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The summer of chaos – is the heat making us overlook other issues?

Illustration by Martin Rowson - Credit: Archant

MICHAEL WHITE on a summer of chaos across the world as the temperature rises.

People take to the sea as they enjoy the hot weather on Hayling Island beach in Hampshire. Picture: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire – Credit: PA

Amazing how a heatwave seems to make people go a bit crazy, isn’t it? I was sheltering from the afternoon sun with blinds drawn and the newspapers when I was interrupted by the sound of an angry man with a bull horn in the street below. He wasn’t quite audible but he was making a lot of noise. I went down to investigate.

At the end of our street was a gaggle of about 30 people gathered around Bull Horn Man. A cross-section of London folk, they were young and old, men and women, well dressed and scruffy, including an earnest young man with one of several educated voices I detected in the noisy scene, watched by bemused workmen.

Guess what the fuss was about? No, not renewed attempts by hardliners at the grandiose Centre for Brexit Policy (some with educated voices too) now campaigning to repudiate the EU Withdrawal Agreement they triumphantly endorsed last winter. No, even weirder is the Covid-19 lockdown hoax, the conspiracy to deliver us into the clutches of ‘totalitarian China’ – alternatively the ‘Nazification’ of Britain by the Establishment, if that version has more appeal, help yourself. That’s what populism does.

If that scenario is no more credible than ‘Sputnik’, that miracle Russian vaccine (don’t dismiss it out of hand), how about Covid-19 being a cunning plot to make extra billions for Bill Gates? Apparently he invented the virus to cash in on vaccine and anti-viral medicines. No point in me trying to explain to Bull Horn Man that Gates is busy giving away his fine collection of bank notes, not adding to it.

Does Covid-19 even exist? Or is it like flu? I quickly found there’s no point in arguing with chaos.

We can’t wholly blame the heatwave for this behaviour, can we? We all know respectable people who believe this stuff. An otherwise sane friend with a £5 million home blames 5G masts. Another admits she didn’t believe in Covid despite hearing horror stories from her sister, a nurse. She does now. Her sister has just died of it. It was much the same during Spanish Flu when self-styled freedom fighters refusing to wear masks were condemned as ‘slackers’, a phrase then synonymous with draft-dodging in the First World War.

A century later the science is much better, but competing social media platforms with weak (greedy) editorial standards make sensible discussion and direction so much harder. When Bull Horn Man meets Facebook, egged on by Mr Putin’s troll factory and online cranks, it’s a formula for plunging trust as dramatic as that 20.4% Q2 fall in GDP.

It’s not as if the voice of authority – scientific or political – speaks clearly and with only one voice in most countries. Calm Sweden is tightening its laissez faire rules as its death toll mounts. New Zealand’s admirably calm Jacinda Ardern has been forced to lock down Auckland and faces an election challenge from a new leader on the populist right. Scotland’s science and outcomes are little better than England’s, but Nicola Sturgeon handles the PR so much better and her authority goes virtually unchallenged.

This week Sturgeon was directly rebuffed over Scottish exam results which saw schools’ own predictions downgraded by the supervisory authority better to conform with past performance and avoid grade inflation. As UK examiners elsewhere are now learning the hard way, it must be difficult to calibrate fairly virtual results on which so many young people’s futures hang. Teens have had a rotten spring helping ‘not to kill granny’ (as Preston council puts it) amid the disruption of their intense social lives.

But when the results formula all went wrong for Holyrood Sturgeon went to the lectern, took responsibility and said sorry. Well done, Nicola. Leaders in the soft south might follow her example, except that Boris (‘things could have been done differently’) Johnson seems morbidly anxious never to use the s-word. Cowed by reshuffle threats and hostile briefings by Team Cummings, his ministers take their cue from the boss.

This week we’ve twice witnessed scrappy policy dramas which pit rival expertise and value systems against each other. In the first Johnson made it more than clear to Gavin Williamson, his tarantula-fancying education secretary, that he expects all schools in England to reopen more-or-less-as-usual in September – or else. Assorted Plan B’s, including alternate week lessons, are demanded in case of a second wave.

For historic reasons (its education, church and legal systems remained separate after 1707) Scotland’s schools opened this week. Cardiff and Belfast go their own ways too now. Johnson is right to say the economy needs to become as normal as we can manage and that social justice dictates that the kids, especially disadvantaged ones whose education has suffered most, get back to their learning. A kind friend who bought a laptop for a bright teen from a poor home found her brothers used all her online credits playing video games.

But anxious parents and unions which raise concerns aren’t being obstructive for fun. Teachers’ unions, often captured by left-wing sectarians, can sound stroppy and bloody-minded. But actual teachers who have taught vulnerable kids during lockdown have worked very hard and at risk to themselves. It’s true that young children – unlike teens – don’t seem to get more than mild infection and their transmission rates seem low, as Johnson says.

But we still don’t know enough about this lethal virus – apologies to Bull Horn Man – to take super-spreading risks with safety as infection levels edge up again here – 1,000 new daily cases – and across the Channel. Holiday travel must now be the main culprit, but ‘wash those hands’ hotels show how best practice can make a big difference, as Covid-free care homes did in April.

After all, it has been lack of consistency and clarity in government policy and messaging that has torpedoed the confidence which is essential to the social cohesion that will allow us to plug that drop in GDP and the 700,000 lost jobs, mainly by women and/or the unskilled. It’s OK to learn from world-trailing mistakes in track-and-trace and finally to localise it, so that £17 per hour tracers have more to do than watch Netflix. But pretending all is well deceives no one. Abusing the teaching unions works better, easy but divisive, albeit at the price of weakened cohesion.

Similar dynamics are evident in ministerial responses to the rise in illegal migrant dinghies and improvised craft arriving on the Kent coast from Calais or Ostend. Ironic that it comes at a time when the newspapers are full of stories about WFH Brits keen to emigrate to that dream of an old farmhouse in Normandy or a seaside view in Spain, failing that to a WFH village in
Wiltshire. What with Brexit complications and UK jobless rates, I’d wager that wannabe traffic in both directions rests on breezy assumptions – fed by dodgy people smugglers and dodgier estate agents.

The immediate problem must be awful for struggling Kent – and for Calais – but compared with the refugee crisis on Europe’s Mediterranean flank – 4,100 this year (700 this month) – it is still a trickle. Lebanon, in the news again after Beirut’s apocalyptic explosion, has absorbed 1.5 million from Syria – the equivalent of Britain taking in 15 million. The French and Germans got five times the UK’s 36,000 asylum applications in 2019. Some 600,000 people legally arrived in Britain this past year.

Only by a mixture of firmness and humanity, plus long-term work to improve economic governance and political reform in Iran and Syria, Iraq and much of Africa, can the rising tide be managed. Never easy, it needs cooperation. Bull Horn Johnson and Priti Patel’s headline grabbing calls for MoD help drew derision from the military brass – anonymous, of course – though, doubtless out of politeness, a A400M Atlas surveillance aircraft was dispatched to patrol the busy, 600-ships-a-day Straits of Dover. Patel took to the waters to see for herself, accompanied by a ‘personal photographer’ (who pays that salary?).

More rigorous ministers might usefully ask what role George ‘austerity’ Osborne’s budget cuts to the boats, planes and personnel of the Channel defence force might be playing in sovereign Britain’s ability to take back control of its borders. Before 2016 David Cameron was urged to overrule Osborne if he wanted to combat immigration fears stoked by the Vote Leave crowd. He didn’t.

It gets worse. In 2020 there are also familiar demands that the French try harder to stop migrant boats, as if they haven’t tried for decades, so successfully that the tunnel is harder to crack: hence the boats. Patel met her Parisian counterpart, breathing fire. We have been here before – often. But then we were not about to leave the EU’s Dublin Convention governing the treatment of asylum seekers. It is far from perfect in theory or practice.

But our departure in December without a replacement will make it harder to return people to France legally whether or not the Royal Navy has picked them up in mid-Channel as part of an Australian-style ‘push back’ in ludicrously different circumstances from the Java Sea. The law of the sea makes it illegal – as well as morally wrong – to let those in sinking boats of any kind drown. Sovereignty has its limits even in tabloid-land. So does cut-and-pasting Australian policies by No 10.

Here’s where my mind turns again to Bull Horn Man. Or rather to the latest pronouncements from the Centre for Brexit Policy (CBP), set up in March with a familiar cast of regulars on the mainstream Leave fringe – Bill Cash and Owen Paterson, Graham Stringer, IDS, Martin Howe QC, Patrick Minford, the economist. Dogged rather than distinguished, ahead of the next round of Barnier-Frost talks on August 17, they have begun bombarding Boris via the Borisgraph, Sun and Express. That is the sort of behaviour Mr Putin would call treason.

It is certainly startling stuff which you can find on the CBP website. While blaming Theresa May for the defects of the thrice-rejected withdrawal agreement (WA) which Johnson persuaded MPs to vote for after kippering the DUP via the Irish Protocol (IP), the CBP group calmly urges ministers to repudiate what is actually a legally binding international treaty because it is not ‘sovereignty compliant’ across a range of issues. Gosh, who knew!

The defects include data protection, EU citizens’ rights in Britain (protected by the ECJ, as is the Irish Sea compromise), indication-of-origin labels and vast future budget commitments conjured up by various Minfordian academics. Fishing rights and ‘level playing field’ regulations hover over the continuing talks too. The answer? To obtain a government ‘consensus’ – ho, ho – that the Withdrawal Agreement/Political Declaration and Barnier agenda are unacceptable and to replace them with a defined ‘Sovereignty Compliant Agreement’ to present to the EU27. The capital letters are meant to denote a seriousness which the CBP argument lacks.

Is this talk cynically dreamed up to frighten or impress Barnier that Johnson needs more EU flexibility to avoid a no-deal end to the transition period? That would make some sense as both sides must compromise if New Year’s Eve disaster can be averted. But if the sovereignty fetish is serious, then it is delusional.

How do we know? Because the same anonymous authors lay naïve store by third party trade deals with Japan, the US and the fast-expanding Pacific Rim which will not be forthcoming on terms favourable to supplicant Britain in hard and nationalistic times.

In their haste ministers are making ‘unforced errors’ on food standards. Reports that Elizabeth Truss (as the CBP grandly calls her) is holding out to sell more Stilton in Osaka is tabloid fodder. The woes of the UK chemicals industry as it pays for a stand-alone regulatory system outside the EU’s are much more real – and costly – than theoretical savings.

The small print is always painful, the pledges of a shining post-Brexit future vaguer than sensible Brexit voters – or Remainers – might hope.

The costs of EU commitments are overpriced, likewise the economic benefits of sovereign liberation.

It all has to be done by agreement with other sovereign states. When Boris promises tougher laws to ease deportation he ducks the same problem: he will need somewhere willing to take them. International law is conflicted.

Last weekend the FT published a distressing account of the collapse into impotent futility of the People’s Vote campaign, divided between relative realists who wanted to obtain a sensible Brexit subject to a second referendum and those determined to reverse the 2016 result. It was an example of failed politics, divided goals and divided leadership.

Alas, Team Johnson is similarly stricken and in government. When things go bad ‘strongmen’ leaders resort to gimmicks, they turn museums back into mosques (Erdogan) and thereby spread Covid-19 in Turkey or build a temple where a mosque once stood (India’s Modi), they promise to build a Mexican wall or arrest Hong Kong democrats.
The underlying problems do not go away, so they have to up the dose. At the end of that road lies state failure and sectarian violence in the ruins of Beirut port.

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