Patrick Cockburn – By Denying Proven Failures in Tory Government, Sunak and Truss Will Repeat Them

Throughout the world liberal democracy has lost its credibility. The worse this becomes, the greater the transgressions.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso)

Cross-posted from Counterpunch

Photograph Source: HM Treasury and The Rt Hon Rishi Sunak MP – OGL 3

In Chinese mythology the beetle walks from east to west each day, exhausted but proud that he is pulling the sun behind him. He knows that if he pauses in his daily journey the sun will pause and, if he stops, it too will stop. Light will disappear from the earth and all creatures on it will die in the darkness.

I was reminded of this Chinese fable when watching Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, one of whom will be the next British prime minister come September, pretend to a control over events past and present that is just as fictitious as anything imagined by the Chinese beetle.

Governments at all times log anything good that happens as their own achievement and disclaim responsibility for anything bad. There is nothing new in this behaviour, but the Truss/Sunak fantasy picture of what has happened in Britain from Margaret Thatcher to Boris Johnson requires a radical rewrite of history.

Dubious political shibboleths

Sunak promotes himself as a Thatcherite while Truss speaks of her wish for a small state with limited government intervention. The dubious political shibboleths of the 80s are disinterred and given fresh life. Both candidates proclaim a fervent belief in privatisation, when the privatised electricity, gas, railway and water companies are visibly failing to cope.

A report by the Environment Agency on Britain’s nine water and sewerage companies this week describes their performance on pollution as “shocking” and says that “we would like to see prison sentences for chief executive and board members whose companies are responsible for the most serious incidents”.

Seldom has there been such a furious denunciation of the wrongdoings of a privatised industry by an official agency. The report says that companies deliberately allow the discharge of sewage because they can get away with it. “Over the years the public has seen water company executives and investors rewarded handsomely while the environment pays the price,” it says. “The water companies are behaving like this for a simple reason: because they can.”

Tory leadership contenders have not dared laud the performance of privatised utilities because they know that they could not get away with it. But a smaller state, and cuts in taxes, mean more outsourcing to the private sector despite its present failures.

Instinctive mendacity

More seriously, the candidates are getting away with the pretence that the Johnson government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic is something to be proud of. The assertion of Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s chief adviser at the time, that his poor and wavering judgement led to tens of thousands of people dying unnecessarily is shown to be true. The death rate per 100,000 population from Covid-19 in Britain was better than Paraguay but worse than that of Colombia, according to an analysis by Johns Hopkins University in the US.

Concentration on Johnson’s instinctive mendacity about almost everything has had the negative effect of diverting public attention from more sophisticated and successful attempts to hide the truth about government failures during the epidemic.

One such bid got underway this week with the announcement of a public inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic, chaired by Heather Hallett, which will start its hearings in the spring of 2023.

Deeply damaging

The inquiry is in the venerable British tradition of heavily-gunned statutory investigations into giant failures, such as the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday in 1971, which reported 38 years later in 2010, and the Chilcot inquiry into the British involvement in the Iraq war (2003-9) that reported in 2016. These inquiries ultimately produce vast high-quality reports, but long after anything can be done about those responsible for disaster.

Many readers will be suspicious of the Hallett inquiry, correctly dismissing it as a bid not only to kick the issue into the long grass but over the horizon.

But they may miss a more subtle, and so far largely successful ploy, which is to obscure the fact that a wide-ranging and detailed report into the handling of the Covid-19 epidemic has already been published. For all its efforts to be nuanced and even-handed, its conclusions are deeply damaging to the Government’s claim to competence.

The 150-page joint report, called Coronavirus: Lessons Learnt, by both the House of Commons select committees on Health and Social Care and Science and Technology came out last October, and the Government has been keen to ignore its existence ever since. This is unsurprising since it identifies multiple failings and suggests suitable reforms.

Different conclusions

It covered the same ground and called most of the same witnesses who will now appear before the Hallett inquiry, including Sir Patrick Vallance, Chris Whitty, Dido Harding and Dominic Cummings.

The report says even-handedly that there were successes as well as failures in the response to the epidemic, but its findings reveal that the latter were far more common. They start with the initial under-estimation of the seriousness of the outbreak, followed by the abortive bid for herd immunity and the calamitous breakdown of test and trace. It gives due credit to the success of the Vaccination Taskforce, established outside the Ministry of Health “following the suggestion of Sir Patrick Vallance”.

But it is the numerous mistakes made by the Government that impress, and it is unlikely that any new report, however grandiose, will arrive at different conclusions.

The inadequacy of Johnson as prime minister was so grotesque that it masks the inadequacy of his ministers during the pandemic and later. Comical though it may be to watch Truss doing her Margaret Thatcher imitation and boasting about facing down Vladimir Putin, in a few weeks she may be in charge. This prospect inevitably raises the question about how far her promotion proves that Britain is now in irreversible decline, politically, economically, socially, as evidenced by its incapacity to produce a leader much superior to Johnson.

Gripped by paralysis

I am wary of “decline-ism” because a society has so many moving parts that it is impossible to know which are moribund and which still have life in them. I remember reviewing weighty academic books in the 1980s proving that the United States was in irreversible decline compared to the rest of the world – a thesis abruptly discredited when its great super-power rival, the Soviet Union, suddenly fell apart.

Looking at Truss and Sunak making their dubious claims about their past achievements and future plans, it was difficult not to feel that Britain has passed a point of no return in its decline as a nation state. In one sense, this has been going on since 1914, but has now accelerated as the country is gripped by a sort of paralysis in which nothing much can change for the better.

A government’s ability to alter course decisively is always limited, though few admit it. Lenin, no mean practitioner when it came to setting the political agenda, used to say that the Bolsheviks might imagine that they were driving the train but in reality they were following it.

Sunak and Truss may have delusions of power but like the Chinese beetle, they will not be controlling very much.

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