Great events make change possible, sometime inevitable. Johnson was elected with a working majority, Britain was going to leave the EU and everything was to be hunky dory. McMillan never said “events, dear boy”. He spoke of “the opposition of events”. The government’s intoxication with its electoral victory is but a distant memory. Perhaps Johnson will be wondering why he ever wanted to become PM. Events have overtaken them. Tory orthodoxies have had to be abandoned faced with a crisis that has the potential to be worse than the Great Crash of 1929. Never before have great swathes of the economy been closed down like this.
In the General Election the Tories denounced Labour’s spending programme of £98 billion as reckless. It would bankrupt the country. This is now rendered a puny sum as the government has been forced to take over the payroll for employees in the private sector. But even this is not enough. It will have to support the self-employed who cannot live on the miserable benefits. The government has only increased Universal Credit to the level of State Sickness Pay. Even the Health Secretary was obliged to admit he couldn’t live on £94.25 a week. Their largesse for UC is an extra £20 a week in the face of people seeing their income shrink or disappear. Housing benefit and Local Housing Allowance has been increased but only from the 20th percentile to the 30th. This is nowhere near the rent that many tenants have to pay.
Many small businesses that have stopped functioning will not reopen. Offering loans to businesses whose revenue has disappeared will only build up a sea of debt which will drown many.
Why have the apostles of austerity and ‘expansionary fiscal contractions’ agreed to pay 80% of the wages of employees? Because the alternative was mass unemployment on a scale that would have dwarfed the mass unemployment of the Thatcher years. Even so, they acted belatedly and already hundreds of thousands of people (it may be higher, the next DWP statistics will tell us) have found themselves without work and without an income. Reports from some DWP offices are that they are being inundated with new UC claims.
At issue now is the very survival of millions of people who were close to the precipice even when in work. There is no other choice than to provide the means of life to those who have no means. The alternative is starvation.
But let’s not applaud the government for its unprecedented action thus far. Francis O’Grady commended the ‘leadership’ of the Chancellor. Yet their failure to act quickly appears likely to have promoted the graph of the virus to reach Italian proportions. If the NHS is overwhelmed it will be because the government’s strategy was to let the virus run through a majority of the population, in Johnson’s remark, which deserves to be his epitaph, to “take it on the chin”. Alas because of his “deadly mistake” (in the words of the WHO) it could well be “operation last gasp” to quote his little quip about people being unable to breath.
We are about to see NHS staff dying as a result of the absence of equipment to protect them, the shortage of adult ICU beds, and decades of running the NHS as if it were a commercial business instead of a public service.
Whilst the need of the hour is dealing with the crisis there will come a time for an accounting. Public service workers who are putting their lives on the line will not accept being treated as cheap labour and put under intolerable pressure. Look at the list off essential workers and you see the low paid and exploited. Starvation level benefits will have to be increased.
Over the last four decades when neo-liberal ideology dominated, the misfortune of millions was deigned to be the result of their individual failure or their fecklessness. In reality individual problems are social and economic problems. We are about to see the consequences of the society which the neo-liberals have created. Millions of people have been living under precarious circumstances where they struggle to get by financially month to month. The jobs ‘miracle’ – record levels of people in employment – has seen the growth of precarious employment, including bogus ‘self-employment’ and zero hours contracts. This will become starkly obvious as we will see that people without savings cannot survive on the miserly benefits.
If the government survives this crisis they will want to see a return to ‘normal’. The message should be that there will be no going back to the way things were before Covid-19. There will inevitably be a big debate about what sort of country and world we want. Whilst the accidental is always a feature of historical events (the coronavirus might be described as such) it is becoming increasingly clear to a growing part of the population that the way the world is organised, the way the economy is run, threatens an environmental, an economic, and a social disaster. I’ll consider these issues in a future article.