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Covid-19 exposes the failure of the 'post-political state'

DR LEE JONES and DR TARA McCORMACK argue that if we learn anything from this crisis, it is the need to stop hollowing-out the state and restore ministerial accountability

EVERY DAY we are told that Covid-19 is an unprecedented and unanticipated crisis. In reality, the British state spent 15 years preparing for a pandemic. Its inadequate response to Covid-19 signals a deep failure of the state, whose roots go back many years — not, as some suggest, to Boris Johnson’s winter vacation. 

Covid-19 is not an unexpected event. Successive British governments have identified pandemic viruses as a major national security threat. Tony Blair’s government issued the first pandemic plan in 2005, in the wake of the SARS and bird flu pandemics. In 2008, the Brown government included pandemics in Britain’s first National Security Strategy. 

Subsequent versions under Conservative governments rated pandemics as a “tier one” threat, with the risk of an outbreak rising in the medium term. The National Security Council, established in 2010, created a sub-committee on Threats, Hazards, Resilience and Contingencies to manage this threat. The Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy followed in 2011. The government’s Biological Security Strategy was published in 2018. 

Key state institutions all developed their own pandemic plans, too, like the National Health Service’s Emergency Preparedness and Resilience and Response plan, which identified pandemic flu as the “top risk” facing Britain. 

These plans – which, while targeted at influenza, used assumptions very similar to the Covid-19 pandemic – were also well tested, and massive flaws well understood. In 2016, the government’s “Exercise Cygnus” war-gamed a pandemic. This revealed huge problems, including shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators, critical care beds and oxygen supplies – the very same problems we face today.

In short: the British government planned for a pandemic for 15 years; knew its preparations were inadequate for four years; and was still woefully unprepared when Covid-19 struck in 2020. 

Rather than executing a well-ordered plan, the government panicked into imposing a lockdown and improvises its response daily. Doubtless, ministers and civil servants are straining every sinew. Nonetheless, thousands have died who might not have. Tens of millions are confined to their homes. The economy is in free-fall. The government is essentially printing money to fund the colossal costs of their improvised emergency response.

The scale of the state’s failure is staggering. What explains it? How can a state apparently prepare for an event for 15 years, then perform so miserably?

The post-political state

The answer is the neoliberal transformation of the British state, which has hollowed out its basic capacity to deliver public goods and services, and diminished the political authority of elected governments, while spreading responsibility so thinly that no-one really seems accountable.

These changes began in the 1980s, with the shift from the post-war welfare state to the neoliberal regulatory state. After 1945, wartime command-and-control systems were repurposed for peacetime. Elected governments engaged in extensive economic planning, nationalising key resources, operating state-owned enterprises, and intervening directly to secure desired outcomes. Despite its many shortcomings, the post-war state had clear lines of responsibility and accountability, ultimately centred on elected governments.

However, in response to a deep crisis of capitalism in the 1970s, the Thatcher government transformed this system. State-owned assets and enterprises were privatised, while industrial policy and economic planning were abandoned. Decision-making power and the provision of many goods and services were outsourced to the private sector. In reforms continued by Major and Blair, command-and-control structures were replaced by “arms-length bodies.” An army of quangos (quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations) and independent regulators took control of vast areas of public life. Responsibility for outcomes was also outsourced to these unelected technocrats. 

In this new “regulatory state,” the central government no longer intervenes directly to secure particular outcomes. It only sets general guidelines and regulations for a host of public and private actors, hoping to steer them in a broadly acceptable direction. 

Governmental accountability was further weakened as the power to set rules and regulations was diffused downwards and upwards. Downwards, to devolved administrations; upwards, to regional and global bodies, like the European Union and World Trade Organisation. 

Regulatory state failure

Covid-19 has brutally exposed two characteristics of this system: bureaucracy and lack of accountability. 

The regulatory state is superb at generating endless regulations, guidelines, action plans and best-practice documentation. That is its lifeblood. The National Security Council, for example, publishes a National Security Strategy. Other state regulators process this into further regulations for their domains. The agencies they regulate use these to generate their own guidelines, and so on. On paper, the state looks remarkably well prepared. Unfortunately, however, the system is regulators all the way down. 

The state’s practical capacity to plan, invest, and produce and distribute public goods and services – from ventilators, to PPE, from testing facilities to hospitals – has been hollowed out. The state’s meagre stockpile of PPE, for example, was exhausted within weeks. A “just-in-time” approach has left Britain competing for supplies on global markets. eBay and the army have to step in to try to connect PPE supplies to end users. 

The chaotic stories emerging daily of British manufacturers, suppliers and laboratories being left idle or supplying overseas markets do not just reveal the difficulty of coordinating resources in a crisis. They reflect the prior destruction of coordinating structures and systems. Having abandoned industrial policy, the government has to improvise one on the hoof, trying to conjure up ventilator-manufacturing capacity from scratch. The NHS has to produce a track-and-tracing app overnight. The army has to build emergency field hospitals.

The second pathology revealed by Covid-19 is the diffusion of political responsibility. When responsibility for outcomes is no longer centred on elected politicians and ministers, but spread across hundreds of global, sub-national and “arms-length” regulators, it is often impossible to pin down exactly who is accountable for what. 

This is not accidental: it was one of the key goals of the transformation of the state. After the crisis of the 1970s, politicians actively cultivated lower expectations from the public. They no longer wanted to be responsible for delivering public goods and services, for social security, or for our collective destiny. They wanted to diffuse this responsibility as widely as possible. 

Consider the NHS. Once, the Department for Health was entirely responsible its organisation, operations and outcomes. Now, responsibility is spread across many other bodies, who can each be blamed for poor outcomes. In England, decisions about what health services should be provided, and how, have been devolved to dozens of “commissioning groups”. Foundation Trusts are quasi-autonomous from state control. Private providers are in the mix. Broad strategic guidance is provided by NHS England, but also several other regulators. Public health is devolved to local councils. NHS Supply Chains is a dysfunctional mess. And the picture is further complicated by devolution.

In this system, it is easy for bureaucratic action plans to substitute for someone actually taking responsibility for ensuring that basic, practical preparations are made. Even today, different state agencies are passing the buck rather than taking responsibility for getting things done. It is not surprising that the government has to turn to the army – one of the last state institutions based around clear hierarchy – to deliver critical projects.

Discontent with this system has been mounting for years. The bureaucratic, irresponsible regulatory state rightly appears to ordinary citizens as an unresponsive blob, its managers much better at explaining why nothing can change than spelling out a transformative vision and delivering for citizens. 

The Brexit slogan “take back control” resonated so widely because it spoke to this sense of disempowerment and stasis. Johnson’s “get Brexit done,” likewise, promised to cut through the political and bureaucratic morass to deliver what people had demanded.

Sadly, Covid-19 shows just how far we are from “taking back control.” If we learn anything from this pandemic, it should be the need to restore clear lines of accountability, centred on elected politicians. Responsibility for public goods outsourced to businesses and technocrats should be brought back into the hands of ministers and public servants. And, above all, citizens must become more active in demanding that the state works for them.

Dr Lee Jones and Dr Tara McCormack, who teach at Queen Mary University of London and the University of Leicester, are co-founders of The Full Brexit, where a longer version of this article first appeared.

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