This week, England arrives at a moment that will fit the Boris Johnson era to perfection. Even if the pandemic is not quite over – something symbolised by news of the Queen testing positive – everything is being arranged to convince us that it is. On Monday, the prime minister is expected to explain his government’s “living with Covid” strategy, and on Thursday, most remaining Covid rules and restrictions will be lifted.
Although Northern Ireland seems to be taking a similar route, Scotland and Wales are once again sticking to more cautious policies, but that is presumably the way Johnson likes it. Here is an opportunity for him to show the libertarian, Brexity backbench hardcore which seems to now run the Conservative party that their home country is blazing a trail towards the dazzling uplands of freedom and easy living, and all is once again well.
Clearly, it isn’t. This latest set of moves only highlights a basic fact of life in early 2022 that has been strangely overlooked. Thankfully, the pandemic is winding down, but after two years of sacrifice, bereavement and hurt, there is no sign of any political payback for what people have suffered. The worsening situation in Ukraine may make such talk look rather misplaced, but we were chivvied through the worst of the Covid crisis with endless comparisons to wartime and the supposed glories of the Blitz spirit, our equivalent of “peace” is impossible living costs, cuts to public spending and the inertia of a government completely consumed with its own problems. If the public mood feels almost numb, this is a big part of the reason why.
As ever, the everyday state of things is highlighted by the position of city and local government. A new financial year looms, and any extra money from Whitehall does not meet the rising need for the most basic local services, nor cover financial deficits caused by the Covid crisis (a good example is the loss of town and city centre parking charges). So, Nottingham city council has to hack £28m from its spending, and is shutting children’s centres and youth services. In Sheffield, they are reviewing library services and considering cutting vulnerable people’s home care; in Croydon, the council is about to get rid of the council tax support worth up to £29 a week to thousands of the borough’s most vulnerable people. Tory-run Hampshire, meanwhile, is trying to somehow save £80m over two years, which means cuts to children’s social care, work with young offenders, education services and school transport.
Through 2020 and 2021, the government endlessly employed a slogan that had been in sporadic circulation for at least 15 years, and was soon adopted by Joe Biden: “Build back better”. Now, at the very point you might have thought those three words would be more ubiquitous than ever, they are nowhere to be seen. We all know that Covid infections and perhaps death rates were made worse by poor and overcrowded homes, but the Conservative approach to the one thing that definitely needs to be built remains as standoffish as ever. Between March 2020 and April last year, about 6,000 homes for social rent were delivered in England, amounting to roughly one for every 190 households stuck on waiting lists. Our Covid death toll highlighted the often appalling state of public health in the UK, but that issue seems to be simply grinding on. During our three national lockdowns, it was briefly fashionable to focus on the huge sacrifices made by children and young people and imagine some kind of programme of reparations, but nothing has materialised. All told, the government’s pandemic story seems to be yet another case study in that very English habit of undergoing trauma and misery, being reminded that everything rests on the ricketiest of foundations, and then pretending nothing has happened.
More than ever, Johnson says whatever he thinks suits the moment and then moves on to something else. But even if he was halfway serious about using the state to radically rebalance the economy and society, Rishi Sunak’s Treasury would balk at the kind of spending involved – and in any case, an ideological shift is afoot in the Conservative party that looks likely to jettison even the meek kind of interventionism laid out in the recent “levelling up” white paper. Johnson’s new chief of staff, the MP Steve Barclay, says that the prime minister is now “taking a close look” at how the government can be hacked back, and that “it is a priority to restore a smaller state – both financially and in taking a step back from people’s lives”. For these Tories, the pandemic’s sudden burst of interventionism and collectivist thinking was terrifying: now they are reaching for the rewind button.
Labour clearly has different intentions, but still risks being complicit in Westminster’s state of willed amnesia. Keir Starmer currently seems to be deep into the “I’m not Jeremy Corbyn” stage of his leadership, which is understandable but is also getting in the way of him convincingly speaking to the moment. His three watchwords are “security, prosperity and respect”, all abstract nouns, presumably chosen because they come up in focus groups, but not exactly brimming with meaning or topicality. In a technocratic lingo reminiscent of the 1990s, Labour’s plans for the economy promise a “learning”, “investing”, “innovating” and “trading” Britain, too often omitting the moral aspects of life and work that Covid has pushed to the surface. From time to time, Starmer talks about what we have all been through, but there is still no real sense of a centre-left party confidently speaking to a country reeling from the loss of 180,000 people, and the experience of every aspect of its collective life being upended.
If you want to instantly understand the normality we are returning to, consider the weekend’s reports in the Sunday Times about the Conservative party’s “advisory board” of 14 unbelievably wealthy donors, and allegations that some of them lobbied ministers to prematurely relax “measures designed to stop [Covid] transmission”, as well as voicing their opposition to “higher tax for the ultra-rich”. When I read that, I thought straight away of something George Orwell wrote in 1941, about the kind of Tory who believed that when the second world war was over, the country could be pushed “back to ‘democracy’, ie capitalism, back to dole queues and the Rolls-Royce cars, back to the grey top hats and the sponge-bag trousers”. England is a country with a tragic habit of simultaneously being obsessed with tradition and forgetting its own history.
It says something about where we have arrived that those words sound less like a blast from the past than a very urgent warning.