By Alec Ross
“The vanity of each generation is to believe that we are living in the greatest period of history. Each generation imagines it is germinating a brand new world, that the times are glorious, that their period is the most interesting ever to occur, that earthly progress would turn around now for a thousand years and their names would be written on water. The Romans believed it, and their civilisation is now a heap of lovely ruins and a dead language”. (Andrew O’ Hagan: Scotland Your Scotland).
When Boris Johnson was first admitted to Intensive care to treat his alarming Covid-19 symptoms, his stand-in Dominic Raab wished him well. “Boris is a fighter and he’ll win this battle”, he said. As it happened, he got out yesterday and with no obvious sense of irony praised the very people – migrants working in the NHS whose lives are about to be made more difficult by his Government’s policies – who’d saved his life. You wonder at what kind of a bubble you’d have to have lived in your entire life to express this sort of cognitive dissonance.
Two things struck me.
Firstly, I’ve always felt uncomfortable when people are described as being in a “battle” against a serious illness. I know it’s meant to be encouraging, but it does sort of lay the blame for those who die on their lack of bottle or their failure to out-strategise a wily opponent. In reality, you either survive or you don’t. Plus, I’d rather we didn’t evoke War when Plague is already here. I mean, that’s surely enough to be going on with for now.
Secondly, one day this will end, so having the ‘Nation’ on a war footing is a clever strategy. The narrative is already being written. They’re starting the gaslighting early. “By evoking the Dunkirk spirit, we won the Coronavirus War!” No doubt we’ll be asked to get the bunting out to celebrate being led to a historic victory by “brave” Boris, just as his hero Churchill smited the Hun.
Don’t fall for this. Nobody should wish anything but the best for anyone whose life is in danger, but equally Johnson’s illness shouldn’t for a second shield him or his Government from being held to account for their appalling handling of this crisis that has seen the UK heading towards the highest mortality rates in Europe. PPE failures, the falsification of deaths figures, the past lack of support for the NHS, the failure to prepare for a pandemic that is now widely understood, and the barefaced hypocrisy of thanking immigrant nurses whose lives Johnson wants to make much harder in future with barriers to entry and extra charges to use the NHS they actually work for, will all come back to haunt him. As will business failures, and economic shrinkage worse than the Great Depression that will impact, as ever, on those least able to withstand its devastating effects. There has to be – there will be – one hell of a reckoning for this.
But that reckoning must run in tandem with an honest and open discussion about what sort 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. Covid doesn’t just move the so-called Overton Window (the imaginary portal containing what ideas are “allowed” to be discussed) to political left for the first time in half a century. It smashes the window to pieces and renders largely redundant the need for labels like “left-wing”.
And this is where, actually, a reference to wartime might for once be useful.
I’ve long been of the belief that things move in cycles of approximately the biblical lifespan of seventy years – give or take. Big financial crises seem to roughly follow that pattern. And it was the privations of war that led to the NHS, the Welfare State and the social contract. A starving post-war continent and the recognition that food security was vital was the beginning of the closer integration that brought about the Common Agricultural Policy.
And history shows that, after about seven decades, the lessons of the past begin to be forgotten. Hence the recent political shift towards right-wing population, and, in the UK, the dismantling by stealth of the welfare state, and Covid has done has reminded us just why we need it. And why we need each other.
The historian and philosopher Yuval Noah writes:
“Emergencies fast-forward historical processes. Decisions that in normal times could take years of deliberation are passed in a matter of hours”.
And that’s been proven in the response to Covid. Remember that magic money tree that Theresa May claimed didn’t exist? Is does. Turns out there’s a muckle big forest of them. Things that were portrayed by the neoliberal press barons as deluded and dangerously Marxist – like Universal Basic Income – are now very much in the mainstream. And, because there’s suddenly unlimited money after all, a decade of austerity has been exposed as the cruel, greedy, ideologically driven madness that it was all along. It was conscious cruelty. It was a political choice, pure and simple. Facts are chiels that winna ding.
Will the UK Government learn the right lessons, or is the neoliberalist groupthink just too hard-wired for even a pandemic to undo?
I hae ma doots. In 2014, the same people told us to vote against ourselves so that we could stay in the European Union, keep the shipyard contracts and HMRC jobs and halt terrorism and a lurch towards right-wing extremism. In the teeth of a global crisis they deliberately absented themselves from a scheme that would have delivered life-saving ventilators presumably because they figured that working collegiately with foreigners wouldn’t fly with the core vote, so people have died on the altar of exceptionalism. Turns out those broad-shoulders of the UK that David Cameron talked about couldn’t even buy facemasks. And the much heralded financial measures – bailouts for employers but no job guarantees for employees, for example – suggest that it is once again the ownership class will be protected while the rest of society sees its income dry up.
And this is why we, as Scotland, need to ask: what do we need to do? And is that achievable within the current political and constitutional framework?
My view is that the Scotland that we like to think of ourselves living in isn’t attainable without self-determination. There will be those who will say that this is politicising a pandemic. To which I’d say two things.
Firstly, as I argued last week, this pandemic, in its underlying causes and in the response to it, is the most political thing imaginable. We need to talk about it. This is no time for political quietism.
And, secondly, get over yourselves. We can build a more equal, fairer, greener Scotland or we can remain part of the United Kingdom. But we cannot do both.
These days some of us have a lot more free time than we expected a couple of months ago. Let’s keep safe. But let’s also think. Let’s also talk. Let’s also imagine.
The lesson of this crisis is not that Scotland needs to stay in order to survive, but that Scotland needs to leave in order to flourish.
Stay safe, good people. I’ll meet you further on up the road.