‘Common sense is not good enough, Prime Minister – Joyce McMillan

When Boris Johnson’s urged people to go back to work he failed in a basic duty of government, writes Joyce McMillan

Boris Johnson is trying to project himself as both a caring and cautious PM and a gung-ho free marketeer (Picture: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images)

WHEN THE history of this traumatic decade in British and world politics comes to be written, Boris Johnson will doubtless be remembered, at least in part, as the Prime Minister who notoriously spent a weekend, back in February 2016, writing two version of his regular Daily Telegraph column. One version supported the Vote Leave campaign in the coming EU referendum, and the other put the opposite case. Johnson eventually chose to back Vote Leave, for reasons widely believed to have more to do with his Tory leadership ambitions than with any real conviction that departure from the EU would benefit the British people; and I though of this episode again, this week, as I read my way through the text of the Prime Minister’s speech to the nation, delivered last Sunday night.

For the fact is that for most of its length, the speech is a straightforward and slightly subdued account of the situation, like a rephrased version of what Nicola Sturgeon or any other politician might say at this time. It emphasises how little we still know about the virus, how essential the lockdown has been in slowing infection rates and protecting the NHS, and how crazy it would be to put that slowdown at risk; it ends with appeals to caution, and a reminder that “coming down the mountain is often more dangerous”.

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And yet in the middle of the speech, there are a couple of paragraphs that read as though they have been copied and pasted from a completely different text; one in which a gung-ho Boris Johnson effectively announces the end of lockdown, and sends a cheering nation back to work and play.

In the first of these paragraphs, Johnson suddenly announces that those who can’t work from home should be “actively encouraged to go to work”; and in the second he advises them, nonetheless, not to go to work by public transport, but to walk, cycle or dtive, before appealing for people to use the “common sense and patience” they have shown so far, in helping to navigate the transition out of lockdown.

And for all his fine and indeed “sensible” words elsewhere, what Boris Johnson effectively does, in these paragraphs, is to kick away the props of government support from millions of people, in the UK, who do not want to return to work until they feel safe doing so; as well as from those who – if they do return to work – have little option but to use public transport, and those who simply cannot return to work until schools and nurseries can safely reopen.

It brutally discriminates against women, who are more likely to have childcare responsibilities. It discriminates against poorer households, whose members are much less likely to be able to drive to work. And it removes vital legal support, during this lockdown, from everyone whose working conditions – in insecure or zero-hours jobs, or non-unionised workplaces – have been negatively affected by the systematic deregulation of the British job market, over the last 40 years.

It’s an appeal to the nation’s common sense, in other words – and to our natural preference for making our own decisions – which shows a profound indifference to, and denial of, the real structures of power in our society; an indifference which is not uncommon in Conservative politics, but which in this instance could simply be lethal for the millions who, once the Government has said people should be encouraged to go to work, simply do not have the power to say no, if they want to stay in their employer’s good books. It’s also a decision that puts workers in England in a strikingly different situation to those elsewhere in the UK; and it’s not surprising that unionist politicians, including Scottish Conservative leader Jackson Carlaw, have been asking Scotland’s First Minister why, and on the basis of what scientific data, she will not follow Boris Johnson’s.

Yet as the First Minister made clear in the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday, in a situation of such uncertainty, the scientific advice can only take our leading politicians so far. The rest is a matter of judgment; and the truth is that all the reasons for Nicola Sturgeon’s caution are absolutely clearly laid out in Boris Johnson’s own speech – that the UK is barely past the peak of what is now the worst coronavirus epidemic in Europe, that our knowledge of how the virus is most likely to be transmitted is still sketchy, and that we have not yet had time to put in place the basic support mechanisms, particularly in transport and education, that might make it possible to ask everyone to return to work, without unacceptable risks.

It seems to me as clear as it can be, in other words, that given the current UK death rate, and our obvious lack of preparedness for a fair and safe return to work, the First Minister and her colleagues in Wales and Northern Ireland are in the right of the argument, for now. And as for Boris Johnson – well, his skill at sending out usefully mixed signals is one of the secrets of his political success; he has projected himself as both a cosmopolitan European and a bulldog British nationalist, both a social liberal and an incorrigible dog-whistler to the racist right, both a one-nation Tory fond of big-spending government, and a darling of the small-state, low-tax Tory right.

Now, he is trying to project himself as both the caring and cautious PM steering the nation through an unprecedented threat, and as the gung-ho free-marketeer who wants to lift restrictions, and let workers fend for themselves; whether he gets away with it will depend on the virus itself, and on aspects of its prevalence and behaviour which are still unknown to us. And it’s because of that profound uncertainty that, at the moment, I am glad of Nicola Sturgeon’s steady hand on Scotland’s tiller; not changing her bearings as yet, and not trying to shift responsiblity from her shoulders to ours, but continuing, at least for now, to provide the strong government support we need in this crisis, in doing what seems safest for ourselves, for our communities, and for those we love.

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