The UK has passed a terrible milestone: 100,000 people have died from coronavirus. Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the nation on Tuesday night that he had done his best to protect us from the pandemic. “Heaven help us,” many must have thought, if the last year of policy blunders is really the best we can expect from this government. Britain, one of the richest countries in the world, now has one of the highest COVID death rates on the planet.
How did we get here? For sure, the level of government incompetence is staggering. Virtually every decision – be it on lockdowns, travel restrictions, school closures, even guidance on mask-wearing – has been forced on the government only at the moment when to do anything else would have been utterly catastrophic. As late as March last year, Johnson boasted of shaking hands with COVID-19 patients in a hospital.
But it is not simply blunders that have led Britain to this desperate place. Rather, Johnson’s actions are based on his world view, ingrained in him by his privileged upbringing, which harks back to the “heyday” of Britain’s Empire. For much of the 19th century, the ideology embraced by Britain’s ruling class was known as “laissez-faire” – stressing minimal government intervention in the economy and, instead, allowing the market to dictate what society would produce (and for whom).
Famines from Ireland to Bengal were all but ignored through the idea that any government action was sure to make things worse. Millions died, not through lack of food per se, but because the starving did not have enough money to pay for the food that existed, and so that food was shipped elsewhere, to those who could pay for it.
A similar approach was taken closer to home too. From the satanic mills of industrial Manchester to the Victorian slums of London, people’s lifespan was slashed as capitalists and landlords employed and housed people in the most horrific conditions. Heaven forbid that government should regulate to prevent this squalor – that would only “make things worse”.
Johnson is fascinated by these governments, quoting leading laissez-faire thinkers in his speeches. While some of his more extreme backbench MPs might be less versed in the history, their so-called libertarianism exceeds that of even Johnson, and the Prime Minister is repeatedly taken to task by his own party for, incredibly, being too quick to put lockdown measures in place.
The failure of the government to protect people, worrying always about the effect on the market rather than the health of the British population, is part of this same mindset. It is, of course, ironic that the failure to protect people has made our lockdowns longer and harder than they needed to be, in turn causing far more damage to the economy than a policy of social protection and safety. But then laissez-faire never did do well when it came into conflict with hard reality.
Whatever the political class believed, Britain’s empire was, of course, based on substantial public resources. And so is Johnson’s coronavirus response. Eye-watering amounts of public money have been thrown at big business, especially to those with personal ties to the Conservative Party, and often with no transparency. In November, watchdogs showed how billions of pounds were still unaccounted for.
But there is a strong laissez-faire basis for this spending too; over decades, various Conservative governments have run down social provision, privatising public services that had been set up to protect people from unrestrained market forces, and cutting welfare. Britain today is a deeply unequal country with large pockets of poverty. When it came to an acute emergency like coronavirus, our public sector was already in a desperate state, and society at large was coming apart at the seams. Put simply, we lacked the well-funded, quality services, the resilient, educated society, or even the manufacturing base, which could have got us through this crisis.
So we were left, instead, with a motley collection of politically connected private businesses who live off public money, while extracting as much value as they can for their rich financial investors. So, parents are unable to feed their children properly because private corporations pocket our taxes while providing scandalously inadequate meals to kids on the poverty line. And 22 billion pounds (about $30bn) was spent on a test-and-trace system which has been an unmitigated disaster – except for the corporations who made a fortune from it.
As in ages past, Johnson has managed to keep a surprisingly large portion of the public on-side with rhetoric designed to kindle their patriotism – in March last year, he said Britain would “send coronavirus packing” within 12 weeks.
From trying to have doses of the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine labelled with the British flag to announcing a 100-billion-pound (about $136.4bn) project to roll out the “best” testing programme in the world, later quietly dropped, Johnson’s bombast is designed to shore up support for throwing vast quantities of taxpayers’ money into some of the most irresponsible sections of the private sector. And, as with the empire of old, this is important, for how else do you retain your voter base while you preside over one of the worst coronavirus death rates in the world?
Britain is not simply suffering from an incompetent government blundering from one disaster to the next, seemingly without any plan whatsoever. There would be an easy solution to such a predicament – at least at the next election. Rather, we are suffering the effects of an ideology deeply embedded in the minds of our elite. It’s an ideology that will see human beings suffer and die in their millions rather than disrupt the functioning of the market. And sadly, they’ve had 200 years to devise ways of convincing the public that any alternative would surely only be worse.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.