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Oh. Maybe there really is a crisis

Posted on March 4, 2020

This week’s blog post takes a slightly different form.

As part of a wider writing project, I am currently putting together a diary of the first few months of the new government. What appears below is the entry written at the start of March about the response to coronavirus. As I put the finishing touches to the piece below, Johnson’s government shook itself into some sort of action and came up with a kind of plan. He even allowed his health minister to appear on BBC news programmes and seemed to be taking advice from scientists and health professionals. That either of these developments should be considered worthy of comment tells us just how low we have allowed our expectations of senior politicians to sink.

So, as a matter of historical record, an extract from something that may appear in a different form later in the year:
Oh. Maybe there really is a crisis.

Like many people, I can’t help but retain a soft spot for Jim Callaghan. Not just because he was a Labour Prime Minister (1976-79) and, goodness knows, those are beginning to look like increasingly rare beasts. This affection endures despite the fact that his general politics were execrable. He was, after all, one of the prime advocates of introducing the notion of ‘value for money’ into the educational world, opening the door to the later privatisation that has so damaged our schools and young people. But he was always battling against the odds. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund had made it clear since the arrival of his Labour predecessor, Harold Wilson, that any social reform was going to be blocked by their antics wherever possible. He acquired the nickname Sunny Jim which stemmed partially from his having the misfortune to return from an international conference in Guadeloupe, looking tanned and relaxed, to a miserable British winter beset by strikes and disruption.

Dear old Sunny Jim has been lumbered by history with a misquotation which has stuck through the decades. Ask most people – or those who cared – what he said on his return and they’ll whip back with the answer: ‘Crisis, what crisis?’ As it happens, the snappy response was the work of a Sun headline writer who, for once, could not be accused of making stuff up, as the words were never actually attributed to Callaghan. What he did say was: ‘I don’t think other people would share the view (that) there is mounting chaos.’ Not as glib but a touch more measured, even though, notwithstanding my firm support for the strikers at the time, there was chaos aplenty.  I haven’t yet seen a headline echoing that of The Sun, but the rather relaxed reaction of Johnson and his senior colleagues to the outbreak of coronavirus in February of 2020 prompted the same accusations of lack of urgency.

For the record, I’m writing this at the very start of March 2020. For further information -and this is not something to which I am temperamentally given to sharing – I am very much part of a vulnerable group, being a lifelong asthmatic and almost, I suppose, elderly. I’m not suggesting that this is anything like as dramatic as a death foretold and I am not a superstitious person, but if the virus takes real hold and I cop it, then all my snide sneering at those who must be trying to do a good job of protecting us – mustn’t they? – can be put down to some sort of karma. And of course, if, as seems possible, the spread of the virus becomes significant, then there really will be nothing to laugh about.

Poor old Jim was, it seems, not the only Prime Minister to be stamped in history with something he never uttered. A similar false conviction seems to apply to one of his Tory predecessors, Harold Macmillan, who held office from 1957-1963. When asked what was most likely to knock governments off-course, he is reported to have responded with the famous aphorism, ‘events, dear boy, events.’ Digging around for the source of this famous – and clever – utterance reveals that, depending on what you choose to believe, he said it to JFK, Denis Healey or John Profumo. It scarcely matters. What he was referring to was the fact that the thing most likely to derail  carefully laid plans and schemes are those which come out of the blue.

As to whether such ‘events’ do come entirely unexpectedly from left field to clobber us is something of a bone of contention. Infectious disease and viruses are facts of life; it’s just that, for the most part they affect brown, yellow and black people from places we can’t pin on a map, so it’s a worry, but not usually our worry. When it comes to the things to which Macmillan could have been referring, it would be odd to call them surprising. If he was talking to JFK, where’s the shock? Two warmongering nations flout their missiles at each other and almost cause nuclear Armageddon. With Healey and successive finance ministers, banks overreach themselves and some ultra-greedy players bring the whole thing to unsustainable disaster. Profumo? C’mon. Entitled posh boy in Tory cabinet lets his dick do the thinking and uses status to sleep with young woman. Where’s the unexpected in any of that?

All the same, it’s probably uncharitable to not allow some leeway when it comes to the onset of coronavirus. Similarly, it is unrealistic to expect unequivocal advice in a situation which is fluid and unpredictable. Nevertheless, the early reactions of Johnson and his advisers were lame and late. It’s easy to make the link between this rather paralysed response with the way his  campaigns were conducted. In both the Brexit poll and the 2019 general election, the approach was the same. Keep it stunningly simple (and simplistic), don’t give any detailed explanations and keep evidence to a minimum. To use the old cliché, it’s the mushroom growing approach. Keep ’em in the dark and feed ’em shit.

I reiterate. Written in early March 2020 as a matter or record. I’d be happy to be surprised and wrong.

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