Monday, 20 April 2020

Corona: the slow march to authoritarianism.


It finally happened. A Tory MP tweets:
There is a very real risk that the savage media hunt for alleged scandals and scapegoats will distract the government from its coronavirus strategy. There will be time for analysis of performance later. Now is the time to support the war effort. 
This is edging toward " It's unpatriotic to criticise government". Of course there is an element of that. The partisan attacks on the government in respect of PPE look more than a little strained and the remainer blob has seemingly taken up a position of opposition for its own sake, largley believing, or at leas proliferating, virtually anything that paints the government in a bad light. Then there is the clickbait media that makes a living demoralising and denigrating.

Being that Twitter is binary on just about every issue we now have two camps. Those with the government and those against, where again nuance disappears between the cracks. But of course it is entirely possible, and likely, and indeed demonstrable, that while the media is chucking the kitchen sink at the government to the point of losing public trust, the government is also making a complete hash of our response to Corona. 

One thing the Twitter debate doesn't do is separate out the issues. To date I still get people accusing me of being a remainer largely because don't tweet anything in support of the government or any of its decisions pertaining to Brexit. It seems to support the proposition you also have to fall in line with the current execution. Twitter largely wants to be told what it wants to hear and to have its ego stroked. 

As with Brexit, government loyalists can hold the line until it all starts falling part. And fall apart it will. All the foundations are there; poor preparation, inept strategising, weak leadership and a lamentable media. Though the lockdown appears to be having an impact on the overall death rate (so long as you discount the hidden epidemic in care homes), we have only really bought time. We can't stay locked down forever and unless the government has a credible containment plan then Corona is going to spread like wildfire when the lockdown is eased.

The government appears to have weathered the attack by the Sunday Times but it won't be the last of its kind. This time it didn't land a punch because it's not exactly news that the PM is lazy, indifferent and feckless. It doesn't seem to have any bearing on his approval ratings. It's all priced in and they'll keep making excuses for him. I do suspect, though, we are seeing cartoon physics in motion where the hapless coyote doesn't fall until he looks down.

From the very start, there has been only one thing that was going to get us out of this mess, and that was a programme of aggressive contact tracing and isolation. It still is essential, yet no-one seems to be able to focus on this. The media is all over the place, Twitter is up its own backside, and the BBC has developed a morbid fascination for sickness. As a nation, we've totally lost it. The media can play its little games and tribalists can have their little spats while the government spoonfeeds them propaganda, but there is a day in the not too distant future when the bill has to be paid in full.

This will be an itemised bill. There's a price to pay for dismantling local authority capabilities. There's a price to pay for inept pandemic planning. There's a price to pay for the lethargic response. There's a price to pay for having an insular, tribal public debate. There's a price to pay for BBC self-abasement. There's a price to pay for a self-regarding and useless media. There's a price to pay for the Corbyn experiment. There's price to pay for electing Boris Johnson. There is a long list contributing factors spanning a decade or more that leads us to this point. If it wasn't going to be Brexit that pulled the trigger then Corona will do the honours.

It can be argued that other countries have not fared much better, each having their own difficulties with their respective media highlighting many of the same problems, but the bottom line is this government is accountable to us and it must be asked why the government after several weeks is still dragging its heels on implementing the very basics of outbreak containment. It's not like we are a poor country reliant on the science of the EU or the WHO. As a first world country where local government is founded on the principles of public sanitation, we have to ask why this has become a West Wing soap opera so badly disconnected from reality.

As remarked the other day, though, the right are now enforcing a political correctness of their own. If it's now bad form to be looking for alleged scandals it won't be too long before any criticism is viewed as suspect. We've been here before in the early days of the WW2 where criticising the conduct of the war could cost you a week's pay. With the plod having a track record of making arrests for tweets, and suggesting they may monitor what people buy in supermarkets, with authoritarianism making a comeback, it's not unthinkable that the right may have its own list of thought crimes. We are soon about to see how much baloney all that "free speech" guff was during the pre-corona culture wars.

When Ukip stared bleating about the establishment all those years ago, lodging it as a concept in political discourse, it was a mistake to ever assume they were anti-establishment. We have just seen a ten year process of Ukip absorbing the Tory party to become the establishment. Now that their man is at the helm and his cabinet is singing their tune about immigration and foreign aid, they are not in the least bit troubled by all the same excesses of government and presentation politics.

To a very large extent Brexit has had zero impact on our politics. We still have elected dictatorships. The Sunday Times says "One day there will inevitably be an inquiry into the lack of preparations during those “lost” five weeks" but as usual there will be no consequences for the guilty. They'll walk away richer. 

Just as Tony Blair faced no consequences for Iraq, Boris Johnson will face no consequences for the mishandling of Brexit or Corona. All the while, elections are just as futile as ever with participation being every bit as fruitless. This government may make all the pleasing noises the mob likes to hear, but on the ground it looks to be business as usual; a command and control government playing a perpetual game of whack-a-mole where management of media matters more than managing the apparatus of government. 

In more ways that one the whole country has become servile. The media largely retails what it is told by government without conducting its own research, having no expertise of its own, co-opting prestige opinion when it needs a counter-expert, but possess no cognitive ability to ascertain the truth.

Meanwhile the opposition party has become an elected lobbyist group where instead of using parliamentary resources to conduct their own investigations they meekly demand the government holds an inquiry. Worse still, instead of taking early action according to their own pandemic planning, local authorities largely sat on their hands and waited for instruction. We've been conditioned  to accept rule from the centre.

The problem with this is that central government does not do technical governance - or much governance of any other kind. It is reactive and it is mostly political, so in times such as these (or any other for that matter) it is not going to know what it is doing, and its first concern will always be the optics. On that basis we are never going to have competent government.

It is not entirely the fault of Boris Johnson or his government that our response to Corona has been bungled from the beginning. For the most part having Boris Johnson as PM is a symptom of the political, cultural and media collapse. In that regard Britain has bigger problems than Corona.

As much as Corona will do a number on our economy, there is also that small matter of Brexit. Though Corona's effects on the economy are a magnitude worse than no deal, many effects of Brexit will be masked by the impact. So many issues are now a moot point given the destructive impact it has already had, but now we are tasked with climbing out of the hole we have dug for ourselves.

Thanks to Corona a fair bit of the Airbus estate has closed down and they've scaled back production, while demand in the interim will slow down. Any job losses that would happen as a result of Brexit will now be squarely blamed on Corona. The point for me, however, is that without a comprehensive deal, once those jobs are lost, they're not coming back. If the UK slams the door on an open process, the UK will be the very last priority for the EU, and as member states seek to rebuild their own economies they won't be keen on opening up aerospace to UK participation.

But then it goes far beyond Brexit and trade. In order to shore up the economy in the short term this government has taken unprecedented measures, going far beyond even a Corbyn government. It is seeking to keep business and families afloat until such time as we can all return to work. That, though, is not without significant implications (and may even prove pointless since it is not sustainable). We are about to learn a new definition of austerity which makes the old definition look like the partisan hyperbole it was.

It's easy to buy public confidence in the short term, but every single interventionist measure is sure to have blowback that may not even wait until the next general election. With a decimated care sector and the cupboard being bare the "dementia tax" that cost Theresa May a comfortable majority will have to come back along with cuts to universal entitlements. The welfare state we once knew, underpinned by taxation of a relatively thriving economy is never going to look the same again, in a country of children who've had it too good for too long.

Part of me suspects it might be a good thing in that the power of the centralised state it contingent on its capacity to provide. It buys power. If government can no longer provide things like childcare then parents are going to have to sort it out for themselves along with many other things, necessitating effective local government to coordinate social enterprises. It is perhaps by that means we shall see a return to localism. But since all my other hopes have been dashed in recent years it will more likely result in a hardening of state power, only a state that doesn't provide and keenly defends its monopoly on power.

Peter Hitchens has of late argued that the lockdown is a grave mistake, surrendering our liberties in such a way that we never recover them. I think, though, that we already surrendered the most essential component of our democracy when we gave up what little local control we had (the reason we are in this mess to begin with). From there it wasn't much of a leap to go the rest of the way. That we have found this centralised dictatorship passably tolerable is because it made politics redundant so we could get on with indulging our whims.

Now that we are faced with a wholly different economy where luxury purchases we take for granted and good jobs thin on the ground, it seems entirely possible that we become more like Hungary; a poor country run by an authoritarian mob gradually in the process of dismantling liberty. Though the Tory mob will have no particular problem with it, the centuries long march toward genuine democracy will for the first time go into reverse. Let's just hope there's more defiance in the British public than can be found on Twitter these days. 

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