UK’s lack of integrity pushing Scotland towards independence – Joyce McMillan

The case for the Union is being lost in Westminster as Britain becomes a laughing stock and Cabinet ministers help their billionaire friends, writes Joyce McMillan.

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has denied wrongdoing in the alleged ‘cash for favours’ affair (Picture: Kirsty Wigglesworth, AP)
Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has denied wrongdoing in the alleged ‘cash for favours’ affair (Picture: Kirsty Wigglesworth, AP)

The House of Commons, Wednesday lunchtime; and a blustering Boris Johnson demands, in the manner of one scoring a winning point in a school debate, that the Labour leader Keir Starmer name a country which has a better test-and-trace app up and running than the UK. “Germany,” says Starmer without hesitation, briefly listing the achievements of Germany’s Covid app since its launch 11 days ago.

It’s the kind of exchange that has recently been winning warm reviews for Starmer within the Westminster bubble. What is interesting about this exchange, though, is that since Wednesday, the 20-second video of it has gone viral not only among opponents of the current UK Government at home, but across Germany, and other parts of Europe; contributing to a growing international narrative of incompetence and incoherence in British government that has been gaining strength ever since the Brexit vote of 2016.

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It’s probably true that the United Kingdom, as states go, has never been particularly well-loved among its international allies; it was always perceived as a shade arrogant, and inclined to regard itself as a perennial exception, rather than partner among fellow nations. Until very recently, though, that irritation was generally combined, at least among governments, with a certain respect for Britain’s 20th-century role in defeating fascism, for its relatively long and unbroken history as some kind of parliamentary democracy, and for its post-imperial diplomatic skill in using its substantial influence, within the European Union, to steer the EU toward the kind of free-market thinking British governments tended to prefer.

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Since 2016, though, that British reputation for strong and reliable, pragmatic statecraft has all but disappeared; and not, sadly, for reasons that can lightly be dismissed as mere international begrudgery. The Brexit vote itself was a symptom of the declining quality of British public debate, as a largely fictional anti-immigration narrative began to dominate the field, following the general election of 2010; but in truth, the seeds of a deterioration in British government had been sown back in the 1980s, with the election of an anti-state government, under Margaret Thatcher, which firmly believed that the private sector could almost always run everything better, and at a lower price.

This proposition rapidly turned out to be false, particularly when it came to large natural monopolies. By the end of 18 Tory years, though, in 1997, a whole new landscape of “parasite companies” had grown up, thriving on money-spinning contracts to provide what used to be state services, and proving very difficult to discipline or sanction even when they spectacularly failed to deliver; and the idea that there were big bucks to be made out of this privatisation dividend, along with substantial personal fortunes for senior executives, had become embedded in the British model of capitalism. Worse, the web of financial and personal relationships between these companies, their allies in the financial sector and the institutions of British government grew ever closer, in ways that inevitably began to erode the independence of the civil service.

Small wonder that companies like Serco, which was put in charge of the failed Covid tracing app abruptly withdrawn last week by the British government, never seem to face serious sanctions, even when identified – as Serco was last year – as having committed serious fraud involving a government contract. Fines are paid out of profits, and the companies continue, with wealthy senior executives moving seamlessly between the public and private sectors, picking up multiple high salaries at every point almost regardless of performance.

And this is the system that has gradually corroded both the quality and the integrity of British government, to the point where it’s perhaps not surprising that we have ended up with a Prime Minister whose natural habitat is this world of boss-class impunity and near-kleptocracy. It is in this world that a minister like Robert Jenrick sees nothing wrong in helping a billionaire like Richard Desmond avoid paying £45 million into the public coffers of a cash-starved London borough. It is in this world that some of his colleagues defend him.

And it is in this world, of course – the world of cash-starved public health departments and elderly care, of a struggling NHS, and of chronic low pay, job insecurity and poverty across whole sectors of the economy – that Britain becomes one of the states that has failed in confronting the coronavirus epidemic, and that now, alongside the United States and Brazil, boasts one of the highest death tolls in the world.

Now of course, many of the people of Britain – indifferent to international comparisons, and ill-served by the nationalistic assumptions of many sections of the media – will glimpse these uncomfortable truths only fleetingly.

The point is, though, that others see them; from the New York Times pouring scorn on Britain’s claims to a “world-beating” Covid app, to Michel Barnier reporting his repeated failure to find any “substance” in Britain’s contribution to the Brexit negotiations, to those Germans happily retweeting the ruthless exposure, in parliament, of the sheer emptiness of the Prime Minister’s public-school bluster. This week the Bank of America forecast that the pound sterling risks falling to the status of an “emerging nation” currency, such is the scale of the economic crisis we face.

And we in Scotland – well, we see it too. We see a Scottish Government which, while far from irreproachable, still stands at some distance from the web of compulsive elite self-enrichment which increasingly ensnares Westminster; a Scottish Government that could rightly have claimed this week that its longer Covid-19 lockdown, following WHO guidelines, has now reduced Scotland’s rate of deaths and infections to barely a third of that in England. It has long been said, by wise observers, that it’s not so much that the case for Scottish independence is being won in Edinburgh, as that the case for the Union is being lost in London.

And anyone observing the Westminster Government in its current state – presiding over an economic and health disaster at home, increasingly mocked and pitied abroad, and still pursuing a ruinous hard Brexit amid the economic catastrophe of the Covid epidemic – would be hard put to disagree.

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