What will Brexit mean, both short and long-term?
- Unlock the people By Brendan O’Neill, Editor, Spiked Online, 2 May 2020
- Ignore the Britain-bashers By Brendan O’Neill, Spiked Online, 19 April 2020
- ‘The Alleged Cure Is Immensely Worse Than the Disease’ By Brendan O’Neill and Peter Hitchens, Spiked, 6 April 2020
Unlock the people
Unlock the people By Brendan O’Neill, Editor, Spiked Online, 2 May 2020
Covid hysteria is destroying public spirit. We have to reverse this right now.
A very striking thing has happened in British politics over the past couple of weeks: the liberal elite has suddenly fallen in love with public opinion.
The very politicos and observers who spent the past four years demonising public opinion and seeking to overthrow the largest democratic vote in the history of the UK – the vote for Brexit – now cheer the public for supporting the lockdown and feeling fearful about going back to normal life.
What a revealing insight into how this section of society relates to the people. When we behave as a genuine public, engaged in a free and open democratic contest over the political future of the country, they brand us stupid, brainwashed, possessed of bad, untrustworthy opinions. But when the people are no longer a proper public, and instead have been broken up into atomised households, firmly kept away from the public realm by authoritarianism and fear, they love what we have to say. They can’t get enough of it. Lockdown sceptics are ‘out of sync with public opinion’, trills one of those commentators who spent years casually arguing for the elite to overthrow the largest act of democratic public expression this country has ever known.
On one level, this can be seen as a simple case of people flagging up polls that seem to support their own worldview. We all do that. And the liberal elite has been uniformly in favour of a Chinese-style lockdown of society and the economy. Indeed, the media classes played a not unimportant role in pushing Boris Johnson towards a society-wide lockdown. So it is not surprising that, following years of disdaining public opinion as ill-informed, racist and too susceptible to the tricks of demagoguery, they now cite the public’s views regularly.
For the public seems to support the lockdown, too. To such an extent, in fact, that it is apparently worrying some government officials, who fear many members of the public may be reluctant to return to normal life even when the Covid threat has been significantly reduced. The latest Ipsos Mori polling finds that more than 60 per cent of us would feel uncomfortable about going to bars or restaurants or getting on public transport once the lockdown has been lifted. Forty per cent would feel unhappy about sending their kids to school. More than 30 per cent would be reluctant to return to work or meet friends.
This is the public opinion being cheered by the pro-lockdown left and by comfortably off members of the liberal elite who can still work from their large houses even as the rest of society grinds to a halt: a public opinion that is fearful, distressed, dazed by the prospect of returning to normal work life, social life, and public life. A public opinion that is not really public opinion at all, but rather is a collection of fearful views expressed by individuals who have been expelled from the public realm and who are literally prevented by law from gathering in public, taking part in political protests, or engaging in industrial action.
This is the ‘public’ that the liberal elite admires: a Potemkin public, a pretend public, a public that has been fairly successfully decommissioned and placed under something approaching house arrest. That liberals and leftists raged for years against a clear, confident and real act of public engagement (the vote for Brexit) and now cheer a hyper-fragmented ‘public’ as it expresses dread about the prospect of a return to normal life is incredibly, historically revealing.
It helps to explain their keenness on the lockdown. It suggests that one of the key things these people admire about the lockdown is that it has broken the public. It has retired those swathes of society that proved so disappointing to the elites in recent years, whether by their political choices or their apparently problematic lifestyles. The public-sector left, the woke-leaning elites and the Remainer wing of the establishment are generally favourable towards the lockdown not only because it has less of an impact on their lives than it does on other people’s, but also because it makes physically, legally real what they consider to be the ideal relationship between their class and the rest of us – that is, one in which they can still proffer their ‘expertise’ and advice on how the masses should be cared for and financed, while the rest of us are silenced, by law, and have been reduced essentially to non-citizens who must await the favour and instruction of the government and our betters.
Witness the excitability with which sections of the left have talked about the massive state spending in relation to Covid-19. This proves the importance of the state, they say. It shows that Universal Basic Income is possible, they claim. Some, including Jeremy Corbyn himself, cite the current situation as proof that their welfarist worldview was right all along. They are almost saying ‘Comrade Covid’, taking pleasure in the way that a virus has made real the political set-up they have long dreamt of: one in which the state has extraordinary power in relation to people’s lives and incomes, and in which the rest of us accept this as the natural order of things.
It’s remarkable: in the fear and defeatism being expressed by the decommissioned public in relation to Covid-19, these people glimpse the pacified, grateful public in receipt of state largesse that has for a long time fuelled their political fantasies and political activity.
Some of them use noble-sounding language to justify and celebrate the unprecedented use of law, policing and fear to break up the public and keep us all at home. They say the people are engaged in an act of ‘solidarity’. Staying at home is heroic, they claim. It shows how much we all care. This is entirely false. Solidarity is when active, engaged citizens recognise their commonalities and offer one another assistance in the pursuit of a political goal or a social good. Like the vote for Brexit, for example, which was a clear, free and public demand for more forms of social solidarity against the disempowering dynamic of technocratic rule and the individuating trends of neoliberalism. In contrast, the current fearful retreat from the public realm speaks to an atomised torpor that is the opposite of solidarity, and in which one of our few ‘public’ roles is to agree not to be a burden on the NHS. Stay home, do nothing, don’t impose on the system – this is compliance with authority, not solidarity.
Of course, there are glitches, hopeful glitches, in the culture of compliance nurtured in relation to Covid-19 and celebrated by the anti-democratic left and anti-masses elites. Not everyone is happy with the lockdown, of course. Surveys by King’s College London suggest that people can be split into three categories: we are accepting, suffering or resisting the lockdown. King’s says 48 per cent accept the lockdown, 44 per cent are suffering through it, and nine per cent are resistant to it. And even as the public has been broken up there have been acts of genuine solidarity, most strikingly through the setting-up of WhatsApp groups across the country in which people assist neighbours and look out for the vulnerable.
But while that’s all good, there is no avoiding the larger problem of compliance, resignation and retreat into the non-public realm. It is not surprising that this culture is being celebrated by sections of the liberal elite, for, fundamentally, it represents the very thing they failed to achieve over the past four years: the victory of fear over public spirit. Where their Project Fear in relation to Brexit was not successful, Project Fear in relation to Covid-19 has been. But that is what makes this all so destructive. Covid-19 is impacting on many people, as we know, but officialdom’s response to Covid-19 is having a devastating impact on public spirit and public life. Having unleashed fear, having convinced people that it is dangerous to go outside, having informed us that other people are a grave threat to our health and even our lives, the powers-that-be cannot now be shocked that the broken, over-policed public feels trepidation about returning to work, production and life. Existential dread is easy to push out, but difficult then to contain.
The destruction of public life and public engagement would be one of the worst consequences of the coronavirus crisis. It threatens to have dire impacts on social solidarity, social confidence and democratic citizenship that could outlast the virus itself. We need to reverse this damaging culture with urgency. Nothing less than an overhaul of the political narrative and an unflinching questioning of the culture of fear is required. Only by questioning the authoritarian new corona-laws, questioning the lockdown, questioning the idea that this virus outbreak is an apocalypse, and questioning the notion that the breaking-up and silencing of the public is an act of ‘solidarity’ can we begin to restore public life.
We have two fights on our hands: a medical, discrete fight against a novel virus, and a political fight against elites who relish rather too much the current suspension of political life, economic life and public life. We are not mere disease-carriers; we are also workers, producers and members of communities that can stand up to viruses and other threats together. In decommissioning the public, our society has destroyed its own best resource when it comes to dealing with crises. That’s enough – unlock the people.
Ignore the Britain-bashers
Ignore the Britain-bashers By Brendan O’Neill, Spiked Online, 19 April 2020
Shame on those who are using the Covid tragedy to bash Britain and sneer at British people.
Like vultures, they swoop. The Britain-bashers. The still bruised Remainers. The woke elites for whom Britain is little more than a former Empire, still riddled with racism and drunk on nationalism. All of these ghouls spy in the Covid-19 crisis a chance to put the boot into Britain. To say: ‘I told you so. I told you Britain wasn’t special. I told you this nation you foolishly worship is weak and useless.’ This is the sick Schadenfreude of the bourgeois defeatists who see Covid-19 almost as a rebuke from God – or someone – to a nation with dangerous delusions of grandeur.
Their vulture-like feasting on a country struggling to deal with a nasty new virus is clear from the headlines to their columns. ‘The myth of Great Britain must finally end when our government has failed us so badly over coronavirus’, says a piece in the Independent . The writer, a Corbynista, naturally, doesn’t only criticise the government’s strategy for dealing with the virus, which is a perfectly legitimate thing to do. She also mocks the ‘myth’ that Britain is a great country. The ‘illusion of a Great Britain’ and the nonsense idea of the ‘Blitz Spirit’ will surely collapse following the Covid crisis, she says. This is more than criticism of ministers and tactics. It feels like the pursuit of the culture war by other means, the weaponisation of the Covid tragedy to re-energise the Britain-bashing that had already become so rife among cut-off woke elites.
Everywhere they are taking aim at the supposed myth of British exceptionalism. The Covid defeatists have convinced themselves that the reason Britain has a relatively high number of Covid deaths is because Boris Johnson and his cabinet of Brexiteers – and by extension us dimwits who voted for them – took the ridiculous view that Britain is a unique, wonderful, freedom-loving country and therefore it would be wrong for us to rush into a lockdown. In the words of arch Britain-basher and obsessive opponent of Brexit, Fintan O’Toole, ‘On the altar of this exceptionalism, lives have been sacrificed’. So national pride isn’t only stupid and vulgar, a view the disconnected, pseudo-cosmopolitan elites have held for a long time – it is positively lethal, too.
‘Was it British exceptionalism’ that nurtured the current Covid-19 crisis, asks a writer for the New Statesman? It was partly ‘a sense of British exceptionalism’ that ramped up the Covid virus here, says one public-health expert. Brexit, of course, is never far from some of these people’s minds, given that our democratic rejection of the EU was also a rejection of their cultural miserabilism and technocratic arrogance. So it isn’t surprising that our alleged Covid mistakes have been neatly folded into the mistake (as they see it) of Brexit. ‘Whoever said that British exceptionalism would end with Brexit?’, one writer asks, perusing the apparently arrogant approach Britain’s deluded leaders initially took to the virus. We thought we could manage outside of the EU and now we think we can manage against a global virus – what fools we are.
Witness, too, the policing of any pro-British language in relation to the struggle against Covid-19. A writer in the Financial Times takes aim at all the talk of Blitz Spirit. The Blitz Spirit is ‘bunk’, he says, but it is ‘just too comforting a story for Britons to abandon’. And how about the unhinged response to Dominic Raab’s description of ill Boris as a ‘fighter’? From Newsnight to the Guardian – hard to tell the difference these days – they mocked the ‘fighter’ talk. ‘That kind of talk is dangerous’, a writer for the Independent claimed.
There is almost a sense of relish in some of this Covid commentary. The purveyors of this sick Schadenfreude seem to believe that Britain is finally being taught a lesson. This is clearest in Fintan O’Toole’s borderline mockery of Covid-hit Britain. The virus has ‘exposed the myth of British exceptionalism’, he trills. He mocks Boris for enforcing a lockdown reluctantly and for expressing regret about the loss of freedom it would entail. This nation is so ‘drunk on freedom’ that it is willing to harm itself, he says. British exceptionalism consists of a ‘fantasy of personal freedom as a marker of ethnic and national identity’. Having previously pathologised the vote for Brexit as the act of a deluded people nostalgic for Empire, now O’Toole pathologises our attachment to freedom as a kind of madness, a national drunkenness, just another story we tell ourselves in order to feel ethnically distinctive. Our love for democracy was racist, and our love for freedom is racist too, apparently.
O’Toole’s commentary increasingly comes across as anti-British bigotry. It is not criticism of governments or strategies, but of the entire culture of Britain and the comforting lies Brits apparently tell themselves. And don’t think for one moment that the Britain-bashing of O’Toole and the other Covid vultures is about attacking the elites. Their targets are just as often the little people, who, after all, are the ill-educated Empire nostalgists who put Boris in power. As O’Toole said of Brexit, it was powered by a strange mix of ‘people with tattooed arms and golf-club buffers’. We all know what ‘people with tattooed arms’ means: it’s the kind of phrase anti-democratic elites must use when political correctness restrains them from saying ‘scum’.
Covid Schadenfreude can likewise be glimpsed in the almost gleeful sharing of stats and graphs showing Britain’s daily death rate. This is clearest in the context-free doom-graphs made by John Burn-Murdoch of the Financial Times. Every day his graphs of death are latched on to by dystopian millennials and woke leftists as proof of the evilness of the Tories or the myth of Britain’s greatness. ‘Look how much worse we are doing than New Zealand!’, people cry, which is almost immeasurably ignorant. In terms of population density, the size of immigrant communities (in which the known co-morbidities of Covid-19 are often quite pronounced), and how we measure and document Covid-related deaths, Britain could not be more different to New Zealand, and other countries too. And yet none of this is factored in. Context is not permitted, because the overarching aim is one of horror, a desire to create a jarring, disorientating sense that Britain is doing worse than any other nation on Earth and that we absolutely must consent to being humbled and changed by this horrible experience. Maybe we should even rejoin the EU?
There is such a deep cynicism in all of this. It is not constructive criticism or debate, which we need in spades right now. Yes, we should be holding the government to account. Yes, we should talk about the ill-preparedness of the health service. Yes, we must reckon with the sclerotic nature of the bureaucracy we live under (which long predates Boris’s presence in Downing Street) and its lack of responsiveness. And yes, we should continue questioning the lockdown and its predicted disastrous impact on the economy. But the vulturism of the Britain-bashers is something very different. It represents the importing of pre-existing prejudices into the current crisis. It is the exploitation of a health crisis to the woke end of taming Britain, humbling the British people, ridiculing our belief in freedom and democracy, and questioning whether our attachment to the ideal of nationhood is wise in an era of global problems and global viruses. We need to be more ‘cosmopolitan and global’, as O’Toole says. Make no mistake: they are refighting the battle over Brexit on the terrain of Covid. They seem to hope a disease will achieve what they failed to achieve at the ballot box: the neutering of British nationhood and the taming of British democracy.
‘The Alleged Cure Is Immensely Worse Than the Disease’
‘The Alleged Cure Is Immensely Worse Than the Disease’ By Brendan O’Neill and Peter Hitchens, Spiked, 6 April 2020
Peter Hitchens on the dangerous folly of the Covid-19 shutdown.
In the past few weeks, society has been shut down, the economy has been put on hold, and civil liberties have been curtailed in the name of fighting against coronavirus. There has been hardly any scrutiny of or opposition against these ever-stricter measures. Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens has been one of the few dissenting voices in the media. He joined spiked editor Brendan O’Neill for the latest episode of The Brendan O’Neill Show.
Brendan O’Neill: We live in a country where parliament has been suspended, our most basic freedoms have been eroded, we are all virtually under house arrest, and there are a whole bunch of new rituals we all have to observe when we encounter other people, which is increasingly rare. Like me, are you a bit terrified by the speed and the ease with which Britain became this country?
Peter Hitchens: I wouldn’t say terrified – distressed and grieved, but not terrified. I am actually not shocked because in several controversies in recent years, where I have thought that the people of this country would stand against the way in which they were being bullied and messed around, I have noticed that there hasn’t been all that much spirit of liberty. I think there is an awful lot of conformism now in this country and people have accepted being pushed around. I’m not sure parliament has been suspended exactly. It has just folded up or dissolved into a pool of blancmange. If it had any kind of leadership, it could insist on continuing to sit, just as it could have opposed the action or subjected it to anything remotely resembling scrutiny. But it just folded up and stole away in the night. All the institutions of civil society which are supposed to protect us did the same thing. The judiciary, the human-rights lot, the civil service, the media, parliament, Her Majesty’s Opposition and public opinion in general have simply failed to do their jobs. It has demonstrated that we don’t really have a civil society any longer. In the Soviet Union, where I spent a lot of time, it was clear that there was only one official point of view and that people were being pushed around. I don’t recall ever being compelled to stay at home, and there was at least a pretence made of having a legislative body as well.
But the point that strikes me here is that – particularly in the Eastern European countries, but also largely in Russia – most people regarded the Soviets’ rule with a certain amount of contempt and made jokes about it and realised they were being mocked and fooled. In this case, the population accepts what they are being told, without any question. It’s extraordinary. The old USSR would have loved to have had a population like that in the Western world and in the United Kingdom, which genuinely believes the propaganda and does what it is told. You could say, ‘The chocolate ration has gone up’, when in fact it has gone down and people will believe it.
O’Neill: You have written some very solid pieces, questioning the need for this kind of shutdown. Let’s just talk for a moment about the extraordinary situation we find ourselves in. There is this novel virus, which undoubtedly causes great harm, especially to older people and to medically vulnerable people, and in response to it – which is unprecedented in human history – we have closed down virtually the whole of society and most of the economy, and in the process we have stored up immeasurable problems for the future. I think you have found it a bit of a struggle to convince people that this might not be the best way to tackle a virus? Hitchens: It’s extraordinary. Again, the willingness of people to accept that ‘something must be done, and this is something, so we will do this’. The argument goes, ‘We have a problem, the way of solving it is to shut down the country and strangle civil liberties. Therefore, let’s do that.’ What I have been surprised by is how little examination there has been to whether there is any logic to this. It is as if you went to the doctor with measles and the doctor said that this was serious measles and the only treatment for it is to cut off your left leg. And he cuts off your left leg and then later on, you recover from the measles and he says, ‘This is fantastic. I’ve cured you of the measles, sorry about your leg.’ That is more or less what is going on now. We are being offered a supposed treatment which has nothing whatever to do with the problem. Other countries have not resorted to these measures. We have modelled ourselves, bizarrely, on the most despotic country in the world, the People’s Republic of China, whose statistics are wholly unreliable and whose media are totally supine, so we can’t really know what is going on there. And in fact, all the countries which have had serious outbreaks of Covid-19, they have almost all reacted differently. Even Singapore and Hong Kong, which are widely praised for what they did, did different things. And yet, oddly enough, the results in Singapore and Hong Kong were quite similar. Japan has done something different. South Korea did something different. And again, the virus actually did not continue to grow at the rates which Imperial College apparently think are inevitable if we don’t shut down our society. Even if you went for the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy that because A happened, and B happened after it, B happened because of A, there isn’t even a basis for that – let alone anything remotely resembling research showing a causal relationship between a Chinese-type shutdown and the defeat of the disease. There are rational responses to this. And of course it seems to me, the crucial test of any policy, and indeed almost any human action, is not absolute right or absolute wrong – which very rarely arises in practical life – it is proportionality. Is the action in proportion to the problem? If you look at the past and the problems which this country and its medical system have almost every winter, for instance with influenza, the complications of it are considerable. In one year recently, 28,000 people died of influenza because the vaccines didn’t work and it was a particularly virulent strain. The average number who die of influenza every year is 17,000 in England alone, and this does not cause the country to be shut down. It is doubtless tragic for all those involved, but you can’t use emotionalism to justify policy. I have a quote here from Jonathan Sumption’s interview on The World At One on Monday because it simply hasn’t been stressed enough in the coverage of what he said. They have gone on about what he said about the police, which was a marginal part of what he said. His key point was this: ‘The real question is, is this serious enough to warrant putting most of our population into house imprisonment, wrecking our economy for an indefinite period, destroying businesses that honest and hardworking people have taken years to build up, saddling future generations with debt, depression, stress, heart attacks, suicides and unbelievable distress inflicted on millions of people who are not especially vulnerable, and will suffer only mild symptoms or none at all?’ Actually, that’s exactly what I think. But I’m not a former Supreme Court judge. I’m not one of Britain’s most distinguished lawyers. And I’m not one of Britain’s most distinguished historians. I’m not the deliverer of last year’s Reith Lectures. This is a perfectly valid sentiment expressed by somebody with considerable authority and wisdom. And it isn’t even reported by the media when he says it. They leave it out of the reports of what he says because no one is prepared to confront this. There is an omertà – a total, supine, consensus over this matter. The complete failure to debate it is astonishing to me. And it’s the lack of proportion that Sumption is stressing there. Even if this were an effective policy, could it possibly be justified, given the disastrous results? As I say, if you had a disease from which you might or might not recover, and you were offered the amputation of all four of your limbs, and perhaps your head, and were asked to sign a consent form, you would probably say no, even if it would kill you, because you would recognise that the cure was worse than the disease – a phrase which repeatedly occurs to me, even though Donald Trump has used it, which always puts people off. But it is the case. The alleged cure – and it is only alleged in this case – is immensely worse than the disease, because what happens to a society which trashes its economy? I will tell you what happens. It is unable to afford proper health provision, all of its standards decline, its food gets worse, its air quality gets worse, its housing gets worse, its water quality gets worse, and everybody gets iller. The other point is one made by the extraordinary Professor Sucharit Bhakdi of Mainz University in Germany, an absolute genius in the microbiological method, who is utterly against these measures. He has said, what about the healthy old now they have been deprived of all the things that make life worth living? He reckons that this shutting down of their lives will be catastrophic, and almost certainly cause large numbers of deaths. So you can’t just say, ‘Oh, you don’t care about people dying’. That’s not what the argument is about. I care about people dying unnecessarily as much as anybody else, and my motives are as good as anybody else’s. It is just that my emotions are also driven by more intelligent thought, more reason and a better grasp of the facts.
O’Neill: I think Sumption’s intervention was very useful for a number of reasons. But one of them is what you have just touched upon, which is this really poisonous accusation that has been made against anyone who criticises the shutdown of society, which is, ‘You don’t care about old people,’ or even, ‘You want old people to die.’
Hitchens: Well, during the Iraq War, if you said, ‘Actually this war is wrong’, people said, ‘Oh, so you support Saddam Hussein’s fascist regime, do you? You believe that Saddam should be allowed to torture people, do you? That’s the sort of person you are, are you?’. And because of that shutting down of serious debate on a major matter, I think this should probably be called VMD – the virus of mass destruction. It is so very similar in the attempts to crush dissent.
O’Neill: They make this completely false distinction. They say this is a question of lives versus the economy. They talk about the economy as if it’s just some kind of abstract machine, just numbers and money and profits, when in fact the economy is people’s lives and their livelihoods. It’s how we create things, it’s how we produce things. Dr John Lee made a very good point in the Spectator, which is that this is lives versus lives. And that’s the kind of debate we need to be having.
Hitchens: That’s assuming, again, that the fundamental premise that shutting down the country will do any good is true, which I believe, is seriously in doubt. I’m a Christian, and there’s this wonderful part of the scriptures in which we are said to live and move and have our being in God. But in a material way, we live and move and have our being in the economy. If nobody is buying, if nobody is selling, if nobody is working, if nobody is serving, if nobody is being served, then there is nowhere for people to live, how do we pay for our houses and our meals? How do we raise our children? How do we support an education system? How do we pay doctors or build hospitals? If we have no economy at the moment, I would reckon, if we could only know the sums, we are probably throwing three or four district general hospitals into the sea or their equivalents in money every week.
Peter Hitchens was talking to Brendan O’Neill in the latest episode of The Brendan O’Neill Show.
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