No appetite for a profit-before-people Tory meal deal

Sunday National, 12th July 2020.

I was a little surprised to find myself confronted by a Facebook ad from an organisation calling itself “UK Government Scotland” this week. Over a photo of a deserted Ashton Lane in Glasgow, the ad instructed me to go forth into the street and “enjoy summer.” It didn’t mention that a bunnet, a brolly and a cagoule are essential PPE for Scotland in July. In this jurisdiction, we don’t have beer gardens so much as beer ponds, with soggy coasters and unreliable water features as standard. It is difficult to realise your vision of elegant European café culture when the wind has blown away your scone and you’re wishing you’d worn your winter coat. But the ad is interesting in a couple of ways, and speak to two different – but connected anxieties – in Whitehall.

Firstly, it is an expression of the UK government’s cack-handed efforts to remind the population, as the slogan has it, that “we are one United Kingdom.” Back in the coalition days, Treasury secretary Danny Alexander announced that the administration would be slapping union jacks and “funded by UK government” signage on everything from “roads in Cornwall to broadband in Caithness.” Quite how a flag can “proudly adorn” buried fibre optic cables is a question for the philosophers – but I’m sure the earthworms of Sutherland and Easter Ross admired the view. Buying up Facebook time is just the latest way for the UK government to remind us it exists.

There’s a notion abroad in Tory circles that the UK government have given their Scottish counterparts much too much room to run in the first two decades of devolution. Particularly after 2007, the theory goes, UK ministers conspired to make strangers of themselves in their own land, allowing the Edinburgh government to emerge as Scotland’s principal political voice, positioning their London counterparts as visiting dignitaries in the process. Like all of their predecessors, this administration is determined to alter that perception, one social media post and speech at a time.

Michael Gove has recently called for the Treasury rule – that UK governments don’t spend public money in devolved areas – to be scrapped. He thinks UK ministers should muscle in more enthusiastically. Powers devolved are powers retained, after all. What better cement could there be for the union, than bequeathing to Glasgow a shiny new Dominic Cummings memorial airport rail link?

Allied to the Treasury’s infamous controlling streak, this political analysis explains why the Chancellor spurned demands from the devolved administrations for greater borrowing powers to contend with the economic effects of lockdown this week. Greater autonomy would have allowed Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh to emphasise their limited financial independence. By keeping hold of the lion’s share of borrowing powers, Rishi Sunak mainly wants you to misremember who writes the cheques.

In his “plan for jobs” speech on Wednesday, the Chancellor supposedly “burnished his unionist credentials.” Reflecting on the furlough and self-employed income support schemes, he said “no nationalist can ignore the undeniable truth: this help has only been possible because we are a United Kingdom.” Because any fair-minded international analysis shows no other independent state in the world which has been able to introduce furlough and job retention schemes, apart from Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Japan, Denmark, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, South Korea, the Netherlands, Norway, and Poland. I could go on.

So that’s the first subtext to the stern admonition to “enjoy summer safely.” The second is another note of anxiety about UK government policy. A less subtle UK Government Scotland strapline would have been “spend, spend, spend.” Although social media was awash with Armageddon shots of throngs of “Covidiots” on the rampage when the restrictions were rolled back in England, I’m not convinced this is where most of the electorate is psychologically, north or south of the border.

They dubbed it “Super Saturday” – but I wonder if the forced enthusiasm missed the greater public mood. Sunak’s £10 Midweek Nandos meal deal isn’t exactly an expression of confidence in the great British public’s enthusiasm for hitting the streets in numbers. Anecdotes from England’s bars suggest they’re running at 50% of their usual takings. And you can understand why. The messages remain mixed. “Go to the pub! But watch out! You might die! Cheers!” With the virus very much still in circulation, this might strike you as a hard sell.

Put it this way. Do you remember when going for a walk, or nipping to the shops, didn’t feel like a game of Tetris? In the brief puddles of sunshine which fell on Scotland this week, it was curiously touching to see a smattering of intrepid souls, sitting, chatting, slurping. A little note of relatively normality there. But my overriding impression is that the most folk aren’t all that disposed to “enjoy summer” in the way the UK government is trying to encourage us to do.

You can’t live through three months of heightened consciousness and the constant telegraphing of anxiety against the backdrop of thousands of people dying, and countless physical reminders of the pandemic – and bounce back into the throng unaffected. You still can’t do something as simple as have a carefree amble along the street, and you’re unavoidably conscious those around you who’re conscious of it too. In its extreme form, psychologists call this phenomenon hypervigilance. Having experienced trauma, people can end up scanning their social horizons like meerkats for impending doom and imagined threats. Reading about the effect of stress on every speck and sinew of the human body is a sobering business. With your hypothalamus going like gatling gun, you end up with knotweed for blood vessels, brain fried by the constant bolts of cortisol.

At the risk of hyperbole, isn’t this what most of us have been living through for the last three months? Most of us can’t just shrug off the stress or suspend the judgments which have structured our social interactions (or lack of them) for almost quarter of a calendar year. It’ll take time for the exaggerated alertness we’ve normalised to subside. And with 788 Covid-related deaths recorded in England and Wales last week, it isn’t obvious that anxiety should subside for the drinkers and diners the government is inviting to “enjoy summer safely.”

It takes you right back to a critical but basic question. What is the UK government’s goal here? Is it to eliminate the virus as far as you can in an interconnected world, or to stablise the situation in intensive care units and hospitals so the supply of beds is able to meet the demands for them as the virus is allowed to circulate? On the face of it, the Johnson administration has adopted the second approach, but that’s really just guessing.

As Professor Stephen Reicher of the University of St Andrews points out, in England we’ve seen a “series of ad hoc openings” and “ad hoc relaxations before we have an adequate test and trace system,” but the UK Government “hasn’t been clear about the strategy, some people talk about herd immunity by default, but nothing has been articulated at all.” One advantage of trying to eliminate the virus, Professor Reicher points out, is you stand a better chance of reopening “properly and fully”, without the gnawing anxiety keeping footfall down.

That analysis is echoed by Edinburgh’s Professor Devi Sridhar. “Will people react to £10 incentive to eat in restaurants and the push by PM Johnson to go back to live normally? Could it be that it’s the virus that is ruining the economy and best way to get economy going is to drive virus out so people feel safe? Do the hard public health slog.”

Boris Johnson can batter the population with “enjoy summer” ads, but in the worst case scenario for the UK government, by prioritising opening up the economy rather than driving down the virus, they may have chosen to put profit before people – and will still come up with more sick, more dead and without a dime.

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