I got into a bit of an online stooshie after sharing an article from a former government insider who stated that, in his opinion, the biggest crisis anyone under the age of eighty can remember is being made worse by the people in charge of the response. The thrust of his argument was that, at a time when we’ve never needed the NHS more, we were being led by people who were ideologically opposed to its very existence.
Some of the response can be summarised as follows.
“We’re all in this together” (shades of Brexit. Now, those were the days….)
“Stop carping from the sidelines and support the leaders. Both sides need to come together!”
“Let’s not politicise this”.
So let’s try and untangle the threads of this.
Firstly, we’re not all in this together. While it’s true that this terrible virus seems to attack indiscriminately, it seems you’ve no problem getting a test for mild symptoms if you are a political leader or a head of state in waiting, for whom self-isolating means flying to Aberdeen with a sizeable entourage.
I was also struck by the notion that there were somehow “sides” in the debate, as it appears that criticism over delayed shutdowns, lack of PPE and poor communications has come from people across the spectrum, just as it should. It’s a strange pass indeed when you’re mostly on the same page as Andrew Neil and Piers Morgan. I just wonder if that after a decade of endless, mass political process we have become conditioned to seeing all issues, even one as colossal as this, through a prism of division – even when none exists.
But, most importantly, is this notion that the crisis shouldn’t be politicised.
It absolutely should be. Although we don’t have to.
Because the virus and the response to it was political long before I added my tuppence worth.
The decision to pursue ten years of needless austerity that led to the swingeing cuts in the National Health Service and left it stretched even before Covid-19 arrived. That was political.
The vote, announced to loud cheers three years ago, to freeze nurses’ pay. That was political. Although at least the Prime Minister gave them a round of applause, which must have helped them enormously when the rent was being paid and the weans were needing shoes.
The decision to not join with other EU countries in a collective bid to source ventilators and instead give the contract to a party donor? Political.
To create a shortage of health workers by pursuing an anti-immigration agenda. That was political.
To decide how many tests Scotland should have. That was political.
Shelving a 2016 report that stated our unpreparedness to tackle a pandemic?
Political. Political. Political.
It’s absolutely correct that we talk about how our various governments are handling events. Apart from anything, doing so is the start of the process that will allow us to begin with the reconstruction of the kind of society – fairer, greener, less individualistic, food sustainability, a basic income – that we were all told had ended with the “triumph” of neoliberalism and the unchallengeable primacy of the free market economy. I honestly think the quality of the discussion has been mostly pretty high from the start. And, just as the last global conflict led to the political and societal disquiet that brought about the National Health Service, the social contract and the Common Agricultural Policy. Out of darkness came light. Hope can again rise from despair.
We’re facing a force beyond our ken but one day it will be over. There will be no normal to return to. But normal was killing us, so that’s no bad thing. Actually, I think the key is to play the ball, not the man. Blame gets us nowhere – there’ll be one hell of an enquiry somewhere down the line – but neither does keeping stoom when incompetence and ideological intransigence is costing lives. And it has done.
I’ve always hated all that “keep calm and carry on” nonsense. It’s nostalgic propaganda that speaks of acquiescence and the kind of wartime political quietism that never existed and that allows power to be exercised largely unencumbered, which is of course exactly what they want. At a time when emergency powers are being enacted, and when we face an existential threat, it has never been more important to think, and to – calmly and respectfully – speak out.
And, of course, to speak to each other.
Stay safe everyone. We’ll meet further on up the road.