The thing about Johnson is that he desperately wanted to become prime minister, and he desperately wanted to have been prime minister. It’s just the bit in between he struggles with (Marina Hyde).
BORIS Johnson’s approval rating on 8 April, in the middle of his hospitalisation, was at 47%. By 25 May it was -1%, dropping twenty of those points in just the four previous days. His defence of Dominic Cummings has had a profound effect on us, and it’s not going away. The effect was reinforced as government ministers (Gove, Raab, Sunak …) queued obediently to publish their bland statements of support. The Attorney General is worth special mention as she re-tweeted the Downing Street statement that the senior adviser had behaved ‘responsibly and legally’, thereby undermining the independence of her office.
What matters is the ‘us and them’ implication. As some of ‘us’ now want to join ‘them’, the prime minister seems to have favoured his adviser over the nation’s health. The dodginess of the detail, aggravated by the rose garden appearance is one thing, the absence of morality and responsibility another. In another queue, Tory backbenchers, church ministers and all manner of well-known folk lined up to condemn the non-sacking, while an Opinium poll shows 81% of people believe Dominic Cummings broke the rules. Twenty-six top public health leaders and scientists have written to Johnson, ‘very concerned for the safety and wellbeing of the public’ fearing ‘trust has been badly damaged’.
All of a sudden we found ourselves moving to test and trace (‘world-beating’ according to Johnson) four days earlier than expected, except there is no promised App (currently rather unsophisticated and of limited use anyway) ready yet. Matt Hancock didn’t deny the premature launch was devised as a distraction, ignored a question about the implication of GDPR (general data protection regulations), and confidently declared that only a very small percentage of people would find the system intrusive. Also on launch day, the BBC interviewed a Sheffield GP involved in a small independent trace pilot in the city, and discovered a downside was people’s unwillingness to disclose their contacts; in particular managers were telling NHS employees who tested positive that they couldn’t for confidentiality reasons.
A recruit to the test and trace workforce reports technological problems in accessing the system, and training which was inadequate for the job. In the two weeks they were employed and paid, including launch day, they had done no work; while, at the daily briefing ‘Boris Johnson told the nation all was well’ with the scheme. This recruit has now quit.
As Parliament returns after recess to a chamber allowing a maximum of 50 attendees to comply with physical distancing, the government plans to end all remote voting (though this measure needs voting in first). This would mean vulnerable MPs being unable to vote or having to put their health at risk. This, if it happens, will raise legal questions about health and safety, and human rights, and be at odds with work from home guidance.
I could go on.
On Friday nights I immerse myself in satirical round-ups of the week’s news. Ian Hislop was beside himself and on magnificent form in ‘Have I Got News For You’ last week. Adam Hills on ‘The Last Leg’ observed that we turn to humour at times like this. Please see photograph above.
ON Thursday, Nicola Sturgeon announced that Scotland would be moving into phase one of our exit from lockdown and beginning the essential test and trace scheme. In a very clear diagram on Twitter she lists the new regulations including, ‘1 other household/8 people max’ and ‘stay safe in the sun’.
With the unpredictability of Scottish summer weather it’s a blessing that the first day out of lockdown was gloriously hot with clear blue skies. From my window, I can see floods of people with picnics and iced coffees from my favourite café along the road piling into Queen’s Park to enjoy the sun and see friends. I’m so glad we’ve been given some relief and the chance to visit loved ones. However, I feel angry that I can clearly see people from multiple households meeting up and not at a 2 metre distance. I know that people might indeed be suffering from behavioural fatigue after so many weeks of restraint, but it feels selfish when there are vulnerable people still shielding and key workers still risking their lives.
‘Please be responsible,’ Nicola implores us. Even worse, the Daily Record reported on Sunday that Loch Lomond locals have been forced indoors by flocks of visitors from Glasgow and further afield flouting the travelling distance rules by visiting the area. All throughout lockdown it seems that Scotland has been used as a retreat, many people visiting their holiday homes rather than staying in larger cities. A move of the privileged lacking conscience that has aided the spread of the virus. A brief note here about Dominic Cummings (because I can’t help myself and it does require continued mention) that after his Durham visit there was a significant increase in the reported number of coronavirus cases in the area. You can make up your own mind about that fact.
To return to Nicola Sturgeon’s Twitter account, which mainly consists of encouraging the Scottish people, thanking them and reminding them of the rules, on Saturday there appeared a re-tweet of Lord Digby Jones. The nauseating Tory back bencher decided that Nicola had not been cutting her own hair because it looked so immaculate during lockdown. Some kind of strange back-handed compliment perhaps? No chance. Just another case of a woman being criticised not only on her physical appearance but on her morals and ability to do her job as well. I imagine that Lord Digby Jones probably finds the derogatory nickname ‘Nippy Sweetie’ (that she was given when she began her parliamentary career) entirely amusing.
‘You find yourself emulating the traits that in men are seen as strengths. Then you quickly realise that in women they are not seen as strengths,’ she explains. Anyway, water off a duck’s back: Nicola denounces the lord’s claim as, ‘a bit weird tbh’ and later posts a picture of herself cutting her own hair as evidence that not only can she successfully run a country through a pandemic, but that she’s also a very skilled hairdresser.
POLITICS matters, leadership matters, we matter! I think that sometimes people think it is all inconsequential, we can’t affect or change things, things will carry on – in the words of my (our) mother ‘things will work out alright in the end.’
So, we could just sit back and let our ‘leaders’ get on with it and not question their actions, not question or analyse their decisions. We could, but it would be wrong.
A few weeks ago, on this blog, I wrote about my respect and admiration for the way leaders here in France have led the country through this difficult time. M. Macron, I said, spoke well on TV, presenting firm leadership through admitting mistakes, and saying how things were going to be put right. I felt that here was a man who understood what was going on, had his finger on the pulse and was doing a good job.
In the meantime he has had some problems: he has been accused of favouring his friends in allowing them to open up their theme park to visitors ahead of other theme parks; he has lost his majority in Parliament as some of his party’s deputies have formed a splinter party; he has been accused of favouring a government minister in allowing him to be a mayor as well as a minister. The new political party has actually said they will support Macron – so it is hard to see in what sense they have ‘splintered’! And the other things are just run-of-the-mill politics, it seems to me.
The government continues to present a common front, gradually and carefully unlocking the confinement, considering every step carefully, keeping an eye on how it is going. Information is controlled in its delivery and there is a sense of unity coming from those giving us the information. We know that people could face lockdown again, if the deaths rise, and that localised enforcement of this could come from the police – who would forcefully, but politely, remove people from beaches if there were too many of them sunbathing, for example. It feels managed, controlled, confidence-raising not confidence-diminishing.
Contrast that with what I see happening in the UK!
In the country of my birth I see leadership out of control – mismanagement by underqualified, inexperienced individuals in post because they subscribe to the doctrine of Brexit, not because they have any ability. Epitomising this is the Rasputin-like image of Dominic Cummings who participates in formulating the rules and then feels free to break them, finding an escape clause later. And then all the posh, rich boys (misplaced in government) rally round and say he broke no rules – no doubt it worked on the playground at Eton and they think it will continue to work now. Where are the moral values, where is the truthful underpinning of society? Of course, he broke a rule, or several, but it seems the way to address this is to say he didn’t, not to ‘fess up but to deny. I feel we have hit an even lower moral depth than the 350 million pounds on the side of the bus.
Leadership matters, truthfulness and honesty matter – but where can we find these values these days?
DEFINITIONS of good national leadership are numerous. Mine would include an ability to identify the common good, and clearly justify and articulate the measures necessary to attain and defend it; and then, in a reasoned and measured manner, persuade citizens to co-operate. Underlying this should be realism accompanied by hope.
If this is accepted as valid, then there has been little or no leadership in South Africa during lockdown. Many would make an exception for Cyril Ramaphosa. He certainly adopts the right mannerisms and phrases, although possibly many people are tiring of his frequent televised appearances. But he appears increasingly weak.
The ANC is the ‘ruling party’ as it constantly reminds us; rather than the party of government. Its National Coronavirus Command Centre is now routinely abbreviated to National Command Centre and there is a growing belief it will be with us long after the virus is controlled; no doubt to handle the subsequent long-term economic disaster. After all, this is a vanguard party. Leadership virtues are not part of the package.
There used to be a joke during Rhodesia’s UDI in the 1970s that cabin crew on incoming flights would announce ‘We are about to land in Salisbury. The local time is 1945.’ The ANC is similarly trapped in a time warp around the concept of democratic centralism. There may be a semblance of consultation but a decision is made and passed downwards as ‘the line’. I remember it all too well from 1990. Once the ANC was legalised the ‘line’ from what was to become Luthuli House was that United Democratic Front affiliates and other anti-apartheid organisations were to be rolled up. And so they were.
Toeing the line was, and is, mandatory. When the scientific adviser Glenda Gray criticised the government’s lockdown policy, a Department of Health apparatchik was successfully able to demand she be investigated and general kowtowing began. This was blatant undermining of academic freedom and the alarm bells are ringing very loudly. No leadership here, but an attack on the Bill of Rights. Combating the virus is not simply a public health campaign, but an ANC project that in many ways holds the key to its future survival.
The ANC is an essentially anti-democratic organisation. Democracy was simply a route to power, not a fundamental political belief. No organisation rooted in internal democracy or external commitment to the rule of law could tolerate looting of the national wealth, much of it by its own members, to the tune of one trillion Rand. It is today dominated by gangsters and racketeers despite the emollient tones of Ramaphosa.
The chances of it providing significant leadership in a public health crisis were always low and so it has proved. The ANC’s approach has been to command, issuing and enforcing contradictory, often totally irrelevant, orders. The performances of some individuals have been incompetent, even apparently deranged, but no doubt consistent with the ‘line’. Conspiracy theorists suspect a long-term agenda to use lockdown as a means to destroy the economy and reconstruct it from ashes in suitably revolutionary style, something even beyond the ambitions of Venezuela and Zimbabwe.
It is probable that the protection of the Constitution will prevent such a radical outcome. But it would be entirely consistent with the hectoring, vanguardist manner in which the government has conducted lockdown. There have been an astonishing 230 000 arrests in nine weeks for regulation infringement. In a sense they offer hope: clearly many South Africans are not prepared to meekly accept dictated irrationality.
Contributions from Sheffield by Penny Merrett, Glasgow by Caitlin Merrett King, Sallèles d’Aude by Jonathan Merrett and Pietermaritzburg by Christopher Merrett.