Out and About 02/04/20

by Cary Gee

Was it really just a few weeks ago that I sat here, still in my pyjamas despite the fact the sun was well past the yard arm and wrote in a column, the very title of which now sounds quaintly ironic, that in times of relative prosperity people don't want to be led, they want to left alone? While the world might have spun off its axis into a dystopian sci-fi landscape since then, my reality has, in many regards, become normalised.

While unfortunate that it has taken a crisis of global magnitude for the rest of the world to wake up to the benefits of solitude I am perfectly happy to not go out and meet friends I've never really liked anyway. I've seen enough theatre to last a lifetime, and most of the rock stars on my bucket list are already dead. In the past I might have been called misanthropic. Now I am maintaining a socially responsible distance. There really is no better feeling than being told that I was right all along. Not just regarding my isolation, but about everything.

Just three months ago Labour was demonised for pledging to spend £82b to revolutionise our fossil-fuelled economy, future-proof our NHS and put food on the tables of the 14 million Britons driven into poverty by a wilfully callous Tory government. The same government in fact that has now committed to spending many times that amount shoring up an economy that we on the left have always known is ultimately unsustainable. The government has to a large extent been forced into an idealogical volte-face after confronting the reality that millions of Britons are just a few bog rolls away from insurrection. How many times have our opponents pointed the finger and accused us of doom-mongering when we have refused to celebrate the latest record employment figures, pointing out that a job is no such thing if it doesn't come with at least a veneer of protection? Guaranteed hours for a guaranteed wage, sick pay when sickness strikes and a benefits system fit for purpose?

Throughout its response, which has come with undeniably impressive speed, the government has refused to acknowledge the plain fact that an unequal society is far less able to cope with a crisis of this magnitude than one in which we are all playing on a level field. For every worker or non-worker in receipt of government assistance someone else is risking the health of themselves and their family because of dire economic need. All the while the government is forced to make yet another U-turn while desperately trying to avoid the 'taint' of socialism, which would forfeit the support of the right wing press and sound the death knell for the nation's physical and economic recovery.

If further proof were needed that we were right all along Johnson has, just an hour ago, announced that 'there really is such a thing as society' after all, directly contradicting Thatcher's 1987 endorsement of selfish individualism, or Thatcherism, the lodestar of every successive Tory government.

I've just returned from an unscheduled visit to the vet. Not as you might imagine because I was unable to make an appointment with an actual Doctor. While waiting in the carpark for the return of the patient I watched workers (from Wilson and Scott) painting lines on the road and a chap who seemed happy enough mowing verges on the edge of a Didcot roundabout. I couldn't help wondering whether the non-existent traffic would really ground to a halt if they had postponed tarting up the traffic markings until it's safe for everyone to go back to work. Of course you can't have winners without losers, but in every economic earthquake you can predict with absolute certainty it will be the same people who fall through the cracks.

From sex workers who last week issued a desperate demand to be given worker status in order to access the government's package of emergency funds, to the millions of schoolchildren living in poverty and eligible for free school meals who will now miss their one hot meal of the day, from the homeless who can no longer depend on a few quid from non-existent passers by to those who depend on now-closed food banks to feed themselves and their families, millions of Britons are at risk of ill health or even death from Covid 19 without ever being recorded in any official statistics. History has always been written by the winners, and the rich will usually win. It's an incontrovertible fact that the bigger your house the easier it is to self-isolate (although someone should tell Dominic Cummings it only counts as self-isolation if you choose to be isolated).

Perhaps Covid 19 will usher in a new post-capitalism, a gentler form of technologically driven market-socialism, or even mutualism, underpinned by some form of Universal Basic Income, but I suspect when we have made it through to the other side life will continue much as it always has.

Meanwhile America seems to be heading for a calamity that will dwarf even Europe's. (you can read a brilliant analysis of Trump's response by the BBC's Nick Bryant here: www.bbc.co.uk/news/correspondents/nickbryant)

Strangely, for an election year, Republican politicians have barely mentioned Socialized Medicine, a recurring trope wielded out to frighten the horses, and those who would think nothing of bunging one on the BBQ should Costco eventually run out of chlorinated chicken.

I wonder how many Americans who protested against Obama Care will have their lives saved by this most 'unAmerican' of acts? Which brings me neatly to a suggestion I first mooted in Tribune magazine nearly 20 years ago. That perhaps when the dust has settled, the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square should become home to a permanent memorial to my own lodestar, founder of the NHS, Nye Bevan.

Cary Gee is a former contributor to the New Statesman, Tribune, trade union officer, and LGBT campaigner.

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