Monthly Archives: March 2020

And so it has come to pass, the UK Government has been forced – or persuaded, perhaps nudged – into what the Telegraph (here) calls ‘measures … [going] far beyond anything seen in wartime’, which, conceivably turns Johnson into some kind of uber-Churchill. What has been interesting in the last few days is the extent to which the Government has been told to get on with it, maybe ‘get it done’; we the British public want martial law, but don’t call it that, not yet. And yes, one might agree that martial law is a tad extreme, an over‑reaction of sorts; the police might be empowered to hand out fines if they suspect someone of dodgy behaviour, but we don’t yet have tanks on the street.

The Government has, repeatedly, been accused of inaction; we are way behind what other countries have done to confront the ongoing crisis. It might be better to say such commentators need to learn how to read the activities of ministers. Jonathan Cook puts it well when he points out (here) that ‘so many major countries – meaning major economies – are today run by the very men least equipped ideologically, emotionally and spiritually to deal with the virus’. Whether or not Dominic Cummings said anything even remotely resembling the ‘defamatory’ remarks attributed to him over the weekend, one can easily see that ‘inaction’ is the default position for politicians who think activity obscene. You might do it in private, but not in public. It’s an oft‑repeated mistake to claim that neoliberal governments are non‑interventionist and prefer a small state; they happily intervene to legislate against, for example, workers and trade unions. As the past days have shown, Johnson and Sunak will support businesses and landlords, while remaining reluctant to do anything that might benefit workers and tenants. To do the latter, they fear, would set the wrong kind of precedent.

Remember Cameron (here) arguing for the so-called ‘deregulation agenda’? He later said (here) he wanted to ‘kill off the health and safety culture for good’; his Government was  ‘waging war against the excessive health and safety culture that has become an albatross around the neck of British businesses; and he wanted ‘2012 to go down in history not just as Olympics year or Diamond Jubilee year, but the year we get a lot of this pointless time-wasting out of the British economy and British life once and for all’. Given that we could use some health and safety at the moment, those comments haven’t aged well. For an earlier stage in the development of this kind of government, one can go back to the 1980s and Thatcher’s anti-union legislation, a blatant attempt to intervene on behalf of capital at a time of overt class conflict;[1] but the Cameron Government, with the helpful assistance of Liberal Democrats, went further by seeking to disguise government intervention. William Davies in the London Review of Books last week (here) suggests that an over‑dependence on the ‘nudge unit’ meant the Johnson Government adopted a ‘comparatively relaxed approach’ to dealing with coronavirus; if the crisis requires the kind of intervention associated with a war economy,[2] then, one might infer the Keynesianism of World War 2 was both anathema to the current Government and also an approach they were unable to adopt, even had they wanted to (unlikely – pretty much the point made by Cook).

And yet: one should at least pause to contemplate the unintended – or not really intended, not intentionally intended – consequences of any act. Those of us on the left who think it a good idea to recognise the importance of essential workers (many of whom would have been derided, not that long ago, as unskilled or, at best, low‑skilled) might be encouraged to think that the old Clause 4 is on its way back. However, we ought to better understand how the current Government might be able to exploit the situation. If World War 2 supposedly educated the nation in the need for some kind of social democracy (hardly socialism), one should not infer a straightforward rerun. Marx, of course, began (here) by quoting Hegel, ‘all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice’ and then added ‘the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce’. He continued: ‘Men (sic) make their own history, but they do not make it as they please,’ a reminder of the role played by unintended consequences. It might, indeed, be tempting to ‘anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to [our] service’ and think some kind of Corbynesque government will soon be elected when voters, as in 1945, learn the lesson of co-operation, casting off decades of training in selfishness; yet the ongoing rerun of ‘the war’ might well see us, not just stuck with Johnson, voters rejecting Attleeism this time round. A Johnson, moreover, who represents a kind of fascism we think ourselves too civilised for. Writing this time in The Guardian, Davies (here) rightly emphasises that we ‘inhabit a world that is temporarily up for grabs’; and he goes on to say that the current crisis is less to do with ideology than with capitalism per se. Arguably the crisis is always to do with capitalism, and capitalism means crisis, and always has, but the point is well made: it is possible that what is ‘up for grabs’ is the nature of the world, or global society, rather than the best way of managing capitalism within the nation state (and that, after all, is what Conservative and Labour parties have always contested).

Thatcher famously benefited from the 1982 Falkland’s War; she became a Prime Minister people took seriously, even if that doesn’t mean we should forget the ongoing opposition to her politics.[3] Similarly, one can see Johnson coming out of this crisis smelling of roses. He might well be disinclined to the kind of gravitas that, supposedly, characterises the ‘serious’ politician; he and his Government might nonetheless benefit from the calls for authoritarianism. In recent days the news has reminded me of what Hobbes wrote in the seventeenth century; living in a state of nature that sees us likely to destroy each other because we can’t co‑operate, we’re prepared to concede power to a strong leader. This isn’t, I hasten to add, an argument that Hobbes ‘was right’; or that Johnson is the chap Hobbes had in mind; it is simply to say that public discourse has tapped into the Hobbesian.

In conclusion I return to the list of approved activities. Apparently, I’m allowed to leave home once a day for exercise. Will anyone be spying on me to count the number of times per day, or week, I go out running? If I vary my route, how long might I expect to get away with it? Time to read some Foucault, methinks; we’ve plenty of spare time on our hands.

[1] See, eg: James Fulcher, 1995. British Capitalism in the 1980s: Old Times or New Times? British Journal of Sociology, 46, 2, 326-338.

[2] Misleadingly so. See James Meadway’s recent article in Tribune (here).

[3] An interesting contemporary article is Ralph Miliband’s, linking the new concern, perhaps obsession, with identity politics to the idea that Thatcherism had won over the working class. Not least, his view that ‘what the Left confronts is not a surge to Conservatism and reaction but a very marked alienation of workers from the Labour Party’ (18) is perhaps pertinent in the months after the 2019 General Election. See: Ralph Miliband, 1985. The New Revisionism in Britain. New Left Review, March‑April, 5-26.

One might now be wondering what examinations are for. On Wednesday 18 March, the Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson managed to say little of substance in his House of Commons announcement regarding the fate of this year’s public GCSE and A-level examinations, so one wouldn’t have expected him to attempt to explain their function at any time, pandemic or no pandemic. The Prime Minister had already declared (here) that examinations scheduled for May/June wouldn’t take place (‘we will make sure that pupils get the qualifications they need and deserve’) and Williamson, blagging like his master, was allowed to evade the issue time and again because no one there in the House managed to ask questions that might have forced him to give a straight answer. Accountability, anyone?

On the Parliament website (here), a brief summary of Williamson’s announcement emphasises Angela Rayner’s gratitude (‘The steps that have finally been taken today are welcome …’) as though one might already speak of Blatcherism 2.0. However, we must go to Hansard (here) to do justice to both Williamson’s performance and the lamentable state of the questions asked in Parliament on this occasion.

Williamson claimed: ‘We are working closely with Ofqual on a detailed set of measures that make sure that no child is unfairly penalised.’ One might have asked – no one did – why he had come to the Commons without details of these ‘measures’, unless discussions, like those with manufacturers (here), were at best an afterthought and even, in part at least, a figment of the ministerial imagination, something they’ll get round to eventually. Later he added: ‘We will also be looking to ensure that those who do not feel that the result is truly reflective of their work have a proper and substantive appeal mechanism.’ When, later still, he repeated the line about no exams taking place this year, he might have been asked if a new exam session might be scheduled for the autumn – September, say, or even November – with university courses starting, as some do already, in the new year. No one in Parliament asked this question. And then: ‘We are looking at putting in place additional measures, such as enabling a child rapidly to take a fresh set of tests or exams.’ Is this what ‘working closely with Ofqual’ means? Again – if this is the case, why were no details available to be included in this statement to Parliament? I hold in my hand a sheet of paper; I’ll let you know what’s on it when I’ve decided – or when Dominic has decided – what to write. Does ‘additional measures’ refer to a one-off exam session in the autumn or a kind of retake system for exams that hadn’t been taken, presumably on the basis that the ‘detailed set of measures to make sure that no child is unfairly penalised’ meant students could opt for exams if they didn’t like the grade they were given, aka the ‘substantive appeal mechanism’?

None of this was clarified, meaning that schools would close on Friday with no one knowing if exams would, indeed, take place, eventually. Williamson did promise ‘to publish further advice on A-levels next week’, but then slipped out a press release Friday afternoon (here), one overshadowed by the Johnson/Sunak press conference at 5 pm. At some point ‘more detailed guidance was published (here). It is extraordinary to think that any of the information contained in either the press release or the guidance couldn’t have been included on Wednesday. Moreover, it was interesting that a Guardian report (here) published at 5.40 led with and concentrated on the possibility that some schools might go for alternative exams, those not yet cancelled (an option closed off in the DfE’s guidance). A reference to the press release was tacked on the end as an afterthought.

All of this has been frustrating, to say the least, and that was doubtless always the intention. As elsewhere in the current crisis, the careful organisation of what is said and when fits the profile of a government committed to a model of disaster capitalism, a government that cares little for the impact on people generally, one that seeks only to increase anxiety. We’re told (here) that herd immunity is the way forward, and then (here) told it was never part of the plan after all; all they have ever wanted to do, apparently, is ‘protect life’. Since the December election – and opinion polls have helpfully appeared (here) and (here) to confirm that voters don’t regret producing a Johnson government, far from it – there has been a series of stunts orchestrated by Dominic Cummings, most obviously the decision to offer a job to Andrew Sabisky (here), all designed to see what can be said and how, and what the response will be. The handling of the coronavirus epidemic hasn’t been shambolic, far from it; and the way changes to assessment have been announced this week, fit the pattern. On Wednesday, when he wasn’t cancelling exams, Johnson was allowing pubs and restaurants to stay open but telling people not to go there. It was only on Friday, in the announcement that included nothing on education, that pubs and restaurants were finally told to close. In this report published just after the Friday press conference, The Guardian (here) went with ‘the latest example of the government scrambling to catch up with events’ because, well, The Guardian is still in denial.

So what, after all, are examinations for? One might suggest there is no longer a reason for GCSEs at 16 (here): do public examinations, then, serve no purpose other than to allow the Government to produce league tables and manufacture both ‘success’ and ‘failure’? As regards A-levels, in the last few years, there has been a steady increase in the number of unconditional offers made to students applying to university (here), leading to the possibility of a higher drop-out rate (here). Do universities even care any longer (here)? One might also ask what the purpose of A‑levels has ever been, but that is a step too far, I suppose. Universities might well insist that unconditional offers still account for but a small number of the total offers made; but The Telegraph (here) indicates the level of concern within a Conservative Party always horrified by the prospect of falling standards, and there are indications (here) that this is one aspect of the free market a Conservative government would hope to eliminate. In conclusion, one might dwell, therefore, on a contradiction contained in this week’s announcements. Williamson has insisted ‘the work [students] have done [will be] properly reflected’ in the grades awarded; if so, and he expects the validity of grades to be maintained, why won’t league (‘performance’) tables be published this year?