It is 6½ months since the first case of Covid-19 was identified in the UK (in York, on 31 January), and just over 5 months since the first death due to the virus was recorded (in Reading on 5 March, a woman in her 70s). Since that time, the virus has dominated the news, and has taken up almost the entirety of the government’s energy. But few people would say that Boris Johnson and his administration have met the challenge well: the UK has the unfortunate combination of one of the highest death tolls attributed to the virus per million of population in the world, while at the same time one of the steeper economic declines.
So far though, the British people have been remarkably forgiving of this unenviable record. Despite a long list of failings – the lateness of imposing a lockdown, the inability to provide the health and care services with adequate supplies of PPE, the repeated over-promising and under-delivery on testing, the several false starts for the government’s track and trace system, the damaging mixed messaging, especially on schools, the unthinking treatment of care homes, the initial unwillingness to impose quarantine on incoming travellers (now giving way to quarantine rules that change at very short notice, causing havoc for holidaymakers) – the list goes on and on, but despite all these many cases where the government has been found wanting (and where other countries have done demonstrably better), the public has not noticeably yet voiced its frustration at the government or sought to hold it to account.
Only one instance in the last few months has really caused the government a serious problem; this was when Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s chief adviser, was considered by many to have broken the strict lockdown rules in April. But even here the main cause for criticism was not what Cummings had done, and whether or not his actions were in fact a breach (over which, courtesy of the lack of clarity in the rules that he himself helped draft, there is some doubt), so much as his and the government’s attitude when confronted with it. “Never apologise, never explain” may be sound political advice, but when coupled with a dismissive air of superiority and of being above the rules that apply to others it is most unattractive, and while the British appear in general to be surprisingly willing to forgive incompetence in their rulers, they do not readily tolerate arrogance.
We doubt however that this moratorium on criticising the government will last for ever. The outrage and anger at the handling of the grading of A-level students this last few days is not synthetic and is an order of magnitude more strongly felt than any other criticism to date, and it has the potential to lead to a wider desire to assess the government’s overall competence in its handling of the pandemic. And when (not if) that assessment comes, it is likely to have some uncomfortable messages for the government, for the people they lead, and ultimately for the society that collectively the British have constructed.
To the government first. More than most governments, this is an administration shaped by the Prime Minister. His was the unexpectedly large victory in the December 2019 election, and he created his Cabinet and senior ministerial team in his image. Ministers were chosen not for their broad-based talent but for their loyalty to Mr Johnson and their support for the single project of getting Brexit done. Fair enough; it was by far the biggest item in the Prime Minister’s in-tray in December just after he had won the election, and he was not alone then in seeing a failure to find a successful conclusion to Brexit as the biggest risk facing the country. But it left him, and the government, very exposed when Brexit turned out not to be the main issue of the day after all. It is an object lesson in not choosing a one-dimensional leadership team.
Secondly, his personal style is to react to events not to plan ahead of them. This can work much of the time and in surprisingly many circumstances – flexibility in a leader is not necessarily a negative – but it has not proved a good strategy when facing a pandemic. In particular the government’s messaging over the last few months has been at times confused, self-contradictory and incoherent, to the point now where few Britons can confidently say they know all the rules on where they can go and who they can meet.
And finally, he has written and spoken so often about how exceptional he thinks Britain is that he is pre-disposed to try to find an internal “reinvent the wheel” solution rather than look outside the UK at what others have found to work.
In this last, his belief that Britain is in some way exceptional, we suspect his views are shared by rather too many of his countrymen, for whom (spoiler alert) we suspect the next few paragraphs will not be comfortable reading. Not those in business, nor anyone who has any serious (ie commercial) dealings with the outside world; such people are well aware of the reality of a competitive world. But for rather too many Britons, this self-image of exceptionalism does still exist: witness the exaggerated expectations every time England play in the World Cup, the belief that everyone wants to do trade deals with the UK post Brexit, the unerring faith in the NHS as “the world’s finest health service” (a belief mainly held by people who have no experience at all of any other country’s health service), the assertion that Britain “punches above its weight” in international affairs.
And therefore it exists in this most populist of governments, which has taken the saying “to lead is to serve” and turned it into “to govern is to follow the masses, to pander to their wishes, prejudices and beliefs”. As Alexandre Ledru-Rollin, a 19th Century French Socialist and early populist said: “Je suis leur chef, il fallait bien les suivre!”, usually rendered into English as “There go the people. I must follow them for I am their leader!”
A country where the prime minister (educated, middle-class, successful, well-meaning) feels it necessary to say “If you are a citizen of the world you are a citizen of nowhere” – translation, “you’re not one of us, we don’t care about the rest of the world, we have nothing to learn from lesser peoples” – and is not only not criticised for it but is applauded and requoted, has a really unhealthy attitude and a real superiority complex.
If nothing else good comes out of this crisis, perhaps the British will once and for all drop the image of We are Better than Others, Plucky Britain Muddling Through, Keeping Calm and Carrying On, Blitz Spirit and all that, and will accept that the UK is an ordinary country, not superior to other nations after all, and with much it can learn from them.
And finally, any inquiry after the pandemic is bound to highlight some international comparisons. And we think three will stand out:
First, the evidence suggests that the more unequal a society, the more the lower echelons have suffered (USA, Brazil, Mexico, India, Iran are all large country examples of this). The UK is a more unequal society than many of its peers; as just one example, the range of life expectancies is extraordinarily wide, and while many people enjoy life expectancies around 85 years, there are even today areas of the UK where it is less than 70.
Secondly, the evidence suggests that countries with mixed health care systems – public for most, private for some – have had a less good outcome. Why this is is not clear, but it has been suggested that if the elite go to private hospitals (or, to quote another example, send their children to private schools), they both do not see the run down state of the public system and do not lend their voices and considerable lobbying energy to mending it. The contrast is with the UK’s university system, which the sons and daughters of the elite do use, and so the elite do care about.
And thirdly, there is some evidence that the more centralised a state, and the more centralised the pandemic response decision making, the worse the outcome. This is not so clear: the US is a federal state, so is Mexico, so is Brazil, so is India, and they have all done badly, whereas China is a centralised state, and has done much better. But the UK’s centralised track and trace system is a striking example of how not to do something compared for example with Germany’s regional health systems.
There is a common theme here. A country with mixed private and public education leaves the majority behind. A country with mixed private and public health leaves the majority behind. A centralised country leaves those outside the centre behind. The UK is less equal, has less social mobility and is less decentralised than many countries of a similar size and standard of living, and in its response to the pandemic, this may have been to its detriment.
Whether the UK can do anything about these deep-seated aspects of its society is quite another matter though.