by Guy de la Bédoyère
There are plenty of people who think this Government, indeed almost any government, is hell-bent on a systematic plan to destroy individual liberty, force people to be vaccinated, inject them with chips, monitor social media accounts, use algorithms as a mechanism of control and to do it all with the cynical efficiency of a Bond villain.
Others think governments are exercises in accidental chaos, masked by spin, staggering from one crisis to another, fuelled by individual self-interest, opportunism and chronic disorganization.
Most states fall somewhere in between. The Nazis were a case in point. Engaged in the most systematic and cynical government of all time, they also presided over a state that was in total chaos from Day One.
The art of course is pretending to be in charge and pulling off the pretence so well that everyone falls for the illusion. What matters to ordinary people is the impact of government, not what’s going on behind closed doors. People accept government, whether a totalitarian dictator or a tribal chieftain or anything along the scale between those extremes, so long as the state serves as a buffer zone between them and the remorseless instability and unpredictability of the natural world. Or at least so long as it gives a convincing impression of doing so. George Bernard Shaw said in 1903 that “the art of government is the organization of idolatry”.
Governments are supposed to iron out the impact of bad years, deal with the fallout from natural disasters, and repair the damage. They do this by saving in the good years, whether that’s the financial surplus of a successful modern economy or the bumper crop resulting from perfect weather conditions. They raise taxes to pay for public services, to fund infrastructure and maintain or repair it, provide a financial cushion for those whose jobs are lost in bad times, and pay pensions. They’re also supposed to keep order.
To the average person, so long as this is done reliably and fairly, it matters not one jot what sort of government it really is. Ideology and idealism get very quickly forgotten under such circumstances.
COVID-19 has been a huge challenge. A terrible one of course. Unprecedented in certain ways, though nothing like as bad as it has been dressed up to be. Fear and despair are all relative. One of the most extraordinary aspects has been how the risk from the virus has been depicted as uniquely bad – almost as if there had been no risk to us from anything before.
For example, the elevated risk to older people is in fact almost identical to the elevated risk they face anyway from being older but you’d think from reading the sort of fear-mongering drivel pushed out by many scientists, the Government and the media that until March 2020 when COVID-19 came along everyone was going to live forever. This article by Dorothy Byrne of Channel 4, who’s determined to go back to work despite being in her late 60s, explains it very well.
We seem to have forgotten that no-one is safe. They never were, they aren’t, and never will be. You, me and everyone else included. That isn’t a mandate for recklessness, but it is plea for bringing back a sense that everything we do involves a hazard of some sort. The disease is a new hazard. It displaces some existing hazards by affecting some people, perhaps fatally, before they were affected by one of those. It does not necessarily add to them.
The truth is, and it’s one most governments won’t admit, is that COVID-19 is ultimately beyond our control. It was already out of control before anyone noticed it even existed.
It fascinates me that in our own time the idea that we might ever die has become unacceptable, that the minimum standard of life to which we should all aspire is zero risk. This is in spite of the bizarre delusion that all the normal risks of life can not only be ignored but actually made worse by dispensing with some of the precautions we already had – like cancer screening, to take a single example. One of the reasons the Government has descended into such mercurial mayhem is because of its fixation with trying to convince us all that risk from the virus can be all but eliminated and that it alone has the powers to achieve that if we’d only bow down and obey its every command.
Part of the reason for the current fear and despair, especially in Britain right now, is because far from creating a sense of order, control and competence the Government is magnifying our sense of dislocation and disorder by revealing that it isn’t the powerful force it has been pretending to be. The recent abrupt U-turns are dressed up as the result of science-driven changes intended to demonstrate control, but it’s also true there are plenty of scientists falling over themselves to come up with new reasons for everyone to be terrified out of their wits in the name of making us feel ‘safer’.
The effect has been the opposite. Now the British Government and its advisers have become the agents of disorder, not protectors from it. The Government blames the virus, and to begin with that was true. It no longer is. The virus is not as unknown as it was. But the Government is now pouring all its energies into creating and amplifying uncertainty. Now none of us knows if the pubs will have to close again, if the schools will reopen (despite the endless claims that they will), if certain businesses which were to be allowed to restart will be prevented from doing so, if a scheduled flight will happen and if it does whether you’ll discover you can’t come back, and a host of other equally uncertain scenarios.
Is this deliberate? Good question. Who knows?
Normally, the population would turn to its leaders to show – well, leadership, a plan, a strategy, a sustained series of solutions managed by focused experts and executed in a consistent way.
Instead, we have been confronted with ceaseless twists and turns, disproportionate initiatives, knee-jerk ideas and ill-suppressed panic.
The UK Government is veering towards irrelevance at least to a significant proportion of the population. If it cannot get itself together, its authority will dwindle, just as is happening in Victoria in Australia. Indeed, it already is here. You can see it everywhere. Increasingly, we have the image of sweaty, hand-wringing politicians and scientific stooges turning up on TV bleating, and now blaming the public. Ever changing, tweaking, massaging, pleading, hectoring, and grimacing with their incessant insistence that everything they do is to keep us safe.
Every day the opinion is different, the warning modified, intensified, rectified. With each change their credibility is whittled away since it becomes more and more obvious that whatever is said today will be dismissed tomorrow or next week. To take schools as an example, there can’t be a single head teacher in the nation who doesn’t start work every day confronted with a new set of guidelines for re-opening, or a tweak, or a change of plan, or a U-turn.
Now we have the almost unbelievable claim by scientists from UCL and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine that schools are likely to be the epicentre of the fabled and long-awaited ‘second wave’ which is – guess what? – liable to be over twice as bad as the first one. Obviously, they’ve used computer ‘models’, that well-known infallible method. And we have that Prince of Panic, Professor Sir David King, wailing that a second wave in schools without frantic testing and tracing will take Britain back to full lockdown.
Since the Government and scientists seem no longer to have any real idea of what they are keeping us safe from or how to achieve that, the message risks being drowned out eventually by indifference. Who listens anymore? The second wave is a massive con in its own right. It’s a gamble, dreamed up to convince us that if there isn’t one that will prove the efficacy of Government measures. And if there is a resurgence (a virtually inevitable consequence of the fact that lockdowns cannot ultimately work) then we can all be blamed for not obeying the Government.
Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, has warned against the folly of chopping and changing policy when it comes to dealing with the virus:
We try to put measures in place that are sustainable over time, instead of jumping from extremely high level of measures to no levels at all… Lifting and closing things is really detrimental to trust and will also have a lot more negative effects than keeping some kind of level of measures all the time. Opening and closing schools, for example, would be disastrous.
The pattern in the UK was set from the outset. Most people in this country grow up in the confident belief the NHS will be there for them without delay, whatever happens and not a penny piece to pay. It’s a tremendous privilege. Or was. From March, the NHS almost disappeared as far as most people were concerned. A Victorian level of medical uncertainty was introduced overnight. Routine operations were drastically reduced along with screening and testing. Nurses and doctors across the country with their feet up, apart from in the Covid wards –consistently presented to the public as cataclysmic disaster zones manned by glorified angels. Yet in fact even for some of the most intractable cases, the off-switch was used to free up cases for other, allegedly needier, patients.
My 86-year-old father knows all about that. He was diagnosed with glaucoma recently but was promptly told by the NHS hero consultant at his hospital that they aren’t treating anyone over 70. Great. A service he has paid for all his life is not available to him because of his age. Unless he pays for it. Back to the bad old days when possession of a shiny half crown could be the arbiter of who received medical attention and who didn’t.
Is this part of a conspiracy to rid people of the belief the NHS would always be there? Was it a massive con? Was all the adulation of NHS staff a front for the main agenda which was to break the dependency cycle on the NHS by deleting from everyday consciousness the belief in its reliability and security? Or was it just the result of a totally disproportionate and chaotic response made up on the hoof without any consideration of the consequences?
On the face of it, the implosion of the Government’s authority is the most astonishing development to date. We are coming up to five months since the crisis began and the best the Government can offer us now is the inchoate promise that ministers will be fumbling for the reverse gear in any one of a completely unpredictable range of possibilities. Today? Tomorrow? In the middle of the night? Halfway through the evening? Will he? Won’t she? Why has one Government adviser, Professor Graham Medley, suddenly happened on the revelation that pubs might have to close in order to allow schools to open? Did this suddenly arrive in a revelation in one of his dreams? Or was he put up to it? The point is not the bizarre dichotomy it represents but rather that it has appeared out of the blue.
The much-heralded travel corridors have also become another source of uncertainty. For days now we’ve been told that France is likely to be removed from the approved list, while the latest news is that Portugal might find its way on to the list.
Perhaps it’s no great surprise that these days familiarity with some of the great classics has rather become a thing of the past, but it is a surprise that Boris Johnson appears not to be. Or perhaps he is but has either forgotten or simply doesn’t have the skills to live up to them. Here’s some of what Machiavelli had to say in The Prince:
The worst that a prince may expect from a hostile people is to be abandoned by them… a prince cannot rely upon what he observes in quiet times, when citizens have need of the state, because then every one agrees with him; they all promise, and when death is far distant they all wish to die for him; but in troubled times, when the state has need of its citizens, then he finds but few. And so much the more is this experiment dangerous, inasmuch as it can only be tried once. Therefore, a wise prince ought to adopt such a course that his citizens will always in every sort and kind of circumstance have need of the state and of him, and then he will always find them faithful.
If the state’s only offer to its people is unpredictability, instability, prevarication and incompetence, then the only possible outcome eventually is that the people will give up on the government. And look at Machiavelli’s warning – this “can only be tried once”. A momentary glance at Australia would show you that their Lockdown 2.0 in Victoria is being compromised by bland indifference or even outright resistance. The Government is retreating into white noise and promises of ever more strident punishments like extravagantly huge fines. Devoid of any other ideas, Daniel Andrews has even refused to put an end date on his new lockdown.
Now comes news from Australia of police being attacked when trying to enforce the rules. The Victoria Government’s initiatives are now triggering a violent response, adding to the sense of social breakdown. The attacks might be isolated but they’re a very bad sign.
In the UK the sense of disorder has been exacerbated in the puerile and cynical way the petty fiefdoms of the devolved nations have used shameless opportunism to come up with different rules for the sake of asserting themselves with their competitive righteousness. This of course only adds to the impression of disorder. If something is unsafe in country A then why is it safe in country B? Naturally, the leaders all abrogate responsibility and insist they are following scientific advice. This merely serves to increase the sense of chaos and demonstrates through the differences that scientific advice changes with the wind and has all the durability of an ice cream in a flame thrower.
Why has this happened? To be fair, the unprecedented nature of the crisis took everyone by surprise. But from the outset governments have posed as being in control yet with every passing day that guise has decayed and disintegrated. The truth is the virus is like a cockroach. You can do everything imaginable to convince yourself and your people that you have the ghastly creature under control when in reality it’s hiding under the skirting board waiting to re-emerge the moment there’s an opportunity to do so.
Ultimately then the message seems to be, unintended or not, that it’s every man and woman for him and herself. The new normal is going to be self-reliance whether you like it or not. Some will go along with the Government and contort themselves to meet whatever the latest requirements are, however confused, though in time as the rules relentlessly change a fair number will gradually stop listening. They’ll end up joining those who already have turned away.
For those who stay on message, that will be preferable to admitting to themselves that they’re being led by a Government which cannot really control this crisis. The only solution the Government ever had – a lockdown – remains the only one, and as I have said so often on this site, it cannot be ended without the disease returning. And we have to accept that rather than have a collective nervous breakdown every time an infected person is found. Look at triumphant New Zealand – the combination of being isolated in the South Pacific and turning the country into a pair of prison islands is the only reason their lockdown appears to have worked. And now they live in terror of the disease’s return.
Whether by design or intent, the influence of government on your lives and the likelihood of you placing trust in your government are in steep decline. Perhaps it’s a Dominic Cummings plot.
You must have noticed how many services have declined or disappeared, even while you’re still paying for them. Your annual travel insurance policy is no more use than last week’s newspaper. When the furloughing stops, millions of people will be out of work at least temporarily – but how temporarily? There are plenty of people who have already found they were ineligible for all sorts of government initiatives. Every one of those people stares the most monumental levels of uncertainty in the face that will echo down through the rest of their lives. And all of us do in some way or another. When will I see those grandchildren of mine who live abroad again? A few months ago, I still nursed the thought it might be by the end of the year. I’ve given up on that. Now I have no idea at all of when or even if.
How many of us will become seriously ill from diseases that could have been diagnosed or treated but which haven’t? Will my savings be destroyed? Or stolen by the Government? Will our local petrol station go bust? The list is endless. I suppose it always was, but the difference now is that the sense of instability is beginning to consume us all. Little by little we are retreating to our households, the only refuges left.
The most misused word of this crisis is ‘safety’. You hear it everywhere constantly, the endless promises that you’ll be ‘safe’ because of all sorts of nonsense like masks, miles of tape, and magic distancing. Yet in reality the total unpredictability the Government is presiding over has made us feel less safe than ever before. We now face the prospect of an endless series of knee-jerk panicked responses to any perceived uptick in cases, meaning that no community, household or business in this country knows whether or not there’ll be a sudden resumption of house arrest like in Melbourne. Nothing will cripple a nation or society more effectively. It makes any sort of planning or investment impossible. This has all been intended to create a sense that the Government is in charge but is beginning to have the opposite effect. Where is the strategy, the grand plan, the future? We are being governed by people whose vision and strategy no longer extends beyond the end of next week.
It’s an unsustainable way to govern a country, or rather it’s an unsustainable way to stay in government. As Abraham Lincoln said in 1861 when people “shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember it or overthrow it”.
Until that happens, we are being propelled back in time day by day to an era when government had comparatively little impact on people’s lives. The way we’re going luck and self-reliance are all we’ll have left for the next few years at least. Perhaps that’s a good thing, but either way you’d better get used to it. The chaos has only just begun. And I haven’t even mentioned the tsunami of the ill-planned Brexit waiting round the corner. Remainer or Leaver, no-one surely can dispute the mayhem which has afflicted the negotiations to date. But that’s another story.