Wednesday 14 December 2022

Defining a crisis


James Callaghan never actually said “Crisis? What crisis?” as he returned from a trip abroad during the so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’ in 1979, but that well-known comic, ‘Thesun’ turned it into a highly memorable and effective headline. Like the phrase ‘Winter of Discontent’ itself, it underlined the extent to which newspaper headlines can set a tone or an agenda, a power which they continue to abuse on a regular basis. People in the UK are facing a deliberate attack on their living standards which is almost unprecedented, certainly since the 1930s; the biggest war to be fought on European soil since 1945 is raging in Ukraine and driving millions from their homes; and the NHS is close to collapse after 12 years of intentional government policy. Yet the biggest crisis facing the UK, according to a host of newspapers, is a few thousand desperate people taking a perilous boat-trip from France to Kent; people fleeing war, oppression, disease, or simply abject poverty seeking a better life in one of the world’s richest countries.

The numbers, in relation to the UK’s population, are tiny. They are very much lower than the numbers of those seeking refuge in other countries such as Germany. Yet the Little Englanders who set the news agenda have decided (not without some justification, it must be said) that playing to the racist and xenophobic element of their readership sells papers. It also helps their political allies amongst the Tories to push an agenda which seeks to scapegoat migrants for inadequacies in the Health Service, housing, and education rather than allowing people to understand that those inadequacies are a result of sustained government policy rather than migration. Divide and conquer has always worked for them, and it’s working now, unfortunately. Getting some of the least well-off to blame those even worse off than themselves rather than those who’ve hoarded all the resources to themselves is their standard operating procedure.

The result is a government which announces ever more extreme measures to tackle the non-crisis, in an attempt to divert attention from the real crises. Sections of the media actively egg them on, and the official ‘opposition’ seems more interested in criticising them for the inefficiency of their implementation of their policies than for the policies themselves. If international law decrees that the government’s policies are illegal, the answer, apparently, is not to change the policies to comply with the law, but to disapply the law, and the last PM but one has today joined the ranks of those calling for the UK to opt out of the European Convention on Human Rights. His Brexit deal seriously wounded the Good Friday Agreement; the fact that his latest proposal would finish it off seems to be as trivial a concern to him as his own breaches of domestic law.

Crossing the Channel in a small boat is certainly a crisis for those in the boats, even if not for the rest of us. The cost of living is certainly a crisis for most of us. But perhaps the biggest crisis of all is the gullibility of those who believe that the former is a bigger problem than the latter, and the ruthless way in which that gullibility is being exploited. And it might be the hardest one to solve.

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