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My new year nightmare: finance, political imperatives and a lack of strategy
The new year is here. At its last knockings, the previous year offered hope of some sort of return to normality. The second new vaccine was on its way, far easier to store and distribute, it offered hope. Unfortunately, the joy of the new year has been somewhat muted as we have witnessed Covid-19 cases rise to new heights. Talks of stricter measures have turned into our new reality, as one minute the government insisted on schools opening then the next a partial U-turn before a forced full-scale retreat. But as we watch all of this unfold, I am reminded of a comment I heard from a radio presenter on the lead up to Christmas. Her view was that there was much to be happy about, we know more about the virus now than we ever did and scientists have developed a vaccine, several vaccines, in record time. Over the Christmas and new year period I reflected on last year and tried to think about what we have learnt.
Brexit has just proved to be a complete farce. Promises of a good deal turn out to be not so good, ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ the politicians said. And then in desperation, realising that any deal was better than no deal and that the best deal was the one where we were in the European Union they settled on something and thanked the gods that there was far more pressing bad news to hide their incompetence. So, we are now a ‘sovereign’ nation but poorer to boot and whilst we think we have regained control over our borders, it is only limited to bureaucratic, time consuming form filling, as we beg people to come here to work in our care homes and on the farms for a pittance. Perhaps the refugees that we have reluctantly accepted might help us out here. Brexit has been delivered but at what cost? No wonder Stanley wants to take up his opportunity for a French passport.
We are all equal its just that some are far more equal than others. We saw the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and I have a feeling that I wouldn’t be able to do that discussion justice; I’ll leave that to others that are far more capable. It did have a profound impact on me though as a former serving police officer, I would like to think it had an impact on others both retired and serving, but I’m not so sure. I think that quite often the police are simply a reflection of our society and I’m not willing to bet much on that changing rapidly. I remember Michael Holding, a former West Indian cricketer, turned commentator, talking about ‘white privilege’ and he provided what I thought at the time was a good example. Now I’m not so sure, this so called ‘white privilege’, isn’t privilege at all, it’s rights. It’s the rights that white people avail themselves of everyday in a democratic society (well that’s what we are supposed to be in anyway) without a second thought. The problem isn’t that white people have those rights, it’s that Black and ethnic minority individuals don’t, or where they do, the rights are somehow conditional. I might be wrong in my thinking, but I know one thing, without some very clear leadership from government, institutions and general societal attitudes are unlikely to change sufficiently. Although footballers and staff take a knee before every match, I fear that the momentum is likely to be lost. By the way, I’m not holding out much hope on the leadership gambit.
Sticking to the we are all equal theme; the pandemic has shone a spotlight on poverty in this country. Yes, Mr high and mighty Reece-Mogg, there really are very poor people in this country and they do need a helping hand. The fact that food banks are even required is shameful. The fact that foodbanks rely on charity is an even more shameful indictment of our government. The fact that a senior politician can stand up in the house of commons and accuse a charity of political motives when distributing aid beggar’s belief. I find it extraordinary that pre pandemic, homeless people were left to their own devices on the streets, reliant on charity and handouts and yet as soon as we went into lockdown, the government found money from somewhere to house them. What changed? My worry is that when the pandemic is over, the government are going to be more concerned about balancing the books than they are about the pervasive poverty endemic in our nation.
Children returning to school has been a huge issue for government and they rely on evidence that suggests that the best place for children is at school. A headmaster reminded us in an interview on the radio that this ‘online learning’ phrase that trips off the tongue is far easier to talk about than to achieve. What hits home is the huge disparity in opportunity for children to avail themselves of online learning. Poorer families cannot provide the technology required. Poorer families are likely to live in cramped conditions making it impossible for children to concentrate on work as siblings run around trying to keep themselves amused. And let’s not forget the plight of the parents who are more likely to be in jobs that require them to be at work, not home. Then of course there are those children that are vulnerable where school is a safe haven from abuse, whether that’s physical or mental or simply because school is where they will be fed. So, in a sense for many, school is a better place than home, but we really ought to be asking why that is. What does that say about our society? If I were to hazard an educated guess, I’d say its broken. The return of children to school had wider implications. What about the teachers and staff? It seems to me that government have different standards of risk depending on what suits. I’ll come back to this in time but I think the closure of schools owes itself more to the action of teachers in their refusal to turn up to work in an unsafe environment than it does any sensible government strategy.
Sticking to the education theme, the pandemic shone a rather harsh spotlight on higher education too. What became increasingly obvious was that the return of students to campus was purely financially driven. At least one vice chancellor put his head above the parapet and stated as much. His university would fail if he did not fill the halls of residence. So here we had a situation where scientific advisors were stating it was folly to open universities and yet universities did so with the backing of government. The reason, we can’t put education on hold and yet how many students take a gap year, before going to university? Putting education on hold doesn’t appear to be that damaging to the individual, but it is very damaging to a morally corrupt educational business model that needs halls of residence to be filled to prop up the system. To make matters worse, students flocked to university only to find that face to face teaching was patchy, the university experience was not what they were promised or envisaged it would be, and more time was spent in isolation and lock down than was healthy. If education was supposed to be good for their mental health, it had the opposite effect for many. I don’t think it required a rocket scientist to work out that online teaching was really going to be a default position, so either management and government were very naïve and reckless, or they were somewhat economical with the truth. Time to revisit higher education, I think.
Talking about government advisors, what’s the point in having them? Everything I read suggests that government advisors say one thing and government does something else or dillies and dallies its way into a dead end where it finally admits the advisors are in some way right, hence another eleventh hour lock down. The advisor’s said universities should not go back, they did and is it coincidence it coincided with a rise in Covid-19 cases? Advisors were saying schools shouldn’t go back but the government insisted they should and many did for just one day. There is a saying about tactics and strategy. Strategy is unlikely to be achieved without tactics but tactics without a strategy are useless. I have yet to understand what the government strategy is, there is however a plethora of disparate (or is that desperate?) tactics . The result though, anguish and suffering to more than is necessary. Some of the tactics seem to be based on decision regarding who is most at risk. We hear that term an awful lot. I watched the prime minister at lunch time, the man who promised us a fantastic Brexit deal, as he explained how important it was that children went back to school. Children are at very little risk going to school he said and then added, and teachers are not at very much risk or at least at no more risk than they would be normally. He bumbled and blustered over the latter part; I wonder why? A few hours later he told us schools would be closed until at least the 15th February. What happened to ‘no risk’? When we talk about risk, there are a number of ways of viewing it. There is the risk of death, easily understood and most definitely to be avoided, but what seems to be neglected is the risk of serious illness or the risk of ‘long Covid’. By ordering schools to be opened or that universities resume face to face teaching, the policy seems to have been that as long as you are not at a high risk of death then it is an acceptable risk. Time for a bit of honesty here. Does the government and do managers in these organisations really think that a group of people in a room for a number of hours with inadequate ventilation is not a serious risk to the spreading of the disease? Maybe some of the managers could reassure us by doing most of the face to face teaching when we prematurely come out of lock down again.
It seems to me that much is being made, on the news in particular, about the effect a lock down has on mental health, especially children. And I do understand the mental health issues, I can’t help but think though that whilst this is a very valid argument there is the elephant in the room that is either ignored or conveniently understated. The elephant; the fear engendered by the virus, the fear and anguish of those that have had to face the loss of a loved one. Just to put that in perspective that’s over 70,000 people whose families and friends have had to go through firstly the fear and anxiety of a loved one being ill and then the additional fear and anxiety of having lost them. Add to this the fear and anxiety of those that have caught the virus and ended up in hospital coupled with the fear and anxiety of their loved ones. Now add to this the fear and anxiety of those who have to work in conditions where they are at serious risk of catching Covid and the fear and anxiety of their loved ones. And then of course there is the fear and anxiety caused to the general population as the virus spins out of control. Somehow I think a little perspective on mental health during lock down might be needed. Is it any wonder teachers decided that what they were being asked to do was unsafe and unnecessary?
And then I think about all of those parties and gatherings despite restrictions. The shopping trips from tier 4 areas into tier two areas to snap up bargains in the sales. The Christmas and New years eve parties that defy any logic other than pure self-indulgence. Just as we see all of those selfless people that work in organisations that care for others or keep the country running in some capacity, we see a significant number of selfish people who really don’t care about the harm they are causing and seem to be driven by hedonism and a lack of social values. Unfortunately, that accusation can also be aimed at some of the very people that should be setting an example, politicians.
We should of course be happy and full of hope. We have a new vaccine (that’s providing it still works on the mutated virus) and normality is around the corner, give or take a few months and a half decent vaccination strategy (that’s us done for). A vaccine that was found in an extraordinary time period. I wonder why a vaccine for Ebola wasn’t found so quickly? I agree with my colleague @paulaabowles when she says we all must do better but more importantly I think its about time we held government to account, they really must do better. After the second world war this country saw the birth of the NHS and the welfare state. What we need now is a return to the fundamental values that prompted the birth of those provisions. There are so many pressing needs and we really mustn’t allow them to be forgotten. A strategy to tackle poverty might just ameliorate a raft of other ills in our society and the cost of tackling it might easily be mitigated by a reduction in demand in the NHS and many other public services. I can but dream, but my reality envisages a nightmare world driven by finance, political imperatives and a lack of strategy.
Constitutional Crisis? What Crisis
Dr Stephen O’Brien is the Dean for the Faculty of Health, Education and Society at the University of Northampton
Over the past few weeks our political lexicon has been further developed. We have all learned a new word. The word in question is prorogation. Hands up who had heard of this term before recent events in parliament? I see very few hands up. What we all now know is that this is the term that defines the discontinuation of a session of a parliament or other legislative assembly without dissolving it. It means parliament’s sitting is suspended and it ends all current legislation under discussion. It is usual for this to happen every autumn. The current prorogation is for five weeks and includes a three-week period that would typically be recess anyway, during which the Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative party conferences are held, but is nevertheless longer than usual. However, there are several highly irregular factors at play here. For prorogation to last more than a month is unprecedented in recent times. For example, since the 1980s prorogation has typically lasted less than a week. So, what is going on and why is this prorogation proving to be so contentious?
The heart of the matter is the issue that has dominated UK politics for the past three years, namely Brexit. Despite a vote to leave the European Union (EU) back in June 2016 we currently remain part of the EU with the deal negotiated under the previous prime minister Theresa May culminating in a withdrawal agreement that was soundly rejected by parliament on several occasions. This has set up tensions between the people and parliament. How do we enact the will of the people and honour the referendum result within a parliamentary democracy where there is no majority for any Leave deal on the table?
The new prime minister Boris Johnson and his cabinet are resolved to break the political impasse by leaving come what may “do or die” by October 31st, 2019. So, with the country rapidly approaching the deadline for leaving the EU, Parliament has been working to pass a law that would prevent the UK crashing out without a deal, regardless of the fact that Boris Johnson has promised to leave on that date. With no deal currently agreed and no law allowing a no deal exit the Government would be obliged to ask the EU for another extension. There are suggestions from some quarters that the Government might ignore any law requiring them to agree an extension with the EU. Given this situation some politicians have been dismayed that parliament will not be sitting while the situation remains unresolved. Hence the view that this prorogation is stifling parliamentary debate on the most crucial political issue in a generation.
The act of prorogation took place in the early hours of Tuesday September 10th with a ceremony involving a message from the Queen being read in the House of Lords and then Black Rod summoning MPs from the Commons. A list of all the bills passed by the parliament was read, followed by a speech on behalf of the Queen announcing what has been achieved by the government before MPs were sent home. Johnson intends for parliament to return on 14 October with a Queen’s speech, which he says will “bring forward an ambitious new legislative programme for MPs’ approval”. He will then almost immediately have to head to Europe for the vital EU council, which is the last chance for him to obtain a new Brexit deal or to ask for an extension of article 50.
The situation has been deemed a constitutional crisis by some and the fact that parliament is not sitting at this critical time is being seen by some as undemocratic, indeed unlawful. Indeed, the act of prorogation has been subject to judicial review for the past couple of weeks. Scottish appeal court judges declared Boris Johnson’s decision to suspend parliament in the run-up to the October Brexit deadline unlawful. The three judges, chaired by Lord Carloway, Scotland’s most senior judge, overturned an earlier ruling that the courts did not have the power to interfere in the prime minister’s political decision to prorogue parliament. The key issue in question being whether the act was in breach of the constitution, as it was designed to stifle parliamentary debate and action on Brexit.
Regardless of the legal arguments which ended up being played out in three dramatic days this week in the Supreme Court the Brexit process and endgame has pointed up a range of tensions at the intersections of our constitution. The old political landscape is being swept away and being replaced by a much more complex set of political indicators. Left versus Right which had been making a comeback after years of centrist neo-liberalism has been replaced by Leave versus Remain which pervades across the old battle lines. Furthermore, other tensions are apparent as set out below.
- People versus Parliament (How to deliver the referendum result in a parliamentary democracy)
- Executive (Government) versus Parliament (especially when the executive has no overall voting majority)
- The Executive versus the Judiciary
- The position of the Judiciary as related to Constitution
- Politics versus The Law
- The roles and power relationships of the Executive, Parliament and the Judiciary as related to The Constitution.
What the overall Brexit process has created is a new socio-political landscape in the UK, with distinct differences in each of the four countries. It also illustrates how complex the nature of our constitution is given there is no written version and we depend on precedent and convention. The intersections are thrown into sharp relief by the current “crisis”.
Whilst all of this may be concerning as the old order shifts the really concerning question is whether the Executive will abide by the law. Given the outcomes of Parliament in terms of blocking “no deal” regardless of the Supreme Court Judgement on the legality of the prorogation. So, will we leave EU on October 31st? Utilising classic political phraseology, I’d say there is still all to play for, it’s too close to call and all bets are off.
Dr Stephen O’Brien