Friday, 31 December 2021

Winning doesn't prove a gambler to be right


The compulsive gambler who stakes all the money he has on the spin of a roulette wheel producing a red number will see a win as a vindication of his strategy, whilst a loss is merely a spur to find more money to try again. He ‘knows’ that his strategy is right: it’s just a matter of time. Most of us can see and understand that whether the wheel comes up red or black is purely down to chance, a matter of luck rather than judgement; but winners always need to believe that there’s more to it than that; that they possess a special skill and ability to judge.

It is our great misfortune at a time of pandemic to have the UK led by a gambler, prepared to take risks with the lives of others in the belief that he knows better than the rest of us. If Omicron turns out not to have the hospitalisation and death rates which some feared, he and his supporters will describe it as a vindication of his approach; if things go the other way, it will simply be a case of bad luck. In truth, of course, the biggest factor is simply luck either way; there wasn’t enough information available to be able to claim that it’s about the application of any skill or ability. If ignoring all those voices who warned him that strong urgent action was needed turns out not to be a disaster, that actually tells us nothing about his judgement – but will probably encourage him to do the same again in the future.

If it really turns out that the cost of his recklessness is only in the hundreds or low thousands of additional premature deaths (which is the best case scenario), that doesn’t prove that he was right not to do more to prevent them, any more than it proves that Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon were wrong to take stronger action. Equally, the converse is true – if it all goes horribly wrong and there are tens of thousands of additional premature deaths, that doesn’t prove Johnson wrong and Drakeford and Sturgeon right. The truth is that they’re using different criteria to judge ‘success’, and those criteria are based on completely different sets of values and priorities.

The leader elected by the voters of England, albeit under their badly-flawed electoral system, prioritises money and wealth over lives and health. As his remark about ‘letting the bodies pile high’ indicates, he regards the number of deaths – however high it might go – as a price worth paying for protecting the economic interests of the few. Measured against that criteria, his decision not to act was always the ‘right’ one, regardless of the consequences. He’s not so much hemmed in by the crazies on his party’s fringes, as some have presented it, but freed by them to follow his instincts rather than having to accept the advice of experts who don’t share his values. The leaders elected by the people of Wales and Scotland, on the other hand, prioritise the protection of citizens over mere monetary considerations, and their natural instinct would be to act even more strongly were they not hamstrung by London’s control of the necessary resources. From their perspective, acting strongly was always the ‘right’ thing to do, even if the number of premature deaths avoided was much lower than it has been.

People often claim that the UK is a single country with a single set of values, but the pandemic has clearly shown that to be a gross oversimplification. Our problem has been not that Wales and Scotland have dared to express that difference by diverging from England in responding to the pandemic (as the Tories and their media supporters keep claiming) but that the union prevents us from diverging as much as electoral politics in Wales and Scotland suggests that we might have liked to do. The union has become an obstacle to expressing our values, and we could well do without it.

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