The herd? Thanks for that. Tells us a lot.

Posted on March 18, 2020


Yes, I know. It’s not a time for point-scoring and we have to believe that our elected leaders are probably giving it their best shot. But really? Is this the best we can manage?

I know I do this quite often, but I’m going to call on another writer to do some of the heavy lifting for me. In his poem How beastly the bourgeois is, D.H.Lawrence paints the picture of the self-satisfied, well-to-do Englishman, seemingly in control of his own tidy universe. His composure, Lawrence suggests, is not even skin-deep:

Let him meet a new emotion, let him be faced with another man’s need,
let him come home to a bit of moral difficulty, let life
face him with a new demand on his understanding
and then watch him go soggy, like a wet meringue.
Watch him turn into a mess, either a fool or a bully.

We all hoped that the accusations contained in these lines need only be applied to the clown across the water: we can now see that it’s closer to home.

It’s only fair to cut anybody some slack here. Like most – but not all – of us, I have lived a life sheltered from war, famine and deep-seated want. I have often pondered how we, and subsequent, equally pampered, generations would face up to such challenges. However, the lockdown of modern towns and cities and a call to isolate ourselves in our homes takes some dreaming up. And pity our rulers; there’s no blueprint for how to do this – unless, of course, you count the measures employed with a degree of success by tinted people on the other side of the world.

Our leader now addresses us every day. The affected bumbling and apparent adlibbing, along with the frequent volleys of florid language and cringing attempts at levity, grate on us all like nails along a blackboard. Our lack of trust in him now transfers to those who flank him; those who only a few days ago seemed temperate and knowledgeable, but who now seem to be toeing whatever political line is in vogue. And yesterday, at his elbow, we had the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

About a million years ago, we had the budget. Actually, it was a week ago – honestly. Anyway, in the budget, the new Chancellor did what any self-respecting member of a Labour government would do and opened up the public purse for some much-needed spending on infrastructure and services. Yes – you’ll have spotted the deliberate mistake and it’s testament to the nerve and confidence of the public schoolboys who still rule the roost that they got away with stealing their opponents’ ideological position with such ease. There was a tiny bit of muttering from the hard-liners that this wasn’t quite what free-marketeer neoliberals are supposed to do, but that soon faded in the glory of this new economic orthodoxy.

And then, yesterday, he took measures that dwarfed what he had done just a week before (I do keep checking – it was only last week). £12 billion became £330 billion. Businesses would be helped to stay afloat; there would be mortgage holidays and breaks for business rates and a whole raft of loans for employers would be put in place. Notice anything, or anyone, missing?

The self-employed; those in the gig economy and on casual or zero-hours contracts; those who may have contracts but no work to go to as places shut down; renters; those with disabilities; those who may have to give up what work there is to look after children who – even as I write – have, at last, been told to go home from school. The list could go on and on and on: the homeless, the sick, those left lonely by diminished care – and that’s before we even think about the plain, old-fashioned poor. I think we all know what sort of people we’re talking about here. The herd.

Of all the daft bits of wishful thinking to fall, unguarded, from the lips of our leaders, the notion of herd-immunity was up there with their greatest hits. Discredited within moments by scientific opinion – which, by the way, we’re all learning is not a singular, uncontested thing – the term is useful only inasmuch as what it reveals about the attitudes of those charged with protecting us. Those whom the Chancellor failed to shelter, those on the lists above, along with plenty I must have missed, are in the herd. They’re not the ones that Tory governments instinctively, immediately think of as those who need protection, help and support. Good for votes, not so useful when they really need something – and quickly.

And the answer is? Pay people. Make the government the paymaster of last resort. Holidays for renters as well as those with mortgages; a moratorium on energy bills; a hiking up of statutory sick pay to a level that a human being can exist on; payment to those who would be under threat of redundancy. It’s not a question of not being able to afford it; it’s matter of asking ourselves what sort of society we are – how we deal with Lawrence’s ‘moral difficulty’ and demands on our understanding. The money’s there and if it’s not, we’ll borrow it from the notional funds held by central banks which, after all, are only institutions peopled by those who are learning that a dollar bill won’t stop you getting sick. Maybe we’ll learn to share nicely, just like we always tell our children to do. It’s a thought.

And let’s afford ourselves the semblance of a smile over something, at least. In the distant future, when this is over, we can remind the most right-wing government this country has had for decades – as well as some of their counterparts across the world – that we can, and must, use our wealth and expertise for the benefit of the mass of ordinary people. We’ll have a model for it. We can remind them that when faced with genuine danger, we decided to use our accumulated knowledge to help each other out. We’ve made a start – now let’s demand more.

And, shush. Don’t mention socialism.

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