“The British are finally experiencing what it’s like to have the British rule your country,” Karl Sharro sardonically tweeted on 26 May. By then the UK had already experienced more than 36,000 deaths as a result of Covid-19, two months after Boris Johnson first declared a lockdown on 23 March.
Between these dates, any reputation the country once enjoyed for administration vanished. Downing Street prevaricated when an immediate lockdown was urgent, choosing instead to brief favoured journalists on how it preferred a strategy of ‘herd immunity’. Meanwhile, the government failed to stockpile protective equipment, with gloves later double-counted to massage the figures – something that also happened with tests. Cuts to the NHS and social care, imposed by the Tories for more than a decade, were grimly exposed.
While public health measures were abysmal, the immediate economic response was adequate: Rishi Sunak announced a furlough scheme on 20 March and, in the first five months of this tax year, Britain borrowed more than it did for the whole of 2009/10 – the previous record for a single year. Budgetary constraints, however temporarily, were not an issue.
Now, as Britain heads into a second wave, prefigured by a tier 3 lockdown in Liverpool and, over the coming days, Greater Manchester and South Yorkshire, it faces a new situation. The public health response remains abysmal – yesterday 241 new deaths were announced – while appropriate economic support isn’t forthcoming.
This explains yesterday’s stand-off between Downing Street and Greater Manchester’s mayor Andy Burnham. With the area set to enter tier 3 on Friday, Burnham spoke of how he and the region’s council leaders had asked for £65m, a figure they believed to be “the bare minimum to prevent a winter of real hardship here”. At 2pm, after refusing to increase the government’s offer of £60m, communities secretary Robert Jenrick confirmed negotiations had ended without agreement, meaning lockdown would be imposed without local consent.
At the same time, albeit less dramatically, the government was on the warpath in London, threatening a takeover of Transport for London (TfL) if the mayor’s office rejected measures including higher council tax, an expanded congestion charge zone and increased tube and bus fares in return for a rescue package. Here, as with Manchester, such a belligerent position appears to be punishment for regions with the temerity to elect Labour politicians.
In the background to all of this is a state structure in breakdown, and a ruling ideology – observed by both parties in government for forty years – in similar disarray. Alongside this, anything resembling a national culture – solidaristic glimpses of which we saw in the spring – has given way to divide and rule. The Tories’ permanent political footing in large parts of the country is now indistinguishable from a Lynton Crosby campaign, with the function of government itself secondary to getting one half of the country to hate the other.
There are two factors that explain Downing Street’s antipathy towards a country it is meant to serve. The first is neoliberalism, internal to which is the belief it is impossible for the state to do anything more effectively than the private sector. This is the basis for outsourcing and privatisation, and explains why businesses like Serco are repeatedly rewarded for failure. The idea that test-and-trace is being better executed in places like Vietnam and Cuba, and that a FTSE company is doing a catastrophic job, is impossible to comprehend. This misunderstanding is also political, and there’s no real incentives to question it. After all, it favours the very interests the Tories are meant to serve: the ultra-rich, the rentier class and those profiteering from public services.
Less remarked upon, but equally important, is how this dovetails with an establishment political culture which is a vestige of Britain’s imperial past. As the historian David Edgerton argues, Britain has only really been a nation-state since 1945, before which it was the centre of a world empire. Such a recent transition does, to some extent, explain why the government sneers not only at Scotland but at any expression of local government defiance.
Analogous here is how colonial policing practices were brought home after the 1970s, with tactics perfected in Malaya and Kenya subsequently applied with brutal ferocity in Ireland. A decade later, the police became the enforcer of the Thatcherite project as riots unfolded in Brixton and Toxteth, the miners’ strike came and went, and events around Wapping marked a revolution in Britain’s newspaper industry. Thatcher went to war with large parts of the population in a way which had never happened in the country’s democratic history. The imperial apparatus had now turned inwards.
But while comparisons are already being made between Burnham’s efforts and the fate of the National Union of Miners (whose defeat arguably came down to a lack of broader support), this time it’s different. Forty years ago the Tories had North Sea oil, privatisations and a bonanza of public housing to sell to the public at a loss. Now, beyond climbing asset prices for homeowners with more QE (not to be under-estimated, but ultimately insufficient), they are grasping at things like attacks on critical race theory. In the context of more than a decade of low growth, falling home ownership and rising debt and poverty – all before the impacts of Covid-19 – this is almost laughable.
Paradoxically, the nature of Britain’s departure from the EU, as well as the erosion of the union, are expressions of an English nationalism which appears set on political self-immolation. Already Britain is genuflect before Brussels and Washington, while a record 58% of Scots favour independence and Kent is set to become a giant car park. The toxicity of this political bromide may yet render England a meaningless political entity too – a matter of great importance if the union does indeed end. Today, a majority of Scots want to end Westminster rule as a result of Tory dogma – tomorrow it may well be Scousers, Mancunians and Londoners too.
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.