Columns

On the Other Hand: State of the Nation

CW: racism, Islamophobia

Illustration by Rachel Macnaghten

To start, a bald man sat in front of a horseshoe table and said, “senior officials, senior ministers, senior advisers like me fell disastrously short of the standards that the public has a right to expect of its government in a crisis like this.” Such was the opening expiation of Dominic Cummings’s Select Committee testimony, a testimony which openly admitted what many saw as trivially true – that the British Government utterly failed when it came to handling the coronavirus.  

Cummings started, not with a broadside against specific ministers (which he gets on with later), but with an apology, dedicated towards those whose friends, family, associates ‘died unnecessarily’ as a consequence of the Government’s (and, to his own admission, Cummings’s) insouciance. Over a year later and now we get the apology we shouldn’t need, and it doesn’t come from the Prime Minister, it doesn’t come from the Health Secretary: it comes from a single political advisor. 

The rest of Cummings’s testimony amounted to an all-out assault on senior Cabinet officials, most waspishly on Matt Hancock, for a lack of leadership – or rather an arrant absence of leadership, a willing inanition, an incapacity, a timidity, sheer impotence. Hancock, for example, “should have been fired for at least 15, 20 things, including lying to people on multiple occasions.” He was, eventually, but not for the COVID contracts, the neglect of care homes, the dissection of the NHS; he resigned for being caught betraying his wife, violating the very social distancing guidelines he himself put in place. 

And one of the most dispiriting, yet not altogether surprising, revelations was the Deputy Cabinet Secretary’s confession that “we are absolutely fucked” because the Government hadn’t a proposal, precedent, trace or modicum of a pandemic prevention plan. 

More than this, Cummings also confirmed the historicity of the BBC’s report on Johnson’s comment that he would rather see ‘bodies pile high’ than experience another lockdown. Again, my eyes are hardly popping out: I anticipated it, I saw how Johnson regarded COVID as a mere scare story and that a second lockdown was delayed because of his commitment to, or carelessness towards, octogenarian sacrifice. I saw how the first lockdown occurred only after Cheltenham, and I saw how people genuflected in front of Johnson’s feet.  

Take stock, then. No plan, no ability, no will, no care, no conscience. Characteristics of today’s Conservative Party, I’m sure you’ll agree. Transparency International released a report, uncloaking the corruption within the Government’s response to the pandemic, arguing that at least 73 contracts worth £3.7 billion merit further investigation. This report fails to drop my jaw, however: we all know how the Conservatives have treated the UK. Over 150,000 deaths, three national lockdowns, flouting of the ministerial code, bullying in the Home Office, ineptitude in the DHSC, endless flows of cash to ministers’ chums, a busted contract tracing app… Tory malefactions deluge modern political culture in the UK as if they are smothering the country with a pillow until the air vacates its lungs, and it chokes. 

And it’s not just pandemic mismanagement. Make no mistake: the Conservatives have a catalogue of iniquities long enough to fill several volumes. 

Islamophobia, for example. An inquiry was conducted, a 44,000-word report was published, and what did they conclude? “Judging by the extent of complaints and findings of misconduct by the party itself that relate to anti-Muslim words and conduct, anti-Muslim sentiment remains a problem within the party.” But even this report, according to the ex-MEP Sajjad Karim, did not go far enough. It was whitewashed, especially by ‘ignoring witnesses with damning evidence’ in order to brush aside claims of institutional racism within the Conservative Party. 

In 2005 Boris Johnson wrote an article for the Spectator in which he said that Islamophobia was only a ‘natural reaction’ to the sectarianism and intolerance of the Islamic religion. And after the London bombings Johnson demonstrated his masterful grasp of cultural politics by saying, ‘Islam is the problem’ – not reductionist. Not reductionist at all. 

However, you might say, Johnson has promised to turn down the rhetoric, to modulate his tune in a lower key, because of course he is now Prime Minister. But this rings pretty hollow, especially considering that almost immediately after resigning as Foreign Secretary – a position that would require him to represent the entire nation (including Muslims) in other countries – he resumed his habitual occupation of incendiary journalism. His Telegraph column in 2018 said that Muslim women in burkas ‘look like letterboxes’ and that those who choose to wear them are being ‘ridiculous’. These comments were decried by the Muslim Council of Britain as well as the chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum, Mohammed Amin, and reportedly contributed to a ‘significant spike’ of 375 percent in Islamophobic incidents across the nation. So forgive me for not taking our less-than-illustrious PM seriously when he says he’ll tread lightly. 

I haven’t even mentioned Johnson’s comments on black Africans. (He called them ‘piccaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’, and said that the problem with Africa is that ‘we are not in charge anymore’, just so you know.) Johnson is generous in the distribution of hate to other ethnic minorities, it must be said. Upon car-crashing into a cushy position at the golden-halled Foreign Office, Johnson saw it politic to recite Rudyard Kipling’s colonialist poem ‘Mandalay’ while in a Myanmar temple, inciting even the admonition of the UK ambassador who accompanied him.

Sexism too. A 1996 Telegraph article he penned – or better say spewed – examined the sex appeal of the women at the Labour Party conference: ‘The “Tottymeter” reading is higher than at any other Labur Party conference in living memory’; ‘With the fickleness of their sex, they are following the polls.’ During the 2012 Olympics Johnson decided to ogle female volleyball athletes instead of promoting his beloved sense of national pride, and in 2013 he interrupted the Malaysian Prime Minister to interject that Malaysian women go to university because ‘they’ve got to find men to marry’. He refuses to apologise. 

He even graced bookshelves with customary plummy misogyny and casual racism in his third-rate novel Seventy-Two Virgins, wherein an untidily dressed and tousle-haired Tory MP has three and a half hours to save the US President and thus the world from ‘Islamofascism’. The book is highly undiplomatic, insulting every country other than the UK and US – a property well-suited to the role he currently occupies, obviously. Insensitivity ensues. Arabs have ‘slanty eyes’ and ‘hook noses’, a mixed-race citizen is called ‘coffee-coloured’, travellers are branded ‘pikeys’. But the brightest-burning element in this mix is the unqualified misogyny. Women in Johnson’s book are sexualised immediately (one Johnson, through the narrator, refers to as a ‘mega-titted six-footer’), and some are depicted as emotionally charged, undeveloped pets: a comment made by one woman is chalked up to ‘premenstrual irrationality’. Ladies and gentlemen, the Prime Minister!       

I haven’t the space to produce a full list of Johnson’s emetic comments. The homophobia hasn’t been touched upon, nor has the specific improprieties and obscenities of other Cabinet ministers, which could fill my next column, and the one after that, and the one after that. Demonstrably, the Conservatives do not stand for anyone but themselves and their friends – except perhaps their donors, but maybe that’s all they’ll consider friendship.  

So if we can see the abuse, the disrespect, the carving up of public utilities for private profit, the unconcern for the working class and penniless, the racialisation, the attempts at disenfranchisement, the intolerance of otherness, the acceptance of extremism, the apologetics for bigotry, the corruption and the cronyism, the collusion and the complicity – if we see it all, why do we tolerate it? Why do the Tories poll so well?

At the moment, the Tories hold an 11 percent lead against Labour – after Dominic Cummings at the Select Committee, after that expose. There was transmission, but no reception. Where was the outrage? Nesrine Malik, writing in the Guardian, brings forward an interesting point: recollection and distribution of facts isn’t enough. The political ecosystem is no longer stratified, and suspicion imbues the popular perception of every policy announcement and poll number. Fact-based campaigning was jettisoned a while ago. Remember Boris’s Brexit bus? Remember pretty much everything former US President Donald Trump ever said? Claims of media bias saturate political debate. Mistrust characterises popular political culture, promoted by those who benefit from it. All you need to do to see this is recall when the Conservative Twitter account was renamed factcheckUK

Here, as Malik contends, we see not just a failure of Government: we see a failure of opposition. As I have shown, nothing Cummings said ought to shock you. Yet it didn’t stick. Starmer did not exploit the opportunity at all. While of course this phenomenon is not monocausal, and the Conservatives themselves have mastered the art of public-opinion manipulation. But as I have said in a previous column, Starmer is aiming for a kind of consensus, coalitional politics at the expense of a fierce opposition that is so desperately needed right now. Maybe Starmer was attempting a strategy that would have been successful before COVID, but, as the polls show, it isn’t working. I hope that Labour will find confidence amongst the pollsters by 2024, but if current trends continue it doesn’t look hopeful. Mistake not, I believe it’s entirely possible; but the time is now, not later. Exploit Cummings’s showcase, highlight the corruption and xenophobia. Otherwise this country and its people will continue to be disregarded, neglected, instrumentalised, and used.

Hayden Barnes (he/him) is one of the Opinions section Senior Editors. Born in Bradford and schooled in Huddersfield, he spends his time in Oxford allegedly studying History but more often finding ways to avoid doing so.