Boris has turned Puritan, closing theatres, cancelling Christmas and making everyone go to bed early – to the detriment of small businesses and working people, writes Tom Hodgkinson
It was cheering to read the latest figures from the UK’s Office of National Statistics, which show that deaths mentioning coronavirus are now lower than deaths from flu and pneumonia, and account for just 1% of all deaths. Maybe the lockdown worked? In any case, I was looking forward to the fun coming back and the small businesses reopening.
Alas, it was not to be. Frightened by a rise in positive test results, the UK government introduced the so-called “rule of six” and imposed a 10pm curfew on pubs. Our 18 year old daughter had a job lined up at a bar but was told that the job was no longer there thanks to early closing. One of the government’s less impressive Sage advisors told Radio 4’s Today Programme the other day that these measures were not enough and, “who goes out to eat after ten anyway?”
This last comment showed an utter cluelessness about the effect of these measures on everyday life. The bureaucrats who make the rules are the least affected by them. They can stay at home, do Zoom meetings and potter about in their garden, blissfully unaware of the suffering they have caused. It was left to restaurant entrepreneur Luke Johnson, who actually does know what he is talking about, to warn us, on Newsnight, that the new rules could lead to a million job losses in pubs and restaurants. Wetherspoons, Greene King and the Campaign for Real Ale have also sounded the alarm.
For the middle classes, the people who work on computers, lockdown has been a bit of a breeze. We middling sorts have been able to eat organic food, go cycling, read novels, drink craft ale and slow down a bit.
And the financiers, the owners of capital, in the form of shares, are also happy. The stock market keeps on rising, as a direct result of small businesses closing. The corner café, its income and its staff, will get eaten up by Starbucks. So the rich get richer.
But what about small businesses and the people who actually do the work?
The argument over lockdown has, till recently, split along political lines in a very strange way: the left wing Guardian has been the most vocal supporter of Tory policy on lockdown, while the Tory press – the Spectator, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail – have criticised the rulings, which they see as a Nineteen Eighty Four style erosion of civil liberties. That’s because these publications are essentially libertarian: their readers don’t like being told what to do. They voted Tory because Boris gave the impression of being a fun-loving Charles II type, a merry ruler, in contrast to his Puritanical opponent, Jeremy Corbyn. Now, it seems, Boris is leading an authoritarian government which just loves imposing new rules on its bewildered citizens.
Boris has turned Puritan, closing the theatres, cancelling Christmas and making everyone go to bed early. The merry monarch has turned into Oliver Cromwell.
My mother is appalled: “We’re going backwards, to the Middle Ages,” she says. “Dystopia is here.” The Middle Ages was in fact a high point culturally speaking, but I take her point.
So it was very good to read John Harris, writing in the Guardian this week, wondering why the Left has gone quiet on the issue of civil liberties. He pointed out that governments love a crisis: it makes them feel important. We’ve seen this again and again: the war on drugs, the war on terror, Brexit, the Iraq War. It’s Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine”: a crisis gives governments an excuse to do what they love, which is bustle, meddle and control. Anyone who has ever visited the House of Commons will have seen close-up the self-importance of politicians, as they charge from meeting to meeting. Once they have tasted this power, they become reluctant to give it up. A libertarian government is pretty much a contradiction in terms.
It was also good to see a new lefty version of lockdown scepticism in the US socialist magazine, Jacobin. In their current issue, they interview two Harvard epidemiologists, Katherine Yih and Martin Kulldorf. It’s a brilliant piece. Both these scientists oppose the sledgehammer approach of Imperial College’s Neil Ferguson and are fans of the Oxford epidemiologist Sunetra Gupta, who has been a vocal critic of the UK government’s reliance on the scientists from Imperial.
“In my view,” says Yih, “she [Gupta] is the world’s preeminent infectious disease epidemiologist.”
Yih sees blunt lockdown measures as an attack on the people: “I don’t think it’s wise or warranted to keep society locked down until vaccines become available… neither the effectiveness nor the duration of immunity from any of these vaccines is known as yet.”
She goes on to complain that “the Right has so easily been able to appropriate the anti-lockdown position as their own… their stance appeals to a wide range of people who have been hurt by the lockdown.
“Liberal élites, including the Democratic Party establishment, have actively ceded this terrain, instead emphasising the importance of lowering infection rates (across the board) until a vaccine becomes generally available… Liberal élites simply can’t see or can’t feel how this strategy continues to fail the working class and also small business owners.”
That’s because the middle classes generally work for large corporations and large bureaucracies. Most have never been near a small business. And nor have the politicians or their advisors: they get their PAYE cheque every month come what may. The effect on the working class, the precariat and small businesses though is catastrophic. The International Labour Organisation says that what they call “global labour income” has fallen by over 10% or $3.5 trillion.
Do read the Jacobin piece. It really offers a fresh perspective on a very strange situation.
These comments were mailed to us after the above piece was sent as a newsletter. We like to publish a selection and reserve the right to edit them for clarity. Feel free to drop us a line with your thoughts.
We’ve been saying similar for ages. As a working-class site and factory worker who drifted into a middle-class lifestyle through working for a charity, my life has been hardly touched. We had to cancel a holiday in Wales in June. Other than that, telling a middle-aged grumpy old man that he couldn’t socialise was largely a gift.
Not sure how the drinking classes are going to respond? Our local craft ale house has already suggested to its customers that they just come an hour earlier or drink quicker – remember when Sunday was different for closing hours? We just necked more before 10:30pm and then had a ‘Monday club’. Microsoft Teams allows it to look like I’m working when I could be in the pub – just have to remember to mark my diary as ‘busy, do not disturb’. Frank Turner summed it up brilliantly in his ‘Sons of Liberty’ with the reference to the “hollow men” of government – maybe you should learn that on the ukulele?
– Gary Finch
I just went into my local Thai cafe on Great Eastern St in London, which does a cheap, hearty lunch. They gave me lunch in a different container than usual and when I asked why I was told they were going to shut down. It makes me want to weep. Brilliant place, lovely people and wiped out as the offices all around are now empty.
– Ross Clarke
Would it really be sad if Wetherspoons and Greene King go under? Their food is utterly tasteless and their interiors are tacky beyond words. Think of all the entrepreneurs who could re-capture their locals in the wake of a few big corporate bankruptcies. I say everyone stays home, watches the corporates collapse, then invests via the Community Pub Business Support Programme. That’s what our village is doing.
– Jay Brock
Largely I agree, but there’s one aspect I’m not so sure about: For the middle classes, the people who work on computers, lockdown has been a bit of a breeze. We middling sorts have been able to eat organic food, go cycling, read novels, drink craft ale and slow down a bit. The trouble is, I think, we middle class chaps keep walking into a trap. For some, your paragraph is spot on – after all, here in Notting Hill it’s up to its crikey trousers in organic food, big fancy cars and folks with second and even third homes dotted about this country and quite a few others. Many though have big old mortgages, work really hard to keep everything afloat, are often freelance (the TV and theatre industries for example), have themselves set up small businesses and are in huge peril from the effects of this virus and the blundering government’s response. And I worry that generalising that all middle classists are quinoa loving, bread making dillententes isn’t quite fair. After all, it’ll be the managers, planners, civil servants who will ultimately have to navigate this country out of the mess caused by the collision of Brexit and Virus + Incompetence.The middle class gets a bad press from the middle class. I think instead we should turn our ire on the Posh Elite, the rich and privileged who fear the middle class with their pesky education and reliance on knowledge, facts that sort of thing. Some of the middle classes are awful, but I don’t believe most are. Many, many care a great deal.
– Steve Price