Get back to normal? We’ll want better than that, won’t we?
Posted on April 8, 2020
For the avoidance of any doubt, I wish the Prime Minister a speedy recovery. There is not one single thing about his conduct or political track record that I admire and, to be brutal, the notion that we are left rudderless and incomplete during this period of illness should be ridiculous. In any normal organisation – that would be many of our workplaces – there is usually a contingency plan for people to step up and take responsibility when the unexpected happens. It’s called planning and foresight. Evidence of either of these qualities has been woefully lacking in recent times – and we’re not just talking Covid 19 either.
Perhaps the most alarming thing about the Prime Minister’s enforced absence has been the demonstrable fear and incompetence exuded by those deputising for him. They’ve all had a go – Raab, Hancock, Sunak, Gove, Sharma – and most of them have flannelled around limply before asking the scientists to answer for them. So far, we’ve been spared the smirking Priti Patel; if she appears, then we’ll know we’re doomed.
Time, then, for the opposition to step forward. There will probably be much to say about Kier Starmer in the coming months, but, for the moment, let’s just concentrate on his first intervention, which was to call for discussion about the exit strategy. There was some reaction to this which was a touch hostile, but as an opening gambit, Starmer had identified an issue of vital importance.
It is well documented that Boris Johnson’s hero and role model is Winston Churchill. In the last few weeks, we’ve heard a good deal of World War II terminology and sloganizing – almost exclusively by people who had no experience of the event. Such peddlers of nostalgia might do well to take a more nuanced look at the history books. When it came to planning and foresight, the politicians of the war years put preparation for the future high on the agenda, long before the enemy was defeated.
The Tory MP for Oxford at the time was the wonderfully named Quintin Hogg, later to become Lord Hailsham. He captured what all politicians knew about the need to recognise those who had won the war: ‘we must give them reforms, or they will give us revolution’. The planning for these reforms began in 1942, three years before hostilities ended. Liberal politician and economist William Beveridge published a report that was designed to tackle the five evils of ‘want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness.’
The Beveridge Report was far from perfect and it certainly wasn’t revolutionary, but it laid the ground for the foundation of the NHS and National Insurance. It made provision for the nationalisation of major industries of the time as well as free secondary education. A huge programme of council housing was put into place along with investment in infrastructure.
A decade after the war, Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was confident enough to say that the majority of the British people had ‘never had it so good.’ If that were true, it certainly didn’t last forever, but the plans developed during the time of crisis had averted lasting damage and had, to an extent, repaid those who had made the main sacrifices.
So, Kier Starmer is right to start looking into the middle distance, but that’s only a first step. A constant refrain at present is that we want to ‘get back to normal’. Really? Is that the best we can do? If we’ve learnt anything in the past few weeks, it’s that ‘normal’ wasn’t good enough. ‘Normal’ meant that the army of people who oil the wheels of society had been forced into low-paid invisibility. ‘Normal’ meant that people who knew stuff, who had dedicated their life to research and the quest for knowledge – sometimes knowledge that was uncomfortable for politicians to hear – were derided and their expertise ignored. ‘Normal’ meant that the weak, poor and vulnerable were left to fend for themselves. Who wants to go back to that?
Get well soon, Mr Johnson and those of you who so craved the high offices you now occupy, start stepping up, start briefing yourselves more thoroughly and start showing some leadership. Those of us who deplore your political outlook will lend you our hands to help our communities, but not our uncritical support. There will be life after this and you’ll be held to account unless you look after the doctors, nurses, teachers, care-workers, bin men, shelf stackers, posties, pharmacists, zero-hours deliverers………and the hundreds of thousands getting by on their own through sheer hard work and determination.
And once the Prime Minister gets back on his feet, he may want to revisit his history books and the story of his hero. Churchill enjoyed genuine legendary status during the war (although, to be accurate, it wasn’t universal), but his star waned. He was replaced in 1945 by Labour’s Clement Attlee, a man deemed by him to be so unsuitable for office that he once jibed that he watched as ‘an empty taxi drew up and Attlee stepped out’. It’s true that Churchill found himself in the top job five years later, but hero status is flimsy and temporary and, as the old saying goes, the graveyard is full of indispensable people.
It’s now up to your colleagues to plan for the future and make sure the heroes are rewarded. You might just find that it’ll get you into the history books with your idol.