Renew's Brogan Meaney explains her frustrations with the shift in government messaging and asks: when will we feel safe again?
The PM’s pre-recorded address to the nation on Sunday was meant to update us on the next stage of lockdown; instead, in what we’ve come to learn as classic Boris Behaviour, his vague, meandering rhetoric raised more questions than it answered. This was followed by a cacophony of conflicting messaging from various government ministers as they desperately attempted to explain a standpoint that they — in quite a distinctively separate level of clarity — did not understand either.
Of course, in the wise words of Boris Johnson, to make sense of the government “guidelines”, we simply need to use our “good solid British common sense”.
Needless to say, we shouldn’t have to rely on our “common sense” — which will greatly differ on an individual level due to our varied life experiences and perspectives — to establish how best to protect ourselves from an invisible virus.
What we all want to know, is when will we be able to hug our friends again, when will be able to kiss our grandparents, our grandchildren? And, the sad reality is, at least in my immediate echo chamber, that months of inadequate protection and guidance from this virus by the government has instilled a fear in the public that will prove hard to squash. Especially when attempts use methods of inexplainable maths equations such as “COVID alert level = R + number of infections” and wishy-washy messaging points like “stay alert” and "control the virus”. The government is trying to move away from the “stay home” messaging. But “stay home” is a clear instruction; the success of which ensures a polarising impact for any variation.
Throughout the pandemic, the government have continued to treat us like uninterested, badly behaved school-children. They’re following “the science”, science that, obviously, would be so incomprehensible to us that instead we’re presented with pretty, colourful graphs, censored reports, and short, unclear yet irritably catchy messaging. We are expected to blindly follow their rules — rules which remain unspecific and indistinguishable, even for the government ministers who have been prepped for the press by those creating these rules.
The change in government messaging, from the comprehensive “stay home” to the equivocal “stay alert”, does not signal an ease of lockdown restrictions; instead, it marks a change in narrative, and a shift in blame and accountability, from the government and the state to the rest of us. This, and Boris Johnson's talk of PPE shortages and the care home epidemic as though he hasn’t been the one in charge of these things, demonstrate the governments’ washing their hands (for at least 20 seconds) from the burden of responsibility.
And so, we’re turning on one another, blaming ourselves for the failings of the government who are meant to protect us. We’re blaming the couple out doing their food shopping, the group playing frisbee in the park, the mother with the stroller who passes us on the pavement within touching distance, the commuters piling on the tube during rush hour. It’s not inadequate PPE, it’s not the lack of testing, it’s not the mixed messaging and unreliable sources that lead to headlines across all mainstream newspapers just before a sunny bank holiday weekend such as “Hurrah! Lockdown freedom beckons”. No. We must “stay alert”, the government says. But stay alert for what, for who? Because how can one “stay alert” to an invisible respiratory virus, an infection from which many of us will be asymptomatic? The only interpretation (we should not have to discuss “interpretations” of government guidelines for an exit strategy from a lockdown caused by the spread of a global pandemic) of: “stay alert” I can think of, is: “stay alert to others around you”. It appears the only clarity in the governments enigmatic messaging is to distrust those around us.
In a nation already so divided and distrusting of others we share a land with, laws with, a national identity with, what will this further distrust do to us? This virus has reaped havoc on our globalised world — travel bans, suspicion and contempt for labels reading “made in China”, comparisons and critiques of other nations and their death tolls, the continuous global competition for protective equipment and tests. And, on top of this, Nigel Farage has attempted to reignite his soggy, stale, discriminating debate on illegal immigration, travelling to the coast of Dover to demonise the most vulnerable of all, at a time when our daily death toll was rising exponentially.
Keir Starmer stated in the HoC on Monday: “what the country needs is clarity and reassurance. And at the moment both are in short supply.” But what he left out was responsibility.
The government refuses to acknowledge the devastating effect years of austerity has had on our public services, our economy, our livelihoods, the inequalities it has stretched and stretched and stretched. There are many factors to blame for the UK’s huge, regrettable death toll, and the majority of fingers point at the government. Yet, onwards, they continue, with this strategy of deniability.
But there will be no “going back to normal” until the public feels safe. And, I for one, find little interpretation within “stay alert” that makes me feel safe.
Renew Candidate for Lewes, Paul Gerken, invites us to play a game with him: the great Despot Bingo.
There is a classic set of requirements to be a certified despot in today’s modern world. Like many others, I thought our chances of being lucky enough to have our very own British tyrannical leader (a Brit-pot, if you will) were so remote as to be laughable. Yet here we are – achingly close! Here is what I have ticked off so far:
The despot loves a big and bold statement of engineering capacity, and horrendous waste of public resource, for the sake of their own ego being attached to it. Boris Johnson not only has a host of these in his back catalogue (I’m looking at you, that monstrous helter skelter thing next to the Olympic Stadium), but he is brimming with ideas for the future. Building a f**k-off bridge to Ireland from Scotland was one of Boris’ most recent mind farts to hit the news.
Incitement of Hatred
No point in uniting people when you’ll need one half to imprison the other half in detention centres, am I right? So the despot will naturally want to incite as much anger and hatred in people as possible. How about calling a piece of legislation a ‘surrender bill’ and inexcusably make people think that the Brexit negotiations are akin to losing a war? Circle your cards, we’re angry.
Chuck out Dissenters
Loyalty trumps all else when you’re running a dictatorship. For MPs, their opinion is a ‘thanks but no thanks’, and the information they will receive is strictly ‘need to know’ only. Heads up; you don’t need to know anything, guys. Be loyal, don’t question, fall into line. Bozza’s move to chuck out 21 MPs from the party within a heartbeat of starting his job proves his intention to literally take no shit from no-one. Which takes us to…
Complete Closure of the Legislature
If he can’t be arsed to listen to the crap from his own side, what makes you think he’ll take it from Labour and some bleeding heart liberals? This is one I thought I would have to wait a while to cross off my card, but old BoJo didn’t waste any time with his attempt at the complete removal of democratic scrutiny. If you’re a despot, the last thing you want is elected representatives drilling you over what it is you’re doing. Go rogue and prorogue! Tick!
Power comes from the masses, so it’s easy pickings to kick someone who is a little bit different. Piccninny-letterboxed, watermelon-smiling bum-boys take note; you’re in for a rough ride under the sweaty ham-fist of this soon-to-be despot.
Undermine the Judiciary
Judges can be a pain, can’t they? Especially when they are so detached from the ‘Will of the People’! It’s like they don’t even consider the People’s whims and fancies in their rulings at all. They just seem to rely on process, precedent and rationality. BoJo shares in the People’s frustration; he’s a man of the People. Best just to declare publicly when they get it wrong, for short-term gain, as nothing could ever go wrong from undermining confidence in our legal system.
Have an Evil Mastermind Sidekick
Less a requirement to be a despot, and more a villain for comedic relief in a Disney film, having an Evil Mastermind Sidekick is a fun one to mark off your Despot Bingo card. Whilst many a sidekick huddle in the shadows, Boris’ right hand man, the infamous DC, loves nothing than to be pap-snapped trundling into the Prime Minister's Jag, tote bag and air of arrogance in toe. Dominic Cummings adds a genuine touch of 'holy shit he’ll really let us all burn' air to proceedings.
More Police for a Police State
'20,000 more police! 20,000 more police!' says our Bo, ad nauseam, like it’s the solution to absolutely everything. The irony of being part of the government that removed the 20,000 police in the first place is, I fear, somewhat lost. However, you do need police numbers to effectively run a police state, so get the recruitment machine whirling early, I’d say. Circle circle!
Absolutely fundamental. Think of any man hell-bent on dictatorial lunacy and you’ll find hair that defies convention. From your Kim Jong Un wedge, to your Trump blow-out, and our own Johnson’s ‘Eton Mess’, you can’t expect to rule with an iron fist if you haven’t got the barnet to prove it. Luckily, with Johnson’s scrappy ‘Children of the Corn’ locks, we’re on track to call Bingo.
Have Favourites, Treat ‘em Nice
There’s no point being in power if you can’t dole out treats to whomever you want to bone. Now, I’m not saying that anyone in the current role of Prime Minister has done that, but if he were to be a Despot, that’s what he’d do. So, until any independent investigation, let’s say we leave this one under review. Close, highly-scrutinized, review.
People, we’re nearly there! Just a few quick skips into the breakdown of democratic institutions and we will have a fully-fledged despot at the helm of power. Strap on to your seats; I feel I am about to call ‘BINGO!’
Boris Johnson as your therapist? That's what the United Kingdom is facing as a result of its Brexit breakdown.
It’s 7pm on a Wednesday evening. You’ve been going through a bit of a crisis recently and need to talk to someone. Luckily, your friend has recommended you a new counsellor - a bit of a “rogue”, in her words, but someone who might be able to shed a fresh perspective on life’s trials and tribulations.
Apprehensive, you approach the door. On a big, gold plaque you see the name “Dr Johnson”, emblazoned boldly on its mahogany backdrop. With a small gulp, you enter the room.
Slouched over a desk is a dishevelled, tired-looking man. His poor posture corrected with a jolt, the man they call BoJo sits up, alert.
“Hello”, says Dr Johnson in a gruff, blustering sort of way. “Take a seat!”
Gesturing towards a spindly wooden chair, Johnson gives you a smile. Yet his eyes are cold. You take the seat without removing your eyes from his gaze.
“What can I help you with, what what?” mumbles the man. You’re already skeptical that this is the person to take you out of your deep depression. Could he be a quack?
You explain your predicament. A bad decision, made three years ago. A period of intense self-reflection. Regret. And now this.
Dr Johnson frowns, his doglike expression becoming a bit more gorilla.
“Well, if you ask meeeee”, growls Johnson, appearing to scramble for something useful to say, “you never made a mistake in the first place. Everything is just fine! Just stick with me and you won’t have to worry about a thing”.
You find this odd. This is the first time you’ve met the man and he’s already claiming to be the one-size-fits-all fixer to your problems. Surely he can’t be trusted?
Johnson gets up, staring out of the window of this fifty-floor office. Far below, on the streets that snake past his skyscraper, a car’s tyre bursts over a forgotten pothole.
Johnson sighs, ambling back to his messy desk, hands in pockets.
You’re still waiting for an answer.
But none comes.
He just keeps staring. A dusty, faded portrait of an old politician stares back at him. It could be Churchill or Silvio Berlusconi. Although it makes a difference to you, it doesn’t seem to matter to him. His eyes glaze over.
Then, slumping down in his seat, Dr Johnson falls asleep. Just like that, he departs the conversation. You’re left alone.
His personal assistant rushes in.
“That’ll be £360, please”, she says with an acid smile.
Hundreds of metres below, another car tyre bursts. The driver curses, but nobody hears.
You sigh. Time to have some words with that friend of yours.
Watching the Tory leadership contenders battle it out last week could only heap despair upon despair, says Paul Gerken.
The magnitude of cognitive dissonance required when you state that schools, health and green energy must be better when you’ve spent the last decade tearing them to shreds, is incalculable. Yet here we are, standing amidst the ashes of a country that is, only for want of time, merely metaphorically burnt to the ground, listening to the ones holding the matches. We must accept that it is their next bright idea that will be inflicted on the nation. The lightbulb that shines brightest? That if we just convince the European Union that we’re crazy enough to do this no-deal, somehow we won’t have to do it.
Let us unpack the logic. Here it’s pretty simple; you can’t get the best deal unless you’re willing to walk away. We’ve all been there – you’re desperate for flip-flops after you lost on them on lash last night down the Khao San Road, but unless you’re not prepared to swivel on your cut and muddied feet and walk away, that street vendor is never going to give you a dirt cheap price. Precisely the same logic can be applied to negotiating with the world’s largest economic entity. We never actually convinced them we would walk away, Johnson and Raab argue, and therefore they’ve completely done us over with that peace in Northern Ireland bit - that would’ve never been an issue had they known we were sufficiently bonkers to destroy every trade relationship we have with the world.
Now, apparently, the £2 billion of our money that was spent precisely on no-deal contingency planning wasn’t anywhere near convincing enough. We should have actually spent more! (I guess?). However, don’t get Raab wrong, he does want a deal, and apparently stating that on TV doesn’t undermine your resolution to leave without one. So, what to do, Dominic? Do we ramp up again the contracts to ferry firms with no ferries, in this great deceit? It remains unclear. What is clear is we need the gun to our own heads, stat, starting with teary bloodshot eyes directly into the resolutely calm face of Michael Barnier.
But please, let’s take a brief moment to look at this from the other side of the table. If you’re the EU, what do you gain from planning completely, with certainty, that no-deal is going to happen? As in, not just a tactic to box the UK into a corner, but planning like it’s the best outcome? Sadly, Brexiteers, they gain everything. Let's think about this:
- The EU gains absolute certainty that it can manage any outcome.
- The EU retains the respect and solidarity of its members, proving its importance.
- The EU has learnt how to manage the withdrawal of any member correctly and efficiently so that the threat of any other member leaving is less of an existential threat to the entire organization.
- The EU cannot be threatened by the UK’s no-deal threat, rendering it completely and utterly useless.
- Considering the above, their money spent on no-deal will never be wasted, but the UK’s will.
The EU has repeatedly stated they are prepared for no-deal, and seen in this light, they would absolutely be best to. They are prepared for a no-deal, not because of our threats, but because it’s in their best interest. They are not preparing as a charade but as a reality. It is us who want the deal, and these threats to Europe are so feast-eatingly embarrassing that it does make you wonder if we have, in any corner of Westminster, the brainpower to get us out of this.
One final point of reflection on the no-deal threat to the EU: If it happens, both sides will lose something, but who loses what?
- UK loses – the terms of every single trading relationship it has with every single country in the entire world.
- EU loses – its trading relationship with the UK.
And what’s more, they’re prepared for this to happen, whilst we are simply pretending to be prepared.
And with that thought, I am seriously not sure who can help us now.