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DON’T be under any illusions. This article offers no sanctuary for the advocates of “herd immunity.”
As an answer to the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s a price too high.
A colossal increase in death rates, and overwhelming the NHS, does not even bear thinking about. All the same, the growing sense of societal imprisonment needs to be acknowledged and explored.
The Conservative government is pushing both socialised control and deregulated economics at the same time, while its “ultras,” (and Qanon crazies) rail against the threat to individual liberties.
Each one runs with the forlorn hope of a return to yesterday’s “normal.” Fat chance.
A year of wild weather raging around the planet has put paid to the notion that any such “normal” now exists. Normal was one of Covid’s early deaths.
My worry, however, is that the pandemic is being played to make us prisoners of a different sort.
A moveable feast of government policy shifts has created confusion, uncertainty and cynicism, just when you need the exact opposite. It reminded me of something.
Over 50 years ago, Patrick McGoohan mesmerised the nation when episodes of The Prisoner were first televised.
This wasn’t a “Who done it?” mystery as much as a “What the hell is going on?” one.
The 1967 science fiction series was about an unnamed British intelligence agent, abducted and imprisoned in a mysterious coastal village.
In it, McGoohan had no name, just a number — Number 6 — with his captors trying to find out why he had abruptly resigned from his job.
Number 6 had not been furloughed, though perhaps he was the subject of a more pernicious version of “track, trace and isolate.”
Viewers never got to know what crime McGoohan might have committed. What we grasped was that his was a desperate struggle to break free from the convoluted, malign web woven around him.
Intuitively, we were on McGoohan’s side; struggling as much to understand what was going on as to how he might escape.
So it is today, with climate-change-denying libertarians resorting to the same imagery.
Without wage guarantees, lockdowns are easily depicted as gross infringements of personal liberty.
Then, without freedom of movement, how do you retrain or find a new job? The organised incoherence of government policies (and the exclusion of local authorities from lead roles in Covid-19 containment strategies) creates the perfect cover for Johnson’s deconstruction of democracy.
Behind the scenes of Covid confusion an intricate web of societal imprisonment is being woven.
You can see it in government proposals to redefine the political landscape of housing, food, environment, transport and trade policies.
Many are so extreme that even traditional Tories — including Theresa May, for goodness sake! — find them insupportable.
What makes the Johnson/Cummings onslaught so extreme is its ruthless transfer of powers from citizens to corporations.
Algorithms go wild
In housing, the pretence is about streamlining the planning system to boost the provision of new homes. It’s a scam.
Algorithms more stupid than the ones that screwed up students’ GCSE results are now proposing even worse for housing.
For at least a decade there has been a surfeit of local authority planning approvals.
Developers sat on these permissions until they could guarantee themselves a 25 per cent profit on building. Labour authorities know the proposed changes won’t build new homes for the poor.
But what now scares the Tories is the recognition that the rewards developers demand will mainly come from a right to invade the countryside.
In a parliamentary debate, Tory MP Bob Seely nailed the scam. He grasped that the Johnson/Cummings algorithm would “hollow out our cities, urbanise our suburbs and suburbanise the countryside.”
Manchester would see 10,000 fewer homes built, but 14,000 would go up in adjoining east Cheshire.
Nottingham would get 3,700 fewer homes while 25,000 more would go into affluent parts of the county.
Construction in Southampton would drop by 2,500 but increase by 26,000 in surrounding areas of rural Hampshire.
As with disastrous flood plain developments permitted over the last decade, the one thing you then know is that developers (and their profits) will be long gone before the shit (or floods) hit the fan. Even Tories are now calling for solidarity with cities.
You can almost hear them repeating McGoohan’s line: “Your village may be different from other people’s villages, but we are all prisoners.”
(Chlorinated) Chickens coming home to roost
It’s no better for food, farming and the environment. Johnson’s grand statements about restoring nature, defending food standards and farming that puts carbon back into the soil, all turn bitter when none will be protected in law.
No-one expressed the betrayal more openly and cynically than Trade Secretary Liz Truss.
Pressed to accept Lords amendments that would put existing food and environmental standards into law, Truss declined; merely protesting she would “keep our high food and environmental standards, post-Brexit.”
Asked if Britain would ban the import of foods of lower quality she said bluntly: “No,” claiming this would harm the position of farmers in Kenya and other developing nations.
What bare-faced nonsense. This has nothing to do with poor farmers in developing nations. It is all about caving in to US food multinationals.
It took me back to the anti-GMO campaigns in the 1990s. Back then, US biotech corporations failed to convince the British public that their “Frankenfoods” would be good for us.
So they too tried the Liz Truss line — “Would you really deny the world’s poorest farmers this route out of poverty?” It was a challenge rooted in dishonesty.
I was lucky enough to have visited India when anti-GMO campaigns were at their height.
Nothing was more powerful than a meeting with farmers involved in their “Cremate Monsanto” campaign.
These were peasant farmers, not a wealthy elite. The rationale behind their campaign was clear and compelling.
GMOs were making farmers poorer, not richer. They may have been given the first batch of seeds, but then farmers had to buy Monsanto’s Round-up herbicide to kill everything but the crop.
As a result they lost a whole range of medical and nutritional herbs from their fields, along with their historic right to save seeds.
All became Monsanto-dependent, and poorer.
But the clincher came in answer to one simple question: “What can industrial nations do to support your campaign?”
“Deny them a market,” was the unanimous reply. Or, as one farmer put it: “You have the wealth. If you refuse to buy this crap, we won’t be forced to grow it.”
This should be Labour’s answer now.
There are no prizes for the poor (or the public) in a race to the bottom of the barrel.
Economies with high standards improve wellbeing. Economies with none become exploitative fiefdoms.
Which brings us back to Covid-19.
No friends in the north
The stand-off between northern English regions and central government threatens the very basis of government by consent in Britain.
Incandescent northern mayors and council leaders rail against government lockdown proposals, not because they deny there’s a crisis but because of government incoherence.
National figures don’t square with local ones. Track, trace and isolate doesn’t work because the national obsession with private contractors doesn’t connect with day-to-day (public) networks of healthcare providers that exist in every locality.
And when Johnson’s traffic lights turn red for your area, the Chancellor’s safety net fails to ensure that displaced workers can pay their bills.
Local authority leaders are right to insist that lockdowns without safety nets are a recipe for societal breakdown.
It won’t be a rerun of the anti-Thatcher riots. Families that can’t pay their bills, heat their homes or feed their kids won’t stay in to suffer in silence.
People will try to earn (illicitly) just to make ends meet.
Covid numbers will boom and tipping points in NHS capacities will be crossed.
All that will be left is a blame game between central (and centralising) government and the real world.
Behind the scenes of Johnson’s empty cathedral, the blame game is the real imprisonment we face.
Johnson’s failed track-and-trace fiasco, whimsical lockdown lines and half-cock financial strategies all turn the Covid-19 pandemic into a mechanism to divide and distract.
If we run with such divisions, fall out with one other, look for other “prisoners” to blame — the young, the old, the refugee, the north, the south — we hand the game to our captors.
In The Prisoner, McGoohan warned that “the greatest evil that one has to fight constantly, every minute of the day until one dies, is the worst part of oneself.”
My take, however, is that he got this wrong. The real struggle is with insecurity.
Evil only gets to play in the spaces where we feel unsafe. This is what Johnson’s cabal are both creating and exploiting. The answer is to flip the coin.
By insisting on higher standards of everything — for ourselves and our laws, for the seas and the soil, in trade and in aid, and for the kids and the planet — only then can we break the spell of Johnson’s tyranny.
Do so, and just see how quickly the prison walls crumble.
Alan Simpson was Labour Member of Parliament for Nottingham South from 1992 to 2010.
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