Thu 24 June 2021

Knighting Captain Tom Moore – rightly admired for his fundraising for the NHS – is a cynical ploy by a populist Prime Minister struggling to do his job in an actual crisis, says Otto English.

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Back in early April, with his 100th birthday approaching, Captain Tom Moore set out on a sponsored walk around his garden, aiming to complete 100 25-metre laps before the big day. 

Initially hoping to raise £1,000 for NHS charities, within a week his JustGiving page had taken off and soon he was recording a number one single with Michael Ball and clocking up millions of pounds in donations. By the morning of his birthday on 30 April, he had raised an impressive £32.8 million. 

Captain Moore’s charity walk has been an uplifting story in a land crying out for good news. He has become nothing short of a sacred amulet; a Blitz-touchstone evoking war-time optimism and endurance. To mark his birthday, he was made an honorary Colonel of his old regiment and received a fly-past by the RAF. But the icing on the cake came this week when Boris Johnson declared that Captain Moore would be knighted.

It suits this mendacious bunch of self-serving braggarts to turn frontline staff into heroes and those who raise money for the NHS into icons.

The Birthday Honours list has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic so this knighthood is a unique award, outside of the usual order of things, “a special nomination from the Prime Minister”. More than that, it is one of the most cynical, politically-motivated manoeuvres of recent times.

The Coronavirus crisis has been tough for the semi-visible Prime Minister. The curve may have levelled off, but it is yet to dip. Weeks of lockdown are starting to take a toll on the Government’s popularity.

COVID-19 wasn’t part of Johnson’s plan. He wanted to enjoy being Prime Minister and didn’t expect that he’d have to deal with an actual crisis. Matters aren’t helped by the new Labour Leader Keir Starmer. Johnson now faces a smarter man in an almost empty House of Commons and, devoid of his braying backbenchers, the Emperor has been shown to be naked. 

So it was surely no coincidence that Johnson chose to announce Captain Moore’s knighthood on the eve of the latest Prime Minister’s Questions and in the week that that the Independent Office for Police Conduct published its findings on his relationship with US businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri. What better way to divert from all the unpleasantness than to lift the nation’s mood by giving Britain’s best-loved old soldier a gong?  

Johnson is a populist whose survival depends on the hot air of his bombastic cult of personality. He knows how to play a crowd and handing out a knighthood to Captain Moore could only make him look good. This was not about Tom Moore. It was a weapon of mass distraction; a diversion from those awkward questions like: why have more people died in the UK from COVID-19 than nearly anywhere else in the world and why does a 100-year-old man have to raise money for the state healthcare service in one of the richest nations on Earth? 

Johnson and the Conservative Brexiters love the NHS when it serves their agenda, but these are the people who promised to give it £350 million a week if the UK left the EU for no other reason than that they knew it would win votes. That contemptuous lie was predicated on the place the health service has in the national consciousness.

The NHS is akin to a state religion in the UK and when – as now – it is needed more than ever, it suits this mendacious bunch of self-serving braggarts to turn frontline staff into heroes and those who raise money for it into icons.

All of that detracts from the inconvenient fact that, for 10 years, the Conservatives have slashed funding to a service that many in the top tiers of Government privately hold in contempt. The party has overseen an assault on the NHS the like of which has never been known. The UK now has 28% fewer doctors per head of the population than the EU average and there is a nursing shortfall of 44,000 – not helped by at least 5,000 European nurses quitting due to Brexit. Since 2010, hospital A&E services have been slashed, vital services cut and hospital beds reduced by almost 20,000.

And now, having run the health service into the ground, the Government seeks to claim it as its own.

For months, Britons have been encouraged to stand on doorsteps and celebrate healthcare workers by a party that has done more to destroy the NHS than any other in history. Applauding healthcare workers has become the new poppy and, like that tarnished symbol, it has little to do with the people it purports to celebrate. It has been twisted into an act of national conformity. Clapping fascism, like the veneration of a well-intentioned old man, is like slapping a single smiley band-aid on a global pandemic. 

As for the money raised by Captain Tom Moore, it is of course welcome and his determination is only to be admired. But £32.8 million is a tiny drop in the ocean. The NHS doesn’t need charity or applause – it needs to be properly funded.

Britain meanwhile needs less self-serving gesture politics and more actual leadership. I’d happily clap for that.   

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