Coronavirus: Boris Johnson's Government needs support in fight against this disease – Kenny MacAskill

Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street for the House of Commons for Prime Minister's Questions (Picture: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire)Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street for the House of Commons for Prime Minister's Questions (Picture: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire)
Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street for the House of Commons for Prime Minister's Questions (Picture: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire)
Just as Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee was happy to support Winston Churchill in the nation’s time of need, I and others can do likewise with Boris Johnson as the Government wages war on the coronavirus, writes Kenny MacAskill

“Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me” sprang to mind when I heard Richard Branson demanding a bailout for the airlines. It’s over a decade now since we bailed out the banks and what thanks did we get? Outrageous bonuses continued aplenty while better treatment of customers and communities there was not. Circumstances, to be fair, are different now but the underlying principles remain the same.

I’ve no doubt airlines face going to the wall but so do businesses both big and small. Moreover, so do ordinary citizens forced to pay for the bank bailout with years of enforced austerity. Government support there must be, but the question is to whom and on what conditions.

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When this has passed, as it will, there’ll be a need for airlines as travel takes off again. But other forms of transportation are also feeling the pinch. My train to London earlier this week was eerily quiet, other routes will be likewise. And it’s not just the travel sector but across almost every walk of life for this, as is repeatedly said, is unprecedented.

So, support for business there will have to be, but so must there be assistance for the workers put on short time or laid off. It can’t be public misery to sustain private profit, which sadly seemed the fallout from the banking crisis. Put cash in to keep big businesses afloat but take them or over or at least demand a share in them to be repaid or sold at a later date.

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That is, after all, what will happen to members of the public. They need support and more of it as it’s going to be essential both for workers and small business. But it’ll have to be paid back at a future date whether in direct or indirect taxation. There’ll be a reckoning for us all.

Hence why support for big business from the public purse must be on condition that they deliver much greater future returns than simply a promise to be a bit more forthcoming on corporation tax. Too many have fooled us before with that ruse and left the PAYE taxpayer to pay their share as corporation tax returns proved strangely elusive or even non-existent.

Equal suffering, equal shares

During the Brexit debate, I found the wartime references positively distasteful. They were both bellicose and bordering on the xenophobic about people that are our friends or allies, whether we’re in or out of the EU.

But there’s a closer analogy to the Second World War experience with these troubled times. To sustain total war, there had to be not just fair shares of suffering but more equal shares in a future world. It was during that period that our welfare state was created, and even fledgling state institutions began to be devised here in Scotland by Tom Johnston, undoubtedly our greatest ever Secretary of State. They would transform the lives of huge numbers of our people and huge parts of our land for the better, both sides of the border.

I’ve no doubt it wouldn’t have been established to the extent it was had Churchill not Attlee won the election in 1945. But some things, like nationalisation and some universal benefits, were already being delivered and even the Tories would have had to deliver or maintain some of them. It was the price to be paid for a People’s War. Dealing with this coronavirus crisis requires similar commitments.

All must endure and therefore all must be able to benefit when it’s past. We need to provide for all and to be fair the Tory Government have moved with welcome announcements, not just on statutory sick pay but on ESA and universal credit. Similarly, recognising the need to provide for those in the supposed “gig economy” is also both laudable and vital. The challenges are across all our society, not just the corporate sector.

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There’s still a distance to travel and it’ll need to be seen how these directions play out in practice. But it’s a welcome move all the same.

It can well be argued that immediate access to these benefits should have been available before this crisis as hardship and misery were being endured by many. I certainly think so, but that aside, it’ll be hard to remove them once they’re in as happened with wartime benefits. They become the norm and, having paid a price, all are entitled to demand a return.

How ironic that a dose of socialisation is being prescribed by what was ostensibly the most right-wing administration in living memory. But as Attlee was happy to support Churchill in the nation’s time of need, I and others can do likewise with Johnson. But he has to up his game and show he’s a Churchill, not a Chamberlain.

Kenny MacAskill is SNP MP for East Lothian