Gareth Roberts makes his case that UK’s catastrophic handling of the COVID-19 pandemic should not be blamed on Boris Johnson’s Government alone — but on his entire party.
I write this on another calamitous week for our Government in its desperate attempts to cope with the Coronavirus pandemic.
The resignation of Professor Neil Fergurson — for breaking the lockdown provisions he was in part responsible for introducing — on the same day UK took up its place as the country in Europe with the highest number of deaths as a result of COVID-19 encapsulates the way our nation has tried and failed to deal with a public health crisis.
This is the single most shameful example of our Government’s dereliction of the duty it owes to its people. At some point in the future questions will be asked, hands will be wrung, excuses made, people blamed. Sadly, if recent precedent is anything to go by, the wrong people will be blamed, lessons will be ignored and excuses found.
So I’m going to make an early pitch at firing an arrow directly at the heart of those who are to blame for this catastrophe – the modern Conservative Party.
The case against the Conservative Party starts way back, but I’m going to ask you to consider the interview that the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gave with Women’s Own Magazine in October 1987. Newly re-elected for her historic third term, the Prime Minister, declared amidst the knitting patterns and domestic advice that: ‘There is no such thing as society.’
It is the one Thatcherite proclamation that all her successors have been united in trying to run away from. Her cold view about our interaction with each other doesn’t tally with socially-acceptable community-friendly conservatism that each Conservative Party leader from John Major to Boris Johnson has sought to establish in the minds of the electorate.
Instead, they’ve tried to put blue water between themselves and Thatcher by declaring that actually they do believe in society. They’ve even attempted to describe the society that they dreamily aspire to, be it the old maids riding bicycles through idyllic villages of Major, to Boris Johnson’s society of Churchillian Brits rolling up their sleeves to take on the might of the European elites.
It’s all been con trick. A careful reading of the Woman’s Own interview shows that Thatcher’s line about society came after she gave a long diatribe about how the state was not there to help everyone, but rather that people should learn to help themselves by making as much money as they could.
“Children and people,” she said, “have been given to understand ‘I have a problem, it’s the Government’s job to cope with it’…. they cast their problems on to society and what is society? There is no such thing.’” She went on to say “it is our duty to look after ourselves,’ and ‘there is nothing wrong with making as much money as you can.”
In these words Conservatism is laid bare — it is the dogma, the creed that has driven every Conservative Chancellor and Cabinet Minister ever since, it is the binary code that runs through every Conservative MP: the state is not here to solve your problems or help you, it simply exists to ensure that you can make as much money as you can.
The Conservative Party have ruthlessly pursued that ideology: they have attempted to dismantle the state: all publicly owned industry was sold off, everything that could possibly be placed into private hands has been transferred, everything that could be tendered with a view to profit has been — not because it enables society to function better (though I concede that may sometimes be the case), not because it gives the people freedom and liberty allowing them to learn and love and thrive, but because it enabled the lucky few to enrich themselves.
Ask those in the South Wales valleys or the North Yorkshire coalfields or the old industrial heartlands of the Tyne and the Clyde what replaced their old industries and the answers will be the same — ‘suffering,’ ‘social disharmony,’ ‘inequality,’ ‘distrust’.
Then they gave us austerity, ten years of a disastrous economic policy in which essential public services were decimated and the gap between the richest in society — for whom austerity was not even an inconvenience — and the poorest has grown. The ability of an individual to climb the social ladder to better themselves through education and experience and enterprise is at an all-time low. Mrs Thatcher may have denied the existence of society, but she was silent about the existence of a rigid, economically determined system of class. But Conservatives are very relaxed about class.
Boris Johnson and his band of Brexiteers try to paint a picture of Britain as optimistic and dynamic, ready to take on all comers like a taut middle-weight boxer, but the reality is that the Britain they have created is a slow, bloated, unfit beast living on the glories long since past.
The Coronavirus has exposed the Conservative Party.
Firstly, there has been the inability of the Government to make swift and effective decisions that are in the interests of society as a whole. We shouldn’t be surprised at this: if you go into politics to create wealth for you and your friends, then your ability to govern for society as a whole is always going to be limited because its just not what you are about.
Then there have been the practical problems of inadequate equipment provided to those who are tasked with fighting the virus, clearly the result of years of cuts and underfunding due to the slavish preoccupation of cutting taxes for the richest.
Next, has been the refusal to take advice from those who really know what they are talking about — something which shouldn’t surprise us either because an ideologue will never listen to anything that challenges the hegemony of the orthodox view.
All these things have led us to where we are today: a country singularly unable to cope with a crisis: a country that now boasts the highest death rate in Europe and a country where those who are the poorest in our society have suffered the most by dying in the greatest numbers.
That is the stark legacy of Thatcher and all those who have followed her in the modern Conservative Party. No one else can be blamed.
There is a society, it does exist, it is made up of good decent, hard-working people who do care about their neighbours and their friends and their family. They are the people who weep at poverty and illness and unfairness, the people who truly strive to ensure that our country allows everyone to reach their potential, not just the lucky few.
If there is to be one good thing to come out of this Coronavirus crisis it will be that this society rises up and says never again will be governed by the dishonesty, greed and incompetence that is the Conservative Party.