As the old adage says, ‘Better late than never’. I think of this in relation to a number of commentaries and essays that have appeared in recent days from the political Left, that at last begin to see the UK state’s appropriation of authoritarian powers, under the cloak of a Covid emergency, for what it is.
This is something that I have been warning about since the early weeks of the pandemic—about the dangers of emergency politics and about the erosion of civil liberties. And over these depressing months I have lamented the silence of those on the political Left, from critical social scientists and from opposition politicians.
The Government’s latest, and successful effort, to enhance its authoritarian credentials has been to mandate vaccine passports, aided and abetted by naïve and unreflexive Covid ‘modellers’, by hyper-cautious science advisors and–not least–by Keir Starmer’s Labour Party who handed Boris Johnson this mandate.
Against this recent move of a right-wing state undermining basic human liberties, two welcome voices are to be heard.
One of these is that of Clive Lewis, who happens to be my MP in Norwich South constituency. Writing on the Labourlist web-site a few days ago, Lewis observes that “The creation of a constant state of emergency [by the Government] is providing cover for the passage of poorly scrutinised policies that are not grounded in a strong evidence base, and that are eroding civil liberties.”
I have been urging Lewis in recent weeks, as my MP, to stand up for the interests of school children by supporting a private Member’s Bill in Parliament that would prevent the Government closing schools in the future.
I am therefore pleased that Lewis goes onto write, “Labour must also challenge the Tory narrative that, nearly two years into the pandemic, we are still in an unavoidable emergency. Experts at the Covid-19 Review Observatory at Birmingham Law School have written about how ‘the urgency that is now claimed and which justifies the emergency introduction of [Covid pass] mandatory use is as much a product of poor legislative planning as it is of the rapidly changing epidemiological situation’”. Lewis bravely voted against the Government’s legislation on 14th December.
The other welcome contribution in recent days is even more incisive and comes from James Meadway, a former political advisor to Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. In an essay titled, ‘Can the left survive Covid?’, Meadway offers one of the more trenchant attacks on Johnson’s Covid diktats I have read. At the same time, he castigates the smug Labour-voting Zero-Covid utopians who have dominated the pages of The Guardian newspaper for the past 21 months. (A version of Meadway’s essay appeared last week in the leading leftist weekly New Statesman).
While I was no supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, whose shadow cabinet Meadway serviced, and whilst I would take issue with some of Meadway’s specific suggestions for a way forward, he is absolutely correct in his analysis of why the political Left has gone missing in action. “Offering political support for the Johnson government was a significant political error [by the political Left] that yet again revealed the extent to which Covid-19 has found the British left intellectually, organisationally, and politically lacking”.
And he is even more damning of the left-intelligentsia, epitomised by Sir David King’s independent SAGE committee, and their utopian dreams of securing a Zero-Covid world. “What we [the political Left] have singularly failed to achieve so far is to describe that redefinition in conditions where covid is a long-term fact of life. “Zero Covid” is a demand to pretend otherwise, regardless of economic and social cost; it is the state-centred inverse of the market-centred Qeuerdenken commitment to the same illusion. Both depend on the bad, utopian idea that Covid can be simply removed from our lives”.
Meadway goes on by making a very apt comparison with climate change: “But by this point we can no more banish Covid than we can now halt climate change: the question for both by now is fair and effective restraint and management, not abolition. The point isn’t to do nothing about either. It’s to do what will work.”
Having written much on this question of managing climate change, I couldn’t agree more.
I greatly welcome these new voices, echoing arguments I have made on this blog over the last 18 months. I am only left to wonder why has it taken so long – nearly two years – for salient voices on the political Left to waken to the threats to basic human freedoms created by a power-usurping authoritarian Conservative government?
My fear, however, is that it is too little, too late. The damage has already been done—to our democracy, to our children’s future, to the cultural fabric of our nation–and the damage will be lasting. For this I blame a compliant and cowardly political opposition and a shocking absence of critical voices from within the academy to challenge the British Government’s appropriation of unprecedented powers of state control and surveillance.
As one of my colleagues, whose family escaped the USSR in the 1970s, put it to me, “My mother and I never imagined that we would see Soviet instruments of state power and control being exercised in a nation such as Britain”.
Mike Hulme, 22 December 2021