The Whitehall rot sets in

This government caused the slump, but unlike Mrs Thatcher it has no fable for why the country suffered


This article is taken from the September issue of The Critic. For the full article why not subscribe to the print magazine? Right now we’re offering 3 issues for just £5.

Politicians make political calculations. This is not merely reasonable, it’s essential to the health of a state. As the coronavirus crisis hit Britain, politicians here, seeing what was happening overseas, calculated that they would not suffer politically if the country did not suffer in any way which put it outside the international pack.

Should the British death toll end with us in a peloton with our neighbours, ministers reckoned that the public would understand. Whatever else happened, the opinion polls would remain acceptably healthy.

This is roughly what has occurred, at least outside the care home sector. The party politics of the pandemic has been called correctly by the government, but almost nothing else has been. Campaigning rather than governing will have lethal consequences.

The disaster of the British response to Covid-19 has its origins in the optics beloved of campaigners, pollsters and spinners. Ministers plainly panicked in response to Italian deaths and chaos on our television screens every night: the science they had was junked, the Overton window for what was suddenly extremely possible widened, and the government jumped through it.

An understandable, if unsayable, fear drove their actions: for if Italy’s first-world healthcare system was collapsing live on air thanks to smartphone videos, what hope was there for the NHS when our turn came? No wonder ministers made a fetish out of it: they had very little hope that the Envy of the World would be able to discharge its basic functions.

We have consistently said that government policy was demonstrably worse than its pandemic purpose and we have been right

Yet the crisis they anticipated never came, the Nightingale hospitals they built were never used. But the economic and social carnage the government wrought, while both sheltering the NHS and hiding behind it, is still with us. As too is the remarkable run of non-existent “laws” and bureaucratic folly that Jonathan Sumption and others have detailed, not least in these pages and on our website. Shoddy law misapplied (every Coronavirus Act conviction has been overturned) and shameful excesses not least by the police are an indictment of our political class.

We feared in our May leading article that the public would welcome what the government was going to do to them (“We’ve informed, scolded, disapproved and loved it”). We can say with some pride that this mood is something we have sought to puncture. From the original courage of Toby Young’s dissent to the sustained prescience of Alistair Haimes, we have said that government policy was demonstrably worse than its pandemic purpose. We, and they, have been right.

So much would be counterfactual but for Sweden. Its resistance to the madness we have engaged in shows that manifest self-harm was unnecessary. Worldwide, the figures speak for themselves: no matter the intervention policy, the antibody rate works out everywhere at roughly 15-20 per cent.

The predicted tsunami of deaths, after the fashion of the Spanish Flu, has happened nowhere. All that government policy has done here is to make things needlessly worse socially and economically.

These are unshowy things for now, not least compared to the way basic facts of mortality were hysterically reported in the spring, when every hospital death was a tragedy beyond comprehension if it got airtime or a colour write-up. They are, though, real and their deadly consequences will be with us long after the current crop of ministers has departed.

Nowhere has the failure of ministers to lead been more apparent than in their empty offices

While France and other European countries enjoyed their Trente Glorieuses of economic growth after the second world war, this country was, in contrast, sinking.

Political debate was the stuff of international contrasts — how much worse we were doing than everyone else in terms of growth or inflation, or later, unemployment. Even the deteriorating exchange rate became a test of Britain’s relative failure.

Mrs Thatcher changed all this, but she did so because she offered a redemptive narrative: the pain will be worth it.  We would pay a price, the medicine would be disagreeable, but once we had drunk it, we would have cured ourselves of socialism.

A very different fate awaits this government and its obsession with telling stories over the business of getting government done and avoiding preventable evils, not least by not committing them in the first place. In language it will understand, this government will own its slump. It caused it. And unlike Mrs Thatcher’s administrations, it will have no stirring fable for why the country has suffered.

Nowhere has the failure of ministers to lead been more apparent than in their empty offices. Whitehall has been deserted throughout most of the pandemic. In Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office, despite the post-lockdown efforts of ministers to convince workers to work, barely 10 per cent of his civil servants travelled to their desks to do just that. Once again, Mr Gove and Dominic Cummings have talked a better fight about the blob than the one they have fought.

The example set has been woeful and the British economy has rotted from the Westminster head down. The summer words have been abandoned and now the government hangs its hopes on its ability to persuade parents to send their children to schools that ministers pray they’ll persuade unions to open. There is no end of a lesson here, but no one should count on this government learning it.

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