Tuesday, 28 December 2021

Don't let them take us down with them


The old headline which some say is apocryphal but which others attribute to the Times in 1957, which read “Heavy Fog in the Channel. Continent cut off.”, serves as a classic indicator of that special English sense of being exceptional and at the centre of everything. We had a contemporary indication of that same attitude this week, when Sir Somebody Tufton-Bufton MP declared that if England does something different to what he referred to as ‘the principalities’ then it is not England which is out of step, but everybody else. Given his obvious ignorance of the nature of the UK and its component parts, it will surely come as a surprise to no-one to discover that he is, like his party’s leader, yet another Old Etonian, another product of that network of so-called ‘educational’ institutions which seem to exist primarily to remove any feelings of empathy and humanity from their charges and replace them with an innate sense of superiority and exceptionalism. Accurate and useful knowledge seems to play only a minor role in the curriculum.

Anyway, the basic difference between the more civilised parts of the UK on the one hand and England on the other in this case is about whether it is sensible to take formal precautions to try and slow the spread of Omicron before it gets completely out of control, or whether we should rely on the common sense of people to take their own decisions about the level of risk involved and wait until the health service is overwhelmed before acting. And the problem for the civilised parts is that it’s only when England acts that money will be available in the quantities required to support the affected individuals and businesses. Notwithstanding certain obvious exceptions, and without playing down the damage that those exceptions can do in spreading the virus, it is true that many people, even in England where their leader is still exhorting them to party on and leading by example, are showing a great deal of common sense and voting with heir feet. Some of the businesses affected are effectively being closed by customer withdrawal rather than by government dictat – something which the Chancellor apparently considers a good thing since he doesn’t need to subsidise them, but which will not feel quite so good from the perspective of either the businesses themselves or those working in them.

The argument of the so-called ‘freedom lovers’ of the swivel-eyed crazy tendency which has infiltrated and taken over the Tory party is that setting rules infringes our rights to take our own decisions. I suppose we should be glad that they haven’t – not yet anyway – tried to apply this to certain other offences, like murder or theft. There is a sense in which they have a point: what events have shown us is that, whether we are given rules or merely guidance, most people do the sensible thing. For most of us the outcome (in terms of our behaviour) is much the same. In the same way, most of us don’t need a law banning us from killing other people to prevent us from doing it. The difference between rules and guidance, though, is about the lack of enforcement. With rules, we can and do take action against those who transgress and endanger the rest of us (unless, of course, they are cabinet ministers, advisers, Tory MPs or donors), whereas with guidance, they are free to continue to act as they wish (and may even gain unfair advantage from their actions). Specifically, in this instance, to spread a virus variant the potency of which is still not fully known or understood. Underlying their argument is an ideological aversion to any action being taken collectively rather than individually.

Some might object to the distinction drawn above between England and the more civilised countries of the UK, but doesn’t this go to the heart of an important aspect of what civilisation is about? Acting collectively, in the interests of the many rather than the few, setting rules which allow us to live side by side in a commonly-agreed framework rather than allowing individuals to do as they please regardless of the consequences for others  – aren’t these all aspects of a developed civilisation? Under the leadership of an ignorant and exceptionalist elite, England is rapidly turning its back on civilised values. And that applies not only in the specific dealt with here, but in the treatment of the least fortunate in society and of refugees, to pick just two examples. Remaining attached to what England is becoming is not a future which offers much hope to anyone.

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