Vague optimism is a hell of a drug, and Boris Johnson is a hell of a dealer. He knows what his audience wants. Weary, battered by life and frightened half to death by the younger generation, they want – as the Daily Mail once pleaded for – "sunshine". So, amid the carnage, Johnson came bounding toward the Downing Street podium on Monday, following his own recovery from the illness, to give a surreally upbeat speech. At moments of resolve, he pulled his fists up in front of his chest, bared his lower teeth and, for all the world, resembled a frisky bulldog flogging insurance. Oh, yes!
With over 40,000 Covid-19 deaths in the UK according to the Financial Times – four times the death toll from the last Libyan civil war – Johnson declared victory in sight. Public health officials are in quiet despair over the fact the death count hasn't fallen faster after weeks of lockdown, NHS staff are furious over continuing PPE shortages, and the testing target is nowhere in sight. Nonetheless, Johnson flourished, "We are now beginning to turn the tide." As if to prove the final collapse of the reality principle, the usual quorate of edgy, skeptical, no-bullshit journalists lined up to kiss Johnson's arse for this "serious", "mature" performance.
Not for the first time, Johnson gave the impression of wishing to restrain a restless British public, all of whom are desperate to know when they can please return to their beloved daily grind. The truth is the reverse. Johnson is among the hawkish members of the government who have been alarmed by how well lockdown is working. As a cabinet member told the Telegraph, "We didn’t want to go down this route in the first place." Public support for the lockdown remains strong. People are enjoying the relatively fresher air, the free time, the closer communities, while only 9 percent yearn for the status quo.
It is the government that is desperate to "get back to normal", back to when they knew what their agenda was. It was only in the recent past – though it now feels as dated as flared corduroys and smoking in pubs – that Brexit was going to "change everything". It was the pivot of the government's agenda, the obsession of flag-bedraggled Leavers and Remainers, the centre of the media's universe. Corbynism having been seen off, what else was there to upset the house of cards? Microbes, for the umpteenth time in history, were the agent of subversion.
When the Covid-19 pandemic knocked, however, the government wasn't home. Even as the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a global emergency on the 30th of January, Boris Johnson and his allies were bullishly focused on withdrawal from the European Union, due to happen the next day. Cobra had already met and dismissed the crisis. Health secretary Matt Hancock had declared the risk "low". Chief medical officer Chris Whitty was unperturbed. There was evidently no reason to let the virus deny them their Brexit victory lap. And thus began what the Sunday Times calls the government's lost five weeks. Five weeks that may have cost thousands of lives, as the government first shrugged at the crisis, then attempted to treat it like the flu, knowingly risking hundreds of thousands of deaths by suggesting a "herd immunity" strategy, until it became politically untenable.
A pandemic is no more a "natural disaster" than a famine. Both are political events. The outbreak of zoonotic diseases might be blamed on global agribusiness, but the failure of pandemic preparation to control the outbreak is a government failure. The well-rehearsed reasons for this include, not only cold complacency and Brexit-obsession, but also the austerity-driven attack on pandemic preparedness, cuts to healthcare and budget cuts for local authorities given responsibility for public health. Hence, the failure to implement testing, isolation and contact tracing when it could have made a difference. Hence the shortages of PPE equipment. Hence the fatal delay in implementing lockdown. Hence the failure to meet the government's testing target of 100,000 per day, revised down from Boris Johnson's initial promise of 250,000 tests per day. Hence tens of thousands of lonely, suffocating deaths in ICU beds and care homes.
Aside from the immediate human cost, the delay in dealing with the pandemic is storing up a serious economic shock. The famous "V-shaped recovery" might just have been possible if the government had acted early. However, by letting the virus rip through the population, they ensured that they would have to lock down harder and for longer. Over 70 percent of firms are furloughing staff, unemployment is expected to rise to 9 percent and GDP is likely to contract at a quarterly rate of 7 percent on a conservative estimate.
This goes well beyond government incompetence and venality. In fact, it tells us something important about the neoliberal orthodoxy which has governed British capitalism for four decades.
In some ways, neoliberalism was good for businesses. It weakened the trade union movement, reduced the share of national income going to labour and boosted corporate profitability. And yet, it has turned out to be terrible at safeguarding even the medium-term interests of capital. The myth has it that neoliberalism means a "small state". That isn't necessarily true. Even throughout the austerity era, spending never fell below 40 percent of GDP. But it is a profoundly short-termist state. The public sector, in any sensible capitalist economy, would have plenty of spare capacity to cope with disasters, shocks and the everyday dysfunctions of the private sector.
Under neoliberalism, ostensibly in the interests of serving the middle-class taxpayer's demand for "efficiency", every bit of spare capacity has to be stripped out, treated as "waste".
One might call this "lean reproduction", except that it doesn’t even have the advantage of reducing costs. The measures supposed to make the public sector more efficient – such as the introduction of private providers, internal markets and public-private partnerships – in fact just inflate overheads, duplicate effort and siphon off public funds to rent-seekers.
Meanwhile, driven to spend without raising taxes, governments increasingly rely on the financial sector. What spending does take place is either borrowed directly, or in the form of rip-off public-private partnerships. This adds interest payments to the public bill, and incentivises regular rounds of spending cuts. Local authorities and public health providers have been driven into the red, and would have been ill-placed to cope with the pandemic even if the government had been diligent.
Even so, the autophagic short-termism of neoliberal capitalism is not enough to explain government behaviour. Why did it take weeks to implement a lockdown and announce emergency economic measures? Why did the government spend so much of the time it had still speaking of "herd immunity" and warning that closing schools would cost 3 percent of GDP? Why, instead of instructing pubs and restaurants to close, did Johnson prefer to ask nicely? Why has it taken until now for the government to hint that it will impose quarantine for those coming to the UK via airports? Why did the government never introduce temperature checks or screening for incoming travellers? Why are government officials briefing the press that they have been bounced against their will into lockdown, by public opinion, and shocked by the extent of public support for it? And why is there still a faction in government pressing for an early exit, despite the risk of repeat waves of the virus?
This comes back to the strategic void at the heart of Conservatism. Like austerity, Brexit solves none of the chronic dysfunctions of British capitalism: low labour productivity, a lack of exportable goods, a failed housing market and grotesque regional imbalances. It even adds new complications by forcing the UK to find new trading partners, in a world that turns out to be rather indifferent to the fate of a declining north Atlantic state.
What Brexit has done, however, is revived popular conservatism. While austerity sparked a radical left opposition, and a radical secessionist movement in Scotland, the Tories found a way to link Brexit to an infrastructure spending boom funded by cheap credit – take, for example, Johnson's promise that building "free ports" after Brexit (in which importing and exporting firms can avoid normal tax and customs rules) would create jobs for "left behind" communities. The government neutralised the opposition and parked its tanks on their lawn. Even if they struggled to find a way forward for business, there would be little resistance to worry about, the opposition would be split by the Brexit culture wars and there would be almost no media scrutiny. Everything was going so well.
And then, the plague came. It has forced the government to blow its own spending targets out of the water, made its infrastructure plans look paltry and relegated the European Union to a fringe concern. It exposed how little flex their old plans had, how short-termist they were, being dictated by the pragmatics of political survival.
Certainly, they had no idea what to do in the event of an economic crisis, which would likely have come, pandemic or not. Worse, it exposed how little work the Right has done of late in shoring up capitalist common sense. Whereas, in the United States, politicians feel at liberty to suggest that people should die for capital accumulation, the collectivist reflexes of the British public have surprised and worried the government.
The Tories are desperate to go back to "normal". That’s exactly why they have been, and still are, a public health danger.
Collage image credits: Image of Boris Johnson via the Foreign and Commonwealth Office CC By 2.0 / Dominic Raab official portrait CC BY 3.0 / Rich Sunak official portrait CC BY 3.0 / Chris Whitty image via Department of Health and Social Care OLG v.3 / Pictures of healthcare workers via US Air Force, and public domain CC0 1.0