Why has the British government been so incompetent at dealing with COVID-19? Less than a month ago I explored whether its glaring failings would eventually prove unsustainable. In the space of just four weeks the situation in the UK has deteriorated faster than most anticipated, the virus is far more deeply embedded in the wider population than realised and the numbers diagnosed positive have nearly quadrupled to 4,000 a day.
At the current rate they will exceed the previous record of over 6,000 a day back in late April and although death rates remain far lower there are already ominous signs of rapid increases in hospital admissions. The Chief Medical Officer is reported to be recommending an immediate two-week national lockdown, and the national mood has swung so fast that faint whispers of Johnson’s political demise that were around during the summer break are now discussed openly in media bastions of government support.
Last month I listed many factors in an attempt to explain what had gone wrong. They included incompetence across the board, a cabinet selected for unquestioning loyalty to Boris Johnson and the Brexit cause, ideological commitment to neoliberalism and the determination to use the crisis to further this agenda. That readily embraced large-scale privatisation of much of the pandemic response, especially but not only in the NHS, with this coming after serial cuts in local authority public-health budgets.
Given the rapidity of the evolving second wave, these answers simply aren’t enough. There was certainly an expectation of a renewed surge during the winter and there were fears that this month’s return to schools and later to universities would boost it. Yet we are less than three weeks into the former and most universities are not yet back, and in each case the effect that was expected a month or so after each change is happening much earlier. Hence the numerous local lockdowns across the country and the calls for a new national lockdown.
The obvious answers
The immediate crisis is being made far worse by an appallingly incompetent national test-and-trace system that is rapidly coming apart at the seams despite the best efforts of many thousands of dedicated workers doing their best. Much of this may be due to thoroughly mediocre ministers more or less hung out to dry by the political centre; much more seems to revolve round a chaotic and hugely expensive privatisation of the whole process instead of properly funded use of local experts.
Still, all the explanations mentioned last month and shared by many other commentators and analysts are not enough to explain the sheer speed of the crisis.
At root there certainly is the dominant ideology focused on the neoliberal agenda. This is combined with the deliberate weakening other centres of power and influence: parliamentary accountability, the judiciary (‘enemies of the people’, as one Tory-supporting newspaper called them not so long ago), the BBC and internal opposition in the Conservative Party. But perhaps the one element to which we don’t pay enough attention is arrogance – the utter self-belief of a narrow coterie of people that they alone know the true path and hold other views and the people who hold them in contempt.
The problem is that this could mean that what is actually planned at the centre is a permanent change in the governance of the UK from reasonably accepted democratic norms to variants like those seen in states such as Hungary, Poland and possibly even the US.
Until recently only commentators typically considered alarmist would use terms such as ‘fascism light’ and ‘quasi-fascism’ in the UK. There is a deep reluctance to go down this verbal path. If we do not, however, we may fail to appreciate what we may really be dealing with: a centre of power exhibiting a zealotry that is rare in British politics and even rarer when it commands centre stage, however much hidden from view.
Last month’s column pointed to many positive signs of resistance and examples of community action in the UK and many other countries in the midst of the pandemic. It ended suggesting that the very centralisation of power currently under way means that if it all goes pear-shaped there is nowhere for those in power to hide.
That might be reassuring but may also be wrong-headed. There may be such deeply entrenched arrogance and self-belief at the centre that even strong opposition and public anger will have little effect. Using terms like ‘fascism’ and ‘autocracy’ may not help but we should not dilute the analysis and the consequent recognition of danger.