MICHAEL WHITE on the week Boris Johnson crossed his fingers and let down the barriers.
Oh no, not another of Fleet Street’s fake Independence Days, Boris! I thought we had one on June 23, 2016, when Britons narrowly voted to leave the EU. And another on January 31 this year, when we officially left and you prioritised Big Ben Bongs over pandemic planning. Do we really need a cascading series of Independence Days this summer, first for football, then cinemas and museums, finally hairdressers and (Tory cheers) pubs on the Fourth of July.
Judging by Tuesday’s formal Commons announcement, as much for the benefit of his vassal cabinet as for MPs and anxious voters, it seems we do. Let Merrie England dance wantonly around its socially distanced maypoles at spaces as lewdly close as one metre-plus. Fifty six last week (he had a Union Jack birthday cake – and ate it), Boris is back from his latest furlough. So skip some of that pesky science and follow the focus groups. But no snogging at the back of the cinema, please. And certainly no clubbing or cricket. The ball may be a spreader.
Except it’s not really that merrie, is it? By Johnson’s standard this was a sombre and coherent statement, one in which ‘caution is our watchword’ – not a very Borisian phrase – and ‘our national hibernation’ is only beginning to come to an end. As he thumped the dispatch box in search of his battered mojo he could only muster ‘a new but cautious optimism’.
So even the Birthday Boy grasps that Britain is taking a gamble on being able to contain or isolate the kind of second waves which are now coming ashore in better-managed Covid-19 countries than ours, including South Korea, China, Germany (even) and New Zealand. Everyone is hoping that the virus gets weaker, as some epidemiologists now speculate, that the vaccine trials and antidotes get stronger.
Even for countries which responded better to the latest 21st century crisis to shake the world, it’s a risk. But it is one which has to be taken to reduce the deep scars that lockdown has inflicted on economies, social cohesion, education, mental health and a growing list of casualties, including, we were reminded this week, the criminal justice system. Some eight million people have been Covid-infected worldwide, growth rates are still significant in many places, including that North-Rhine Westphalian meat factory and an Anglesey chicken plant. Second wave or no, Merrie Britain’s summer respite may be brief. Doctors’ leaders are demanding better winter planning.
A renewed attempt at even localised lockdown – the new tactic from Beijing to (perhaps) Holyhead – would be demoralising, especially if it follows a failure of many firms, jobs and customers wallets to unlock at all. Throw in escalating trade wars and the opportunist risk of hot ones, it’s potentially scary too. China is now flexing its new muscles on its Himalayan frontier with India as well as with Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Philippines and (‘cyber-attacks by unknown state actor’) Australia.
Sideshow spats over Huawei’s 5G technology – kit we can’t yet match – bubble along with the EU, US and Little Britain. It would be less alarming if John Bolton had not just confirmed that an ignorant crook sits in the Oval Office. Trump’s falling poll ratings in key states and communities is one bright spot. Germany’s feuding, far-right AfD is falling apart. Poland’s Law and Order tough guys may lose the presidency in the coming election. It’s not all bad news.
So, it’s time for progressive, liberal opinion to keep its collective nerve and concentrate on the substance of a better future, not on falling out over symbols, even statues. Here’s a tip. Quite by chance my wife and I recently discovered a way to keep it all some perspective. Channel-hopping one evening she stumbled on The Planets, Brian Cox’s BBC2 series about the 4.5 billion year solar system. From hot little Mercury to mighty and mysterious Jupiter, it certainly puts the Blue Planet in its place.
The solar system, let alone the infinite galaxies beyond, don’t care much either way about Donald Trump’s ugly self-serving dishonesty, his boastful stupidity. They give no thought at all to the egregious political and administrative shortcomings of Planet Boris which are all too visible from space. Calculating Xi and sinister Putin, thoughtful Angela Merkel and empathetic Kiwi, Jacinda Ardern, the universe can’t stir itself to distinguish the good ones from the bad.
But its indifference to our fate is no reason for us not to try and do better. All sorts of ideas are now springing up to make the post-Covid world greener, fairer and smarter. More contemplation of nature and of the poor, less pointless consumption, the pope suggested this week. ‘Poverty is bashful, we do not want to see it,’ he said. Yet the impact of Covid on the poor has been hard to ignore.
More carbon neutral jobs and training, less inequality and gas guzzling travel, fairer taxes too, add many. Banks should be ‘climate change stress-tested’, says Mark Carney, former Bank of England governor, and capital ‘re-purposed’ towards more useful goals. But why stop at banks? BP is writing down the value of its oil reserves which may never be needed as renewable technology surges.
Shorter supply chains leading to a ‘re-shored’ revival of localism in manufacturing and food production? That might translate into fewer iceberg lettuces being shipped by multinationals, tasteless and unhealthy, but also long-lasting and profitable. Britain could even set up the dietary equivalent of SAGE to advise on healthier eating – as we did in the crisis of the Second World War – some scientists suggest. Poor diet is a killer, not just a Covid bullet either.
Except we won’t do it because Johnson’s quick-fix government turned down the idea. For every good outcome from the experience of global lockdown there is at least one bad alternative that amounts to a short-term plaster or appeals to our baser instincts. Localism doesn’t automatically translate into wholesome farmers markets and off-grid solar power generation. It can also mean nationalism, xenophobia and the slide back towards mass poverty and willed ignorance.
And there are usually complex trade-offs. If Europeans stop air-freighting out-of-season fruit and veg, how do we recompense the Kenyan farmers who grew them? For that matter, who picks our own fruit if migrant workers are discouraged? If the EU27 want to develop their own anti-Covid vaccines might they have to modify their restrictive regulation on the use of genetically modified organisms? ‘Frankenstein food’ is one grudge Brussels shares with the Daily Mail. By the time officials obtain the temporary GMO waiver they seek, it may be too late.
At a moment of accelerating change we need to re-examine our prejudices. ‘When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?’ Keynes is supposed to have said. That’s what links Brian Cox’s planets to Donald Trump’s habitual hostility to the facts, not just of diplomacy or economics, but to the science of coronaviruses and – much more important – climate change of the self-generated kind.
Mario Livio’s new history of a famous controversy makes the connection. Galileo and the Science Deniers recalls how in 1633 the great Italian scientist was forced on his 69-year-old knees to recant his theory that the earth moves around the sun (as the ancients had long realised). Despite his eminence he was lucky not to be tortured and killed by the Inquisition for his impudence.
Legend has it that Galileo defiantly muttered ‘and yet it moves’ as he left the court. We nod our heads sympathetically. But the papacy was still trying to rig Galileo’s file in its own favour in the 1960s – well into nice Pope Francis’s lifetime – as it has done more recently over sexual and financial crime in the ranks. Alas, this is normal human behaviour: to deploy brute power to assert orthodoxy over dissent. We wag a collective finger at China for suppressing early signs of Covid-19 (December ‘flu’ rate up 10 times in Wuhan) and silencing the city’s brave doctors. But even in relatively liberal and open societies we are sometimes perilously within two metres of doing much the same to inconvenient truths that unsettle us.
So Donald Trump responds to Cold Warrior John Bolton’s damning testimony by abusing his former national security advisor. Urged not to stage his first election rally since the lockdown in Tulsa, Oklahoma (scene of a 1921 black massacre I’d never previously heard of), for fear of spreading Covid-19, he mocks the science, goes ahead and blames media scare tactics. When empty seats prove the rally a flop he blames fake booking sabotage by teenage activists who use social media sites: the biter bit. We shouldn’t laugh, but he does ask for it.
Bolton’s book alleges corruption, cronyism and incompetence on a once-shocking scale. But the most scandalous development in the corruption of the American republic – it may not survive a second Trump term, says Bolton – was the sacking of New York’s federal attorney, Geoffrey Berman (‘the man who pursued Prince Andrew’ in tabloid-speak), guilty of conducting investigations into Trump associates. As the president’s hold on his own party wanes that battle was fought to a draw: Berman got his deputy installed instead of a Trump golf pal.
Outsiders look on with horror at the American drama. But are we always so much better? German ministers, regulators and media let VW get away with its diesel emission-fixing scandal for far too long rather than disrupt a strategic exporter. We can now see similar forces at work as Wirecard – its only major tech success – crumbles, its executives finally admitting that 1.9 billion euros have disappeared from its balance sheet. The FT, which first exposed the scandal, has endured months of abuse for being right – including German media attacks.
The self-image of Brexiteers deplore such foreign ways. But their own instinct is to rally round the flag and flagship companies, including BAE, Rolls-Royce and multiple banks when they fall foul of someone else’s rules. With bloody-minded exceptions (some credit to the Mail) the loyalist media goes along with much of it and the beleaguered BBC feels obliged to soft-pedal.
So Matt Hancock has been hammered over PPE and now the collapse of the UK’s plans for a bespoke track-and-trace app (‘world-beating’ of course), while Robert Jenrick’s questionable interventions on lucrative planning applications by Tory businessmen rarely make the front page. The crony contracts issue ticks away as it would never be allowed to do if Labour ministers were involved.
Relaxed government-by-mates is Boris’s way of doing business, say apologists who should know better – and do.
In the midst of a major crisis he merges DFID with the FCO for no discernibly good reason other than tickling the Tory tabloid tummy. He stokes cultural flashpoints when stroking them would be wiser. In this climate he can assert – as he did again on Tuesday – that Covid-related deaths peaked at a convenient 943 on April 14 when a Guardian analysis, backed by dissenting scientists, suggests that excess deaths exceeded 1,000 for 22 days – and peaked six days earlier at 1,445. BBC bulletins only intermittently insert ‘official death rates’ to alert viewers.
Dates matter because they will eventually tell the story of missed pandemic planning. If an authoritative account of the Brexit years is ever published it will tell a similar story of inattention. Whitehall’s promise of Britain’s own satellite navigation system – a rival to US GPS or Europe’s Galileo (sic) – is quietly being scaled down without much fuss, another example of airily promising much more than can be delivered: the hallmark of a populist regime down the ages.
In an interview with Der Spiegel magazine the outgoing German ambassador in London, Peter Wittig, observed that the Brits lack a culture of consensus politics and that the Leave camp never had a plan (unless you count hoping that the Germans would dig us out of a hole). They over-rely on personality politics, something Germans were cured of the hard way. Hardly news and open – see above – to all sorts of objections. But it’s where we find ourselves. When Johnson met shuttle diplomat Macron last week British officials floated a compromise on the ‘level playing field’ issue which they had torn from the pages of the Spectator.
The smart money remains on some sort of minimalist deal by Christmas, followed by years of ad hoc sectoral talks of the kind Switzerland negotiated after its voters rejected single market membership in 1992. That is, if the EU will bear it. As this column has noted before, the 27 are now strong-arming the Swiss for a comprehensive deal, exactly what Michael Gove rejects on Johnson’s behalf. Meanwhile the Strasbourg parliament is threatening sanctions if there is no such overarching deal on fish.
Yet reading Gove’s polished cynicism as he parried questions from Labour’s Rachel Reeves and other sceptical MPs when announcing HMG’s retreat from tariffs next January 1, an innocent voter might imagine everything is going to plan. But time is running out and Whitehall has fewer cards to play the more the Covid-struck economy falters.
Japan has just given sovereign Britain six weeks to negotiate a free trade deal, which suggests terms more to sovereign Japan’s liking. The US is squaring up to a trade war with the EU (travel bans too?) over Europe’s persistence with a digital tax on the behemoths of Silicon Valley which have done very nicely during lockdown, the kind of tax Team Johnson plans too. That won’t help Liz Truss’s US-UK trade talks where Washington plays mean.
As on Russia and China, No Mates Boris is pulled both ways in Britain’s first solo trade negotiations for nearly 50 years. He may be able to order a £1 million red, white and blue paint job for his official plane. That’s sovereignty for you! But he certainly wouldn’t pass one of Mark Carney’s stress tests. Ambassador Wittig says that in a national crisis like this sensible countries (his own) would form a national government.
It’s not the British way and why would Keir Starmer want to rescue the Birthday Boy? But a coalition between Team Boris and their Tory critics would certainly strengthen his government. If the PM doesn’t like it – and he won’t – they can all agree to throw him overboard, Union Jack plane and all. Good riddance.