I had a bit of a cough yesterday. My wife and younger daughter had been ill the previous week with a typical winter bug. Was I fighting it off, or was it the beginnings of the dreaded coronavirus-19? Many thoughts flashed through my anxiety-ridden mind. Could I go and see my 89 year old mum, isolating to avoid catching it from anyone. In the end the cough didn’t become persistent, I felt better by the afternoon. Panic over. Perhaps the cough appeared as a result of Corona-anxiety, I don’t know. I feel fine this morning.
Many other people also felt fine – partly I suspect because the weather was so beautiful. How ironic, after the relentless rain of the eternal Autumn (Winter never appeared here in Dorset), that in the week we were implored not to go out, the weather should finally turn sunny and dry. And off they went, crowding the coastal resorts, crowding the Lake District, the Peak District, and every other National Park I expect. The National Trust, having bravely opened its parks and gardens to the public for free, to encourage them to go outdoors and enjoy the Spring, now found themselves having to shut up shop, because so many had taken up their kind offer. Scenes of crowded parks litter Social Media, generating a tidal wave of criticism, of these selfish people spreading the virus.
What is going on? I think it’s partly of the Government’s own doing. The Government, now being run by the likes of Dominic Cummings and his mates from the Vote Leave campaign, who are in turn drawn from a small cabal of activists on the libertarian right – all of whom work for a small group of “think tanks” mostly based in Tufton Street, Westminster. These are the people who have spent the last twenty years quietly plugging away at a narrative, a narrative which finally came to fruition in the Brexit campaign.
The narrative is simple – Government is bad. The state is bad, it is by its very nature oppressive. It inevitably gets in the way of the Natural Order of things. The Natural Order is that everyone is an individual and that individual liberty is more important than anything else. And that the natural collective of individual liberty is enshrined in the Market. Public Spending is bad because it’s Taxpayers Money, being stolen from them by the state. Public services are therefore bad and need to be privatised. The private sector is part of the Natural Order of things and will always do a better job than the public sector. Rich people are rich because they worked harder or deserve to be rich. The poor are either lazy or stupid. Interestingly this point is one of the intersectional points between the Libertarian (or Hard) Right and the Authoritarian or Far Right. The Eugenic theories espoused by the likes of Toby Young and Dominic Cummings seek to provide a pseudo-scientific justification for the argument that “the poor are genetically inferior, which is why they will always be poor.”
Everything that gets in the way of the Natural Order must be swept away. This includes Regulation, the Civil Service, The BBC, and anyone who seeks to challenge the narrative of the Natural Order. Money should also have its own liberty, and be free to flow wherever it can. If that means it all ends up in the pockets of multi-billionaires, massive transglobal corporations and offshore tax havens, that is part of the Natural Order.
Naturally multi-billionaires, massive transglobal corporations and offshore tax havens are the places where money also flows from, into the coffers of those Think Tanks in Tufton Street – the Taxpayers Alliance, Policy Exchange, The Institute of Economic Affairs, The Adam Smith Institute, the Centre for Policy Studies, etc etc.
Think back over the past 20 years and there have been some very significant victories by the Libertarian Right –
they saw off plans for the UK to join the Euro.
They put a massive hole in the public’s perception of trust in (Westminster) politicians with the expenses scandal.
They cemented the idea that public spending was bad in the media. It’s a basic Libertarian tenet, but it was dressed up as Austerity in the wake of the 2008 financial crash.
They saw off electoral reform in the no 2 AV campaign.
They poisoned the mind of the public against the EU resulting in the Brexit win. In doing so they simultaneously exploited the rise of populism across Europe (and more widely) and the opportunities to be gained from weaponising social media as a propaganda tool.
Having created this narrative so successfully, Cummings and his Tufton Street mates seized power in 2019. Let’s face it, with Jeremy Corbyn and his own little cabal running the Labour Party into the ground, and with a pliant media to pump out their slogans, it was, in hindsight, an easy win. The ground was prepared to transform Britain – or perhaps Greater England, as Northern Ireland would need to be sacrificed to have any decent sort of trade deal with both the US and the EU, while Scotland would only become ever more restive – into their dream: the small state, everything privatised, dream. With the clown Johnson as their front man/patsy, the stage was set.
Then came the Coronavirus, like Banquo at Macbeth’s feast. Or Thanos, if you prefer a modern analogy. The natural response from the Natural Order boys (and they are almost all boys), was “it’s all part of the natural order, we must let the virus spread through the population so the healthy will survive and everyone will have herd immunity.” That’s straightforward Social Darwinism, the survival of the richest, who can disappear off to their second homes in the Caribbean or sail out to safe places in their superyachts. Once it became clear that not only would half a million people die in very short order of CV-19, but many others would also die because the NHS had collapsed under the strain, panic set in. The awful truth dawned – The Government would have to Do Something.
Consider what the exquisite messaging that had been deployed by Cummings & His Mates:
Don’t Trust Politicians. They are all self-serving liars.
Take Back Control
Give the People The Power to Decide for Themselves.
The People’s Parliament.
The People’s Budget.
you get the idea. The Libertarians aren’t interested in populism other than as a mean to their ends, which is dismantling state and public power.
Now, the Government was going to have to take control, to start telling people what to do. The messages are simple – wash your hands and keep 2m away from other people. But the messages coming from Johnson and the Government have been disastrous. Firstly they prefer to persuade, the Nudge Unit, another bit of fake science, was tasked with producing messages to persuade, and came up with the Herd Immunity line. Secondly they gave the job to inveterate liar Johnson.
Not surprisingly the messages have failed to get through. Instead we’ve lurched through a series of mishaps and delays, before finally closing pubs and other public gathering places, finally closing schools. Weeks have been wasted.
Instead of a wall to wall public information campaign we have dribs and drabs, a daily press conference with Johnson at the helm, automatically negating any credibility it might have.
But the biggest problem is that, having told the public for years to mistrust politicians, take back control and decide things for themselves, that is exactly what a significant chunk of the public are doing. Can they really be blamed? This, coupled with a traditional “I’m alright Jack” British exceptionalism, will prove, is proving fatal.
Given that in order to be effective, a large section of the public need to act on the key messages (hand washing and social distancing), two paths now offer themselves.
The “Herd Immunity” path is still there. Without a massive behavioural change from the public, the virus will spread, exponentially. The NHS will fall over. Half a million and more will die in a very short time. Mass Graves. Essential workers not at their stations. The fabric of society will be threatened, as food and energy supplies come under pressure. The Army will be on the streets.
The other path is scarier for the Libertarians. It’s a strong state, verging on the authoritarian, as has already happened in France, Spain and Italy. Permission is needed to venture outside your home. Gatherings are banned. Perhaps even the state takes over the media to pump out the necessary messages. The state has already taken over paying people’s wages, or at least made several large steps in that direction. Next will be essential services being brought into state ownership, including the food supply. This is, after all, what happened in the last great national crisis, World War Two.
Which would you prefer?