Friday, 3 April 2020

The lessons of history, according to the Tories

At first, I thought that the daily cabinet briefings on coronavirus were a good idea, an opportunity to provide information and answer concerns in an open and transparent fashion.  It hasn’t turned out like that, though.  It was clear that the PM was thoroughly bored with the whole thing within a few days – he probably saw catching the virus as a good opportunity to get out of doing something he didn’t really want to do anyway – and even when he did them, it was just another opportunity to lie and obfuscate.  To the extent that they were providing useful information, the fact that the data and some of the policy announcements don’t apply outside England is never made clear, leaving many people thinking that they’re getting ‘UK’ information when they are not.
As time has passed, however, they have come increasingly to look like auditions for the PM’s job (the Cabinet, at least, understand that his days are numbered, even if that hasn’t yet become clear to him, especially since even the Tory press turned on him yesterday for the government’s utter and obvious incompetence in the face of crisis), in which a succession of cabinet ministers show off their rhetorical skills and treat all questions as an opportunity to repeat propaganda rather than provide any information.  And when they come in for criticism for failing to answer, their response is not to provide better answers, but to hire an extra spin doctor to help them get better at avoiding answers.  There is, apparently, nothing wrong with their non-answers, merely the way they present them.
Yesterday, it was Matt Hancock’s turn to show that a spell of illness has not dented his ability to avoid questions, promise things that he has no idea how he will deliver, and add his own little rhetorical flourishes.  He even introduced the novel approach of allowing follow-up questions, giving him a second chance to avoid providing answers, setting a bar which others might well feel a need to emulate.  When his boss returns to the front line, he is not likely to thank young Matt for that particular ‘innovation’.
As part of his rhetorical flight of fancy yesterday, Hancock managed to tell us that “…history has shown that when the world unites together against a common foe then we will prevail”.  I’ve racked my brains to think about a single common foe against which “history has shown” that the world has both united and prevailed – and I’ve failed.  There’s no shortage of common foes which I can identify, mind – there’s poverty, hunger, and climate change for starters.  And what history actually shows in each case, just like in the current coronavirus crisis, is that many individual states prefer to compete with each other than co-operate, to grab more than their fair share of resources, and to resort to divisive rhetoric rather than united action.  In that sense at least, “history shows” that Matt Hancock and the government of which he is a part are responding in the same way governments have always responded.


dafis said...

Well it's not just me, thank heavens for that. The daily press briefing or whatever they call it has progressively deteriorated into a rabble rousing bullshit session particularly the contribution of whichever government minister turns out. It's either a minister with poor grasp of facts who proceeds to waffle, or a minister who is well aware of facts but proceeds to flannel his way around the serious issues underpinned by those facts.

Jonathan said...

Common foes in history? How about Hitler, polio, Aids? But 2 things scare me about the British approach. (1) I get the feeling that about half the population actually like a Blitz-like state: safe space, no need to work, State will pay, police will be tough Creepy. (2) The Americans are losing faith in the medical czars. As well as the 'medicine cabinet' they now want a 're-start committee'. This will work as hard (at finding ways out of this) as the doctors are working to keep us safe/restrict us. Creative tension. Like it. Well done US. Nothing like it anywhere near happening in the UK though. Johnson might ape this idea. But as you say he's probably a fraud.

John Dixon said...

"How about Hitler, polio, Aids?"

Hitler? By definition, humanity cannot be 'united' against a human foe; you can only have part of humanity uniting against another part of humanity.

AIDS? Closer, but as I recall, there were (and still are) some leaders and states which deny the existence of the problem.

Polio? I'll concede to you on that one - and I suppose we could add smallpox as well.

"1) I get the feeling that about half the population actually like a Blitz-like state: safe space, no need to work, State will pay, police will be tough. Creepy." Not sure about the 'no need to work, state will pay' bit, which hints at an ideological viewpoint towards the 'undeserving' which is not necessary to the thrust of your argument, but I share your concern about the latent authoritarianism here. It makes it easier to understand how some states slide into totalitarianism with the active - or at least passive - support of a significant number of people.

"(2) The Americans are losing faith in the medical czars." Some Americans, certainly, although many of those long since abandoned any trust in science or logic anyway. That a country which leads the world in so many spheres can have such a high proportion of the populace who reject facts in favour of unsubstantiated beliefs or conspiracy theories surely gives cause for serious concern.

Ultimately, the 'tension' between those wanting to close things down to fight the pandemic and those who want to keep the economy open boils down to a calculation about acceptable death rates and trade offs. And it's a trade-off which we all make, even if we don't all admit it. There are very few who would argue for shutting down a whole economy to prevent a single preventable death, and very few who would argue against it if the alternative was that 90% of the population would die a preventable death. The question is where, between those two extremes, do we draw the line, and on what basis. And although the way in which he raised the point was crass, lacking in empathy, and utterly devoid of any hard figures to back it up, Trump's point about considering the number of people who will die as a result of economic slowdown was, in its essence, a valid one - both scenarios lead to preventable deaths. I don't doubt that deaths from the pandemic would significantly outweigh those from a slowdown (although I don't have hard figures to back that up either, of course), but it isn't just a simple matter of counting the bodies in both scenarios. Both scenarios also require action to be taken to mitigate or minimise their effects. There is no simple straightforward answer to the question, but I suspect from your comment that you are, in principle, willing to accept a higher number of casualties than I am.