals and how you back up the capacity to make those decisions with infrastructure, from healthcare to testing and tracing to messaging on masks, to allow those decisions to be made safely. And [questions about] what kind of decisions need to be made to actually sustain people through the economic hit. But [also question about the] purported changes to the furlough scheme apparently coming tomorrow – those being apparently key to getting people back to work. Those questions are on all of our minds, but God knows they haven’t been answered by the government.

Instead, the government, staring down the aftermath of badly handled pandemic, and says “well, fuck it, we’ve got to get profits rolling against somehow, maybe we should call that freedom”.

A helpful tip for interpreting conservative politicians is that whenever they talk about an abstract virtue – freedom, responsibility and things like that – it’s helpful to sub in the word money instead. So, rough rule of thumb, but generally a helpful one.

Because if you didn’t clock it in Johnson’s speech – as he mentioned manufacturing and construction – there’s a very clear, very strong class element to this, as there has been throughout the lockdown.

Many of those [who] are [in] the most precarious and least protected end of the employment spectrum have seen little change from business as usual. The workers picking your Amazon orders in warehouses and delivering them to your front door are still doing just that. Many, many construction sites have continued working throughout the lockdown with very little change for social distancing. The same, of course, is true for many retail workers in the large supermarkets where social distancing is basically a joke.

That does seem important to me to stress that the experiences of the lockdown are different even among different fractions and strata of the working class, depending largely on what kind of work you’re doing and where you sit in the hierarchy.

It’s almost a truism, of course, but I’m not just talking here in terms of whether you’re making sourdough and occasionally checking emails from your lounge, or whether you’re worrying about your childcare, or stressing about sitting at a till all day. I’m trying to drive home that the old axiom of trade unionism “an injury to one is an injury to all” has never been truer than in this current moment when an outbreak at workplaces can spread rapidly through all other points of social contact as well.

On workplace safety, trade unionists have been all over social media pointing out, for instance, that Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act from 1996 protects workers who walk off a job because it’s unsafe. The threat to safety there has to be real and imminent, alongside there are other health and safety protections as well.

We’ll have more on trade unionism in this context in the coming week, but there couldn’t be a better time to join a trade union than right now. That of course is just the first step, but it is an important one.

Now I’m going to pop a link to the UCS union finder: I suggest now would be a really good time to avail yourself of it.

But just another couple of things on this. One is that Johnson didn’t announce this in front of parliament. And we’ve really seeing how much just sitting on broadcast lets him get away with here.

The excuses for doing so – for avoiding making this announcement in parliament – are actually really pretty flimsy, given almost all of these measures actually start shifting on Wednesday and given that it is unbelievably stupid, and unbelievably irresponsible to shift advice on traveling to work just about 12 hours beforehand, the night before a new week start starts.

There’s very little reason for him to have done it in this way. This isn’t an abstract point. In parliament, Johnson could and would have faced questions and perhaps would have been forced to deliver clarity on the points that he shambled his way through on broadcast. I mean, I do wonder if that really was the best take.

That actually really does matter politically. It matters in the way in which people respond to this. But, of course, the British political system being what it is, there’s no way to actually constrain him here.

And rather astonishingly, this afternoon will mark the first time that Boris Johnson has given a statement on coronavirus in the Commons at all, ever. In fact, it’s only the second statement he’s made to the Commons this year on anything.

There’s no appearance he’s made before the liaison committee either. That’s nearly nine months into his ministry. And, indeed, there are reports this morning that even much of the cabinet is being shut out of either consultation or decision making.

Lastly, how much of the shift can be attributed to political tensions within the Tory party?

One thing we can say is that the most craven of [inaudible] and the most unhinged of capitalists haven’t won out – the kind of Steve Baker and John Redwood school of Tories who feel that watering the square mile with a bit more blood is a fair enough price to pay for lifting the lockdown.

There are certainly tensions here and Johnson is due to face the 1922 committee tomorrow to be grilled over just that. His majority, however, protects him from their tantrums in a way that few Tory prime ministers have been protected in recent memory.

Nonetheless, when looking at the emphasis on driving the UK back to productivity and pushing the economy to reopen as soon as possible and at the scanty fig leaf guidance on safety for employers, the lack of ability to enforce it and the genuflections of the government before the billionaire press, I’m forced to think again about what really the Conservative Party is all about.

There are times, I think, when it’s useful to have a nuance and complex understanding of conservatism – motivated by feeling of the imperfect ability of the world, the centrality of fear to politics, the belief in the supersession of class division by national unity, a complex motivation by, but distrust of, money [and] that, then, overlaid by a kind of libertarian market mysticism belief in the market mechanism, [with] nostalgia for the commercial society recast in a neoliberal vessel.

And [with] British conservatism, in particular, as being the curious survival of the landed aristocracy in combination with various fractions of the emergent mercantile bourgeoisie. And, then, over the course of the late 19th, and most of the 20th century, outlawing itself with the differing concerns of finance – sometimes very awkwardly – thus lending British conservatism is curiously changeable form.

But then, there are moments like this one, but it’s also just very easy and pretty telling to think of them as in the crunch coming down to caring ultimately about the interests of the money to few.

It reminds me of one of my favourite lines in Marx, writing in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “Thus the Tories in England long imagined that they were enthusiastic about monarchy, the church, and the beauties of the old English Constitution, until the day of danger wrung from them the confession that they are enthusiastic only about ground rent.”

All right, ahead of us today is that Johnson statement in parliament.

The BBC runs the documentary tonight on the pandemic filmed in the Royal Free Hospital in London. Expect some reactions from that.

More significantly, it looks like Sunak will be gearing up to pull back some of the government economic support for furloughed workers and firms during the crisis. Possibly tapering to 60% wage support from the current 80% and withdrawing some of the access of businesses to funds. Expect leaks on that today as the government tries to soften up ground ahead of any announcement tomorrow. For me, I’m looking at the number of workers this is likely to impact, especially workers who are renting – especially as many of those have vast portion of their pay packets already swallowed by rent – and they, we, still have no sufficient support from government.

Lots of pressure from the aviation industry for the government to cut them a blank check and to support them through the crisis. And what looked like strong pushes from within the worst bits of that industry to abandon any plans to constrain them in future over carbon emission. That’s something to hold the government’s feet to the fire over. This could and should be an extraordinary moment in which capacity in that industry could actually be converted to something that won’t kill us all. Likely? I wouldn’t hold your breath even if the air is a bit clearer.

But that is all for this morning. If you’re not in a trade union already, do check out that union finder. If you’re already a member, but largely inactive, maybe now’s the right time to start doing things.

Otherwise, I think for now, stay safe, stay home, wash your hands and don’t be a prick. That’s it. This is The Burner.

I’ll see you tomorrow.

Bye bye.


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