It is human instinct to desire and to imagine that problems be both surmountable and finite. Whilst we may enjoy the thrilling quasi-pornography of apocalyptic fiction – and whilst we might generally accept, deep down, the fact of universal mortality – humans aren’t very good at seeing existential problems for what they are. That is one reason why progress on preventing or mitigating climate change has been both slow and inadequate. It is also the reason that policies of inaction – appeasement, for example – have often proved more popular at the time than more ‘rip the plaster off’ courses of action. In this vein, on COVID-19, it looks very much as though our Government has proven once again that there is no human weakness to which it is even remotely immune.
Lockdown, working from home, furlough – many were surprised by this, ostensibly freedom-orientated and state sceptic, Government’s enthusiasm in March and April. Enormous, almost mind-boggling sums of money – public money – spent on keeping workers at home, businesses shuttered, life on pause. And then when they had decided that the worst was behind us, Eat Out To Help Out and Kickstarter Loans emerged to get things back on track. In 2020 a Conservative Government first paid you not to work then paid you to have dinner in a fancy restaurant. Even the most ambitious advocates for Tory realignment would have balked, in January, at the very idea of it.
But Rishi and Boris were keen that Conservative members, voters and MPs understand that these interventions were exceptional. Coronavirus had created a unique moment and – unconstrained by ideology as in a state of war – this was a Government prepared to step up to the demands of that moment.
Fine. But it wasn’t a ‘moment’ at all. It isn’t going anywhere. It is not a thing that happened, it is a thing that is happening. And here we get to the problem: humans want problems to be surmountable and finite – but until a vaccine or a cure is found, COVID is neither. It was here in March, infecting thousands every day. It is here in September, infecting thousands every day. The instinct to get back to normal is strong, particularly for a Government that prefers its revolutions to be rhetorical and largely imaginary. But instinct runs against the parameters of self-defined success: if the goal and aim of spending all that money was to reduce infections then it worked for a quarter and is now failing forever.
The only viable routes to a new reality that resembles the old was a track and trace system with testing that worked, or an honest acceptance that we needed a return to individuals doing things at their own risk. Rather than spend the last six months building such infrastructure, or adopting a more old school Tory libertarian stance, our Government has instead press released its intention to build world class infrastructure… and that’s sort of it.
What does this mean for the politics? Well, it means this at least: for the foreseeable future we will remain in a dynamic of governmental humiliation. Targets will be set bombastically and then be unmet quietly. Confusion will reign. Blame will be assigned almost randomly to any and every available enemy. The press, the judiciary, the Labour Party, some poor kid having an eighteenth birthday party in Wigan.
And then there is Brexit. The incredible sight of a Government calmly announcing an intention to break the law in relation to an agreement signed by Johnson shows more than anything else that this is no normal Tory Establishment Government. This regime is dominated by the anti-Establishment personality of Dominic Cummings, whose atavistic desire to poke the actual Establishment in the eye at every opportunity is plain to see. This unprecedented and shameless intention to break the law so boldly stated gets to the heart of this regime’s entire modus operandi. Behave like a gang, be outrageous, and if you can get away with it then fine. If not just do a U-turn… none of this can give confidence to business that any sensible deal with the EU will eventually be arrived at. Middle class revolutionaries enjoy the idea of shocking the Establishment, like naughty teenagers at an illegal rave, but sooner or later the teenagers have to sober up. As yet there is no evidence of Brexit sobriety in Johnson’s regime.