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Brave new world: Anger and angst over the politics of Covid-19

Michael White on the growing twin nightmares of authoritarianism and incompetence. - Credit: Martin Rowston

MICHAEL WHITE on the growing twin nightmares of authoritarianism and incompetence in the week arch-opportunist Nigel Farage returns to frontline politics.

Whatever the final outcome it was clear within hours of the polls closing that the result of the US election has not been the decisive repudiation of the Trump Era for which progressive opinion around the world had hoped.

Were many of us surprised as well as disappointed? Yes. Should we have been? Perhaps not. Angry people will vote for an angry candidate.

So the politics of cultural identity which have so disfigured and fragmented American public life this year will continue, weakening the flagship of the global democratic order.

Buttressed by a Republican-controlled Senate, so will a deregulating, tax-cutting economic agenda with stark implications for growing inequality – unless a delayed Biden win creates a more energetic presidency than his campaign suggested.

Record numbers of American voters – more than voted for him in 2016 – have declined to blame Trump for his grotesque mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic which has killed or impoverished so many of them. MAGA economics have failed to rebuild the US (or that wall) or boost sustainable growth, let alone equality. The winner of this election was China – politically, economically, diplomatically.

As Tory MPs grudgingly voted for Boris Johnson’s second lockdown the uninspiring Battle of the US Grandfathers has – as usual – implications for the wider world.

That is especially so for Not So Global Britain, whose politics often run broadly in step with theirs. Culture wars which channel macho male anger of the left-behind have huge appeal. The Vote Leave crew who now run Johnson’s No 10 know that.

Despite which, it is unlikely that Sir Graham Brady MP often draws inspiration from the cerebral works of Israeli historian-philosopher, Yuval Noah Harari. Nor that the best-selling author of Sapiens closely follows the public comments made by the shop steward of the Tory backbench 1922 committee. Yet this week the pair almost beat as one.

Why so? The MP for Altrincham in Greater Manchester has been fulminating against his prime minister’s late swerve in favour of England’s new national lockdown.

If totalitarian states were doing it, we’d call it “a form of evil”, he says, though his “libertarian” instincts are reinforced by more pragmatic colleagues who fear the lockdown and renewed furlough’s fearsome cost to the economy. Yet more despair over the government’s fundamental incompetence.

A bit late for either concern, you may feel. At Friday’s four-man showdown between the cabinet’s factions – Hancock (health and moderation), Sunak (economic recovery), Gove (wily pragmatism) and Johnson (indecisive libertarian) – the expert advice was so bleak that Boris and Rishi buckled.

Lockdown II was promptly leaked to the Times, the cabinet hastily zoomed into the picture, a press conference staged two hours late to disrupt Strictly.

MPs were left unappeased by a “Sorry, folks” WhatsApp from Boris until Monday when Keir Starmer was vindicated as Captain Foresight in the Commons. So much for his “circuit breaker” being “the height of absurdity”.

Such badinage is beneath Harari’s lofty attention. But the Eeyore of Tel Aviv too worries about liberty and the collapse of national solidarity so evidence again in Tuesday’s US voting.

Humanity’s experience of Covid-19 may prove to be much more than a passing crisis, more likely a turning point in human affairs, Harari says.

Our collective response is normalising a pre-existing trend, one leading towards a society where constant, granular surveillance of individual behaviour – monitoring and even shaping our thoughts – is taken for granted, in liberal democracies as well as autocracies.

Sir Graham, a lawyer-turned PR man, but a politician since his student days at Durham, probably thinks about the totalitarian menace in ways closer to Donald Trump or alarmist pundits in the conservative press.

They resent ‘fake news’ in mainstream media, Black Lives Matter, woke cancel culture, metropolitan elites, rising public spending and intrusive policing of care home visits and kids’ birthday parties in Brady’s affluent constituency.

A more sophisticated futurologist,  Harari thinks more in terms of “data imperialism”, the uses and abuses of AI by dominant states and corporations: the US, China, Facebook, Alibaba etc to both protect and control us. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World – now on Sky TV – foreshadowed this dystopian prospect as long ago as 1932: more benign than Orwell’s brutal vision of 1984, but arguably scarier. 

We glimpse this future in Siri or Alexa’s soothing “Can I help?’ and when our credit cards tell the retailer so much about us. In Britain we are already comfortable with ubiquitous CCTV cameras – as they are not in the US – and DNA testing of course, a blessing fraught with medical and family risk.

My current AI bête noire is the ‘Google jam’ where previously quiet side streets are suddenly packed with motorists. All have been alerted by Google Maps or Waze to road works up ahead, but also an escape route via Arcuri Avenue. 

In erecting further barriers against Google rat-runs, well-meaning local councils pile on disruption already started by new bike/bus lanes, 20 mph zones and other ‘active travel’ measures in ‘low traffic neighbourhoods’ (LTNs).

At a time when Covid-averse voters are opting to drive instead of take the bus, LTNs – which have Biker Boris’s support and Whitehall cash – enhance our sense of dislocation and unease about the government’s strategic grip. 

In their culture war with environmentally-minded voters libertarian Tories like Sir Graham trumpet ‘car freedom’ as an election weapon. Yet last month ministers told Transport for London to expand the capital’s £15 a day congestion charge for driving in the West End – out as far as the North-South Circular, a motorist’s nightmare far beyond Ken Livingstone.

The Department for Transport rapidly backed off – but lost more credibility in the process. 

Which leads us back to the continuing test and trace fiasco. AI is at the heart of what one Telegraph pundit disapprovingly calls a “benign totalitarianism” that dictates oppressive collective rules to combat Covid-19.

Robust T&T ought to have been the focus of the government’s efforts. Clearly it wasn’t, as it was from day one for Covid’s epicentre in Wuhan and pandemic east Asian states like Taiwan, South Korea and Vietnam.

When all that droplet-spreading singing in church or a karaoke club triggers an outbreak Seoul or Taipei police descend in force.

Both are pretty liberal, rich cities and their lead has been copied in New Zealand and in Melbourne – just emerging from a tight 119 day lockdown – as well as in well-organised but decentralised G7 states like Germany and Canada where social cohesion is fairly high. It has been the combination of spurious appeals to “freedom” – no masks, please – with neglect of precautionary public health infrastructure and sheer incompetence which has so damaged the UK, its health and economy both. Most economists think that government action is crucial to restoring both. Many Rust Belt voters in Middle America think otherwise.

Watching Sunday’s BBC2 documentary, Totally Under Control, was a cruel reminder of just how much Trump’s complacent, dishonest boast was untrue.

It set out – yet again – how US science and health professionals came under relentless pressure from under-qualified, but ideologically loyal bosses to minimise the Covid risk and boost the imminent prospect of antidotes and vaccines, while scorning precautions and lying about the availability/desirability of tests.

It was – still is – a shocking story. Rural voters and Latino men who swung Florida prefer the strongman narrative pedalled by Fox News’s pro-Trump media universe. We now risk getting one here – just the sort of thing Harari fears.

As on much else, on Covid-19 Boris Johnson is what Joe Biden’s advisers apparently regard as a “Trump lite” populist. Not as aggressively mendacious, but negligent, lethargically incompetent and – in the first wave at least – casually mask-lite too. T&T was hastily abandoned when the lack of capacity became apparent.

When Johnson belatedly promised a “world-beating” system in May it was centralised and furtively run by expensive private sector contractors under the leadership of Dido Harding.

It’s good news that hard-hit Liverpool has now been chosen to experiment in randomised mass-testing – 500,000 tests with military help, compared with 2.5 million (50% of the population) tested on Saturday in Slovakia.

But localised testing systems, using council staff, hospitals, public and private labs, should have been the chosen path from the start – as it was elsewhere. The persistent failure to reach infected people’s contacts has been persistent – and its consequences dire. Local initiatives have proved nimbler and better.

The ‘libertarian’ anti-lockdown crew are entitled to argue that lockdowns – especially national ones – may do more harm than good overall, via increased poverty and mental ill-health, through excess mortality (60,000?) from multiple causes. But they need to admit the political failure of T&T in England (no better across all four nations?) instead of trying to blame scientific consensus or ‘cumbersome bureaucrats’ in Whitehall. It’s just not honest – and care home deaths doubled to 211 last week. Déjà vu all over again?

Nor is it plausible for them to demand that efforts should now focus on protecting the most vulnerable – 500,000 people in 12,500 hospitals and care homes – instead of shutting down 66 million lives. Without adequate PPE and testing (not merely testing capacity, a Johnson weasel word), such talk is mere piety. Only now – ten months after the first, confused signs of looming pandemic emerged from Wuhan – are experts like Oxford professor, Sir John Bell, able to talk with qualified confidence about a potential T&T game-changer.

Simple self-administered tests with rapid turn-around results and reduced quarantine times might shore up the fast-eroding cliff edge of public trust – and slipping compliance with the rules – while the hunt continues for better antidotes and vaccines. It might make care home visits to mum safer and keep schools open.

The Liverpool swab tests are 99.9% reliable and can distinguish Covid victims who are no longer infectious from those who are. That sounds like a serious offer, provided demoralised society and jaded individuals can make effective use of it this winter. Caught by surprise, sceptical Liverpool’s reaction was suspicious. “Why us?”

Even now it is important that even Liverpudlians try to trust the UK government. It is the only government England has and even in their divergences – Wales and Northern Ireland coming out of lockdown as Scotland and England re-enter – the devolved regimes set their watches by what London does. Regional resentments against London which have now spread to Northern England are divisive. Whitehall’s inevitable mistakes fuel them. “Are golf and tennis banned in Surrey, Mr Gove?” “No, er, yes.” 

And Johnson remains our only prime minister – for now. Sunak’s halo is slipping over the superspreader effects of ‘Eat Out’ and the furlough U-turn which offended more than Manchester. Next week he and the Lord of Misrule face self-inflicted defeat by peers on the “specific and limited” illegality clauses of the Internal Market Bill. Next month Johnson’s weakness means he has been forced to concede another lockdown vote to MPs. This time they didn’t need Gina Miller’s assistance in the courts.

Hardly surprising that Tory MPs and activists are turning against Boris while arch-opportunist, Nigel Farage (“one of the most powerful men in Europe” – D Trump), plans to rebrand the Brexit Party as Reform UK (just in case). But enough of the wider electorate remains patient to keep Boris’ tipping point at bay into 2021. A Trump win would help.

That loyalty would probably stretch still to what passes for his Brexit strategy, though similar fault lines are all-too apparent. If only they knew what this week’s captains of industry voiced at this week’s virtual CBI conference – the one Johnson left Alok Sharma to soothe on his behalf. Relations with Number 10 are bad, if the government was a business heads would roll, they told the FT.

Surely, the pandemic justifies an extension of the trade talks, ex-Europe minister, Denis MacShane, argued in the Times. The government has a moral obligation to cut a trade deal at such a critical moment, retiring CBI chief, Carolyn Fairbairn, told her virtual conference.

Elsewhere we heard of the practical difficulties of negotiating detail and the nuance of legal texts on Zoom. That too might legitimately warrant extra time as the November 13 deadline approaches. So would a Biden White House which would prioritise the EU over self-regarding specialness from a leader whom Irish-American Biden himself once called Trump’s “physical and emotional clone”.

Yet snippets from the secretive EU-UK talks do not suggest renewed urgency. Scots potato farmers have joined a long anxious queue of farmers, fisherfolk, financial service exporters and myriad businesses with fragile supply chain in trying to catch ministers attention.

At the weekend Liz Truss (trade) and George Eustice (farms) finally conceded a less-than-watertight ban on letting chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef into the UK market, a U-turn since rejecting Lords efforts to tighten regulation. “Baby steps,” replied the farmers, though it won’t help a trade deal with the US, whoever wins there. Garden centre bosses warned of higher priced plant imports through Dover, and Labour complained that Truss’s much-vaunted trade deal with Japan does much more for them than for us. The feeble boast that soya sauce will be cheaper? Untrue too.

French friends have complained that Team Johnson hasn’t been very vocal in supporting president Macron in standing up for tolerance against jihadi murderers in France (now Austria too) and their deft, divisive use of social media tools that alarm Yuval Harari. Instead diplomatic counter-attacks are launched on Paris by grisly Middle East regimes which rarely denounce China’s persecution of its Muslim Uighurs. 

British cowardice, French pals wonder? I think that misses the point. Boris’s “Global Britain” is an introspective conceit without much substance, as much a fantasy as those world-beating pandemic remedies he so often conjures up for us, column-ready but not fit for purpose. He tells us to be “humble in the face of nature” – but cannot face his own. Trump’s lawless impudence before and since the US election may bolster Boris’s unless wiser counsel prevails.

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