UK Covid Inquiry sheds a devastatingly bright light on just how broken the British government system truly is – Joyce McMillan
Four weeks from now, an extraordinary group of writers, thinkers and politicians will be gathering in Edinburgh, led by speakers including the MPs Caroline Lucas and Clive Lewis, Leanne Woods of Plaid Cymru, and the great former Scotsman journalist Neal Ascherson, among many others. The occasion is a conference designed to salute the memory of the mighty Scots political philosopher, academic and internationalist Tom Nairn, who died in January this year, aged 90; I should declare an interest in the conference, in that like other speakers, I have played a minor advisory role in setting it up.
In a nod to Nairn’s most famous book, the title of the event will be The Break-Up Of Britain? – although the question mark, not present in Nairn’s original 1977 title, is significant. And of all the subjects up for discussion, one stands out as getting to the heart of the matter, so far as the UK is concerned: the question “do we have to break up to shape up?” To many, of course, this question will seem foolish. The great British tradition, after all, is to assume that long episodes of bad governance can be put right by a simple change of government – in this case by kicking out Rishi Sunak, and replacing him with Keir Starmer.
Yet if you want a sense of just how dysfunctional British government has become, it is worth paying some attention – amid all the other shocking events of this autumn – to the current proceedings of the UK Covid Inquiry, chaired by former judge Baroness Hallett. According to official figures, 229,756 people have died of Covid in the UK since 2020 – the highest death toll in western Europe, and one of the highest death rates per million of population; and the picture of the early weeks of the pandemic emerging from the Covid Inquiry is one of a government entirely unequal to a crisis on this scale, riven by internal rivalries and enmities, often contemptuous of expert opinion, and blundering into error after error of judgment, in a way that undoubtedly cost lives.
If the UK’s death rate per million had been held at the same level as Germany’s, for example, more than a third of those lost during the pandemic, or more than 70,000 people, would have survived. The inquiry is making it clear that that trauma is very far from being forgotten; and that there are many – perhaps even a majority – who are still quietly enraged by a government which not only partied while others were obeying heartbreaking Covid restrictions, but appeared to have no legible system for dealing with the crisis, beyond desperate appeals to the Prime Minister to listen to scientific advice and make some decisions, followed by agonising waits to see which unelected member of his kitchen cabinet, or which newspaper column, Boris Johnson would choose to heed that day.
As a decision-making system in a crisis, in other words, it was a disgrace; and the point about all of this is that it reveals a system in which Prime Ministerial power, always substantial, has now simply run out of control, with “gentlemen’s agreements” about how the British constitution should work torn up in pursuit of ideological crusades – against the state, against essential government spending, against the civil service, against “experts”, against the European Union – that have trashed Britains reputation for rational government, while encouraging the appointment of third-rate ministers and MPs who merely nod along to the Prime Minister’s decisions, however questionable.
Now of course, it is to be hoped that an incoming Labour government would do better. A nation claiming to be a 21st-century democracy, though, should perhaps be wondering whether merely hoping that our rulers will behave better is enough, in the face of an abuse of power, and a failure of day-to-day democratic consultation that has been accumulating in British politics for 40 years and more. It was Tony Blair 20 years ago, after all, who was criticised for his habit of “sofa government”, for not keeping minutes of vital meetings, and for the pattern of lone decision-making and intense top-down party management that led to the disaster of the Iraq War.
All of which suggests that if the manifest and exceptional abuses of recent years are to be avoided in future, something more is needed than a few ethical pledges from Keir Starmer, who will face the same pressures as past British premiers to make fast and poorly tested decisions in a small inner circle, and to run his government to suit not the best interests of the British people, but the worst prejudices of the noisiest sections of the British media.
So does Britain need to break up, in order to shape up? Perhaps not; all modern governments are subject to similar pressures, as the recent history of the SNP shows. The painstaking work of the Covid Inquiry, though, is showing us a system of government now in desperate need of a level of reform in which Keir Starmer seems increasingly uninterested. If an explanation is needed of why support for Scottish independence remains high, despite the SNP’s current travails, it’s partly because for around half of Scottish voters, that sense of British government as broken and dysfunctional has become pervasive, along with the knowledge that most of of our north European neighbours do better.
And unless those issues are soon addressed at Westminster, in a radical and convincing style, that perception will continue to corrode belief that the UK in its present form has much of a future; and to encourage those – like Tom Nairn – who would like to see the whole island community refounded on a less centralised and more confederal basis, that at last fully recognises the sovereignty of the people, in all four of its parts.
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