It is the end of January 2021, and the UK has reached an official death toll from Covid of over 100,000 people. People are asking what went so wrong.
Whilst the obvious answers are all about decisions, timing, and science, I believe a deeper problem lies at the heart of this. The UK government is deeply ideological, and focussed on a single issue. There was never any scope in Boris Johnson’s government to achieve anything more than leaving the European Union.
The prime minister and his government are ideological libertarians to the point that the ideology clouds everything else. Brexit is partly caused by that underlying libertarianism — a desire not to be subject to laws and regulations from Europe. For Johnson, Brexit has always been about his own career. Getting Brexit done on time, regardless of the damage it might cause, mattered because it was the promise that finally gave him the keys to Downing Street. I have already written about how insisting on completing a Brexit deal by December 31st, in the midst of the pandemic, was a terrible failure of priorities.
The deadline for a Brexit deal should have been delayed so the government could focus completely on saving lives and the economy during this crisis. Achieving a deal with the EU by December 31st was an entirely politically driven ambition. Consequently, an already hapless and vague prime minister, known for his lack of interest in details, stretched himself between recovering from a serious Covid infection, having a child, managing the pandemic, and completing a Brexit deal. Any rational, intelligent government would have put all other major activities on hold to deal with the pandemic.
But this is not a rational, intelligent government. Their incompetence and bad decision-making are hardwired into the ideology that drives Johnson and his team. They represent the extremist-wing of traditional Conservative libertarianism, and this lies behind Brexit, their slow response to the pandemic, and the low calibre and inexperience of Johnson’s cabinet.
Dogmatic libertarianism has led the government to make poor decisions because what was needed to stop the spread of the pandemic was intrinsically anti-libertarian. It is also responsible for the incompetence, because any government driven primarily by a single ideology hires and promotes people for their ideology not their talent. The government was elected on a single agenda, to ‘get Brexit done,’ and the cabinet was chosen by Boris Johnson for that purpose. Getting Brexit done did not require skill, it just needed people with an unwavering belief in Brexit.
The pandemic did not need to be like this for the UK. Australia, also an island, with a population of 25.3m, has had 909 deaths. The UK, with a population of 66.6m has seen over 100,000 deaths. The government’s constant refrain was that it was ‘following the science.’ But in reality, that scientific advice was tempered by political considerations and ideology — it was not politically popular to call a lockdown, and went against libertarian ideals. Other countries, like New Zealand, where scientists worked alongside the politicians, and the political leaders were genuinely led by the scientists, have fared far better than the UK. New Zealand, another island, with a population of 5m, had only 25 deaths.
The government claim there was no textbook to follow, and decisions would have been different with hindsight, but there was a precedent, and there was a textbook. Taiwan used it and has suffered just 7 deaths from a population of 23m. The death of over 100,000 people was clearly not inevitable, and was avoidable.
The main criticism from the Labour party, and some media outlets has been how slow Boris Johnson’s government has been to act, whether it be on lockdowns, to protect care homes, mandating mask wearing and social distancing, or restricting travel. This hesitance to mandate what needed to be done lies in its libertarianism.
A dislike of the ‘The Nanny State’ has always been part of the Conservative party. The Nanny State tells you that you must wear a seat belt, should not smoke, should eat more vegetables. Libertarian conservatives believe you should let people make their own choices, and that people will generally make the right choices.
The party’s libertarianism underpinned the populism that has developed in the UK since 2016, and has been seized upon by Johnson as his route to power. Populism and libertarianism are connected, in that populism says the government should do what the populace want, and libertarianism says the government should not dictate to the populace to do what it wants.
Johnson’s libertarianism is shared by many of his colleagues, especially the more extremist Brexiteers, and members of his cabinet such as those who co-authored the free-market, libertarian tract, Britannia Unchained. A populist and libertarian government, pandering to nationalism and exceptionalism, and addressing made-up concerns about Europe becomes a government led by an ideology rather than by a pragmatic response to the world around it.
Both Theresa May and Johnson’s focus on ideology over talent ruled out promoting some very capable politicians and led to some really incompetent people taking leadership roles. Theresa May promoted to cabinet the utterly useless but very loyal Chris Grayling, and the notoriously ineffective first Brexit negotiator, David Davis, who was brilliantly satirised by the BBC’s Dead Ringers as the ‘Brexit Bulldog, Master Negotiator.’ Failing Grayling, and the Brexit Bulldog may have been good for comedy, but in reality they were running the country, and caused untold damage.
After Boris Johnson achieved his ambition and became prime minister, he left behind May’s need for a cabinet balanced equally between Leavers and Remainers and was able to throw himself into ‘getting Brexit done,’ — his own populist one-liner. As with ‘Brexit means Brexit,’ ‘get Brexit done’ also didn’t really mean anything. These emotive but empty phrases trap populist politicians into delivering whatever other people think they mean.
Johnson went full-Brexit, and again hired for ideology over ability. He purged his party, not only his cabinet, of prominent Remainers. The problem was, as Brexit doesn’t really make sense intellectually, and demands experts to be ignored, the Remainers he purged were generally the intellectual heavyweights of his party; the moderate, thoughtful, principled politicians, such as Ken Clarke.
It has always been the case in history that populist, ideological revolutions have to purge the intellectuals. This happened with the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, more recently in Turkey, and of course in Trump’s America. Thought, consideration, and knowledge generally lead to moderation and compromise, so can never align with populism. Populism is equivalent to feeding children sweets all day because it makes them happy, rather than vegetables because it makes them healthy.
England has consequently ended up with a notoriously incompetent but ambitious prime minister, supported by a cabinet of people with very little experience in government who were hired primarily for their loyalty and ideology. Gordon Brown, the former prime minister, once said that a time of crisis ‘is no time for a novice.’ Parliament has plenty of experienced, competent people, but they are not in the cabinet because they are not ideologs. In previous existential crises, governments of national unity were formed to avoid politics affecting decision making, and to enable the very best people in parliament to manage the crisis, regardless of their ideology or politics.
This government’s handling of the pandemic has been disastrous from the start. The underlying libertarianism is the reason the government was late to impose necessary and urgent restrictions. Throughout the pandemic, ministers have said that they can rely on the good sense of the British people to do the right thing. They said this about wearing masks, before caving in and making it mandatory. They were saying this in the lead up to Christmas, when they initially took the libertarian and politically popular — populist — decision to relax restrictions for 5 days over Christmas, despite scientists and doctors warning, and then begging them not to do this. They said they could rely on the good sense of people to do the right thing. As has been their pattern, once pragmatism gets the better of the libertarianism, they had to reverse their decision at the last minute.
This government has allowed its ideological obsessions to cloud its decision making, and Johnson’s thirst for power and libertarianism has led him to hire inexperienced and inadequate ministers. A rigid ideology often makes up for a lack of intellectual depth and the ability to think independently. Dogmatism is reliant on a lack of flexibility of thought; flexibility of thought is a biproduct of an intellectual and curious mind. A more intellectually capable government would have been able to put aside their ideology and politics and rise to this challenged. This government has failed to see beyond their dogmatism, failed to bring in expertise beyond their immediate networks, and failed to be pragmatic, all at a terrible cost.