Friday 24 April 2020

Coronavirus and Brexit: the connections and their consequences

It is now increasingly clear that there is a complex web of interconnections between Brexit and responses to the coronavirus crisis. I have been writing about that on this blog since the beginning of March (and especially here and here) which I mention not as a boast for any perspicacity on my part but just to avoid repeating too much of what was said in those posts.

There are two ways of thinking about those interconnections. One might be called ‘ideational’, meaning things arising from an overlapping mind-set (it would be to ascribe too much coherence to it to call it an ideology). The other might be called ‘institutional’, meaning those things arising from governmental or administrative overlaps. And, of course, there is an interplay between the two.

Ideational connections

Here, the main issue is the very clear overlap (£) between those who think that the coronavirus restrictions are overdone, should never have happened or should be lifted quickly, and that the whole thing is essentially a fuss about nothing – the self-styled ‘lockdown sceptics’ - and those who support Brexit, think it is easy and simple, and should have been done by now.

There is a small but very influential group of politicians and commentators who approach a nexus of issues in the same way be it Brexit, coronavirus, climate change, immigration, sexual harassment or any number of other things. It’s always the same people, and always the same blokey, angry, resentful, constantly triggered but can’t-you-take-a-joke-snowflake, sneeringly superior yet self-pitying victimhood schtick.

And it’s always the same argumentative tricks – cherry-picked statistics (£350M/ comparative death rates), semi-understood factoids (WTO rules/ herd immunity), bogus past comparisons (we managed fine before/ flu), overblown rhetoric (dictatorship/ house arrest), and drastic exaggerations of their opponents’ claims so as to erect absurd strawmen for demolition (so it means WW3/ we’re all going to die? Really?).

In a previous post I gave Tim Martin, the Wetherspoon’s boss, as an exemplar in discussing this overlap, at least as regards Brexit and coronavirus. Martin, of course, is a passionate advocate of Brexit and ferocious critic of social distancing measures. Since then, fascinating work has been done by Professor Ben Ansell, a political scientist at Oxford University, showing correlations between Brexit-voting areas and lower levels compliance with social distancing instructions.

The data are open to different interpretations – especially the possibility that those in leave voting areas might be more likely to have jobs that cannot be done from home – but a plausible one is that the correlation partly reflects the overlap in mind-set I alluded to (just as there is an overlap in the US between Trump’s core vote and those objecting to coronavirus restrictions).

Another set of interconnections was identified this week by Professor David Edgerton, a historian of science and technology at King’s College London. He argues that both Brexit and the government response to coronavirus reveal shared “fantasies about British scientific and inventive genius”. He also links this to pervasive myths about the Second World War which, of course, have been central to Brexit and are almost unavoidable in relation to the pandemic. As the historian Robert Saunders, of Queen Mary, University of London, remarked, it is as if British politicians only have one historical reference point and it’s one they don’t understand anyway.

Institutional connections

Edgerton’s analysis centres on the government’s attempts to boost ventilator production, the story of which was devastatingly laid bare by Peter Foster in the Financial Times this week (£), provoking an angry response from the government. And here the ideational and institutional connections begin to merge. For as Foster records, the link is not just idiotic comparisons with the Blitz or Spitfire production, but a constant boneheaded refusal of politicians to engage seriously with experts. In other words, governmental failures over coronavirus are inseparable from Brexit ‘simplism’ in general and the Second World War myths in particular.

The institutional interconnections were thrown into even sharper relief by a truly devastating report in The Sunday Times about the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis (which also provoked a furious reaction from the government or perhaps, as is widely rumoured, from Dominic Cummings). They were at least two-fold. One was, simply, political exhaustion from all the Brexit battles of the previous months. A second was the way that planning for a future pandemic had been entirely sidelined by planning for no-deal Brexit, not just in general but in relation to specific recommendations about pandemic planning.

The latter is just another way of saying that it’s impossible to deal simultaneously with coronavirus and the Brexit negotiations, a point I’ve made repeatedly on this blog. It’s also been made, with more authority, by Georgina Wright and by Joe Owen, both of the Institute for Government, and innumerable others.

Why does this matter?

Most obviously, it matters in terms of the concrete question of whether the transition period will be extended. Without repeating the arguments for that, an important development this week was the Scottish government calling for it. It’s also been called for in a punchy editorial, again in The Sunday Times, and by a group of senior ex-civil servants. And a new opinion poll shows that 64% of the public support extension with even 45% of Brexit Party voters doing so. What is also coming into focus in this debate is, as I wrote this week, not just the question of whether to extend but by how much given that only one extension is possible. Yet we still don’t know that it will happen, as Tony Connelly of RTE explains.

But I think there is a deeper importance to all this. What both Brexit and coronavirus reveal are some fundamental flaws in the way we are governed and the political discourse around it. The populist explosion of this decade, of which Brexit was a prime example, has bequeathed a way of governing which is impervious to reason, and incapable of engaging with complexity. It isn’t just chance that we have a woefully incompetent Prime Minister, a dud stand in, and a cabinet of mediocrities, propped up by a cadre of special advisors with few skills beyond contrarian posturing.

They are the legacy of Brexit. They were brought into power by Brexit. But all the things which secured the vote for Brexit – the clever-but-dumb messaging, the leadership-by-slogan, the appeal to nostalgic sentiment, the disdain for facts and evidence, the valorisation of anger and divisiveness, the bluff ‘commonsense’ and the ‘bluffers’ book’ knowledge – are without exception precisely the opposite of what is needed for effective governance in general, and crisis management in particular.

This can be seen in the increasingly bizarre and convoluted stories about (non-)participation in EU procurement schemes, and the Turkish PPE flight. Both bear the hallmarks of the Brexity ideology, dishonesty, bullying, spin and incompetence that are the stock-in-trade of these people.

The realities of delivering Brexit had already found them out, but in the face of the pandemic their entire approach has been comprehensively discredited. If we must use Second World War analogies then, as Peter Oborne writes, Johnson is a Chamberlain not a Churchill. Oborne also notes what is being increasingly widely recognized about Johnson, and which I wrote about when he was still Foreign Secretary, namely that he is always in campaign mode and has no facility for, or much interest in, governing. The same is true of Cummings and, for that matter, the entire Brexit high command which has always been characterised by protest and victimhood not competence and responsibility. That is a disaster in terms of Brexit, but it is – literally – fatal in terms of coronavirus.

But – and this is the worst part of the legacy – despite all this some opinion polls show public approval for their approach continues to grow (and though the picture on growth is mixed, still, it shows continuing majority approval). They have no incentive to change their ways – even if they were capable of doing so - when the rewards for not doing so are so ample. That may change, though, and quickly. I have just a sense that the narrative may be shifting at the moment and one index of that is, actually, the furious responses to adverse news stories, which smack of desperation. It shouldn’t be forgotten how easily public opinion can turn, as it did, for example, over the Iraq War.

A final thought

From those thoughts flows another. In this post, as in many others on this blog, I have referenced academics, journalists and think-tankers who do such extraordinary work in analysing and communicating what is going on. So much for having enough of experts. Indeed, as has been widely remarked upon, it is noteworthy how, in the coronavirus crisis, the UK government has turned not just to medical experts but to academic scientists and to businesses to cope with that crisis.

What is less widely pointed out is that, on the basis of the education profile of the vote to leave the EU, the majority of these are likely to have been against Brexit and are very much the kind of people who for the last four years have been reviled as the ‘liberal elite’. Equally, the heaviest burden in dealing with the sharp end of the crisis has fallen on NHS workers of all sorts, care workers, delivery drivers, supermarket staff and so on. Many of these, at all levels of skill, are immigrants, including many from the EU-27 who did not even have a vote in the Referendum.

Yet it is all these people, rather than the archetypical coastal town pensioner or home counties golf club bore, who are now expected to deal with the coronavirus crisis (just as civil servants are expected to deliver Brexit whilst being traduced as remainer traitors). In this sense, the deepest connection between the coronavirus and Brexit is the way that the former has comprehensively discredited some of the central myths and lies of the latter. It turns out that when the chips are down educated professionals, immigrants, and indeed educated professional immigrants are rather important after all. More so, at least, than contrarian newspaper columnists raging against restrictions on their inalienable right to go around infecting people.

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