Image Description: Sign relating to the Coronavirus pandemic outside the Oven Door, High Street, Wetherby.
Pandemics are hard to characterise. Identifying a touchstone, emblematic of all they entail is by definition, difficult. Nevertheless, we can, paradoxically, rely upon a crippling lack of certainty. After all, global crises are periods of profound insecurity.
Yet, even in times of the deepest uncertainty, one can often place confidence in truths that seem unwavering. Which is perhaps what made Boris Johnson’s declaration that, above all, our own pandemic had ‘proved… that there really is such a thing as society’ so surprising.
COVID-19 has created shockwaves on a global scale. Nevertheless, such a fundamental shift in ideological monolith of the Conservative party is almost unheard of. Still here was Johnson taking a metaphorical torch to that now infamous symbol of Neoliberal individualism. That very philosophy that has continued to define the party in some way or another for the best part of twenty-five years.
Which is perhaps what made Boris Johnson’s declaration that, above all, our own pandemic had ‘proved… that there really is such a thing as society’ so surprising.”
Or was he? Indeed, for all the seeming praise for the notion of ‘society’, Johnson’s government has, in reality, done little. Their ‘society’ is no more than a convenient standard. No more than a banner wheeled out in the field of political battle, void and insubstantial.
Whilst the government may proclaim the virtues of ‘society’ in this time of crisis, their commitment to its development and maintenance remains thin on the ground. Take foodbanks, on the front line of the fight against the socio-economic consequences of the pandemic. As one recipient of help in London disclosed, ‘I never thought I’d need your help, I normally donate to you’. Yet, as Sabine Goodwin, the Independent Food Aid Network’s (IFAN) coordinator admitted, ‘The emergency service food banks provide is being severely compromised’.
As of the 21st of March, two foodbanks operated by the UK’s leading provider, the Trussell Trust, have closed their doors. More will follow, chairs warn. Yet, where is the government? They are yet to announce measures to support these vital services. Instead, volunteers and activists have resorted to pleading with supermarkets for coveted online delivery slots. Plus, they demand a lift of item limitations in store for foodbank volunteers buying stock.
Take foodbanks, on the front line of the fight against the socio-economic consequences of the pandemic. As one recipient of help in London disclosed, ‘I never thought I’d need your help, I normally donate to you’.”
The same can be said for the NHS. Our national healthcare service has, for years, suffered from government cuts. However, now finds itself the poster child of the response. ‘Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’ is the motto of the government action plan. Chancellor Rishi Sunak may have promised that, ‘Whatever it needs, whatever it costs, we stand behind our NHS’. Nevertheless, where are the concrete plans to maintain increased funding for the service after COVID-19?
It is one thing to proclaim your commitment in a time of crisis, and quite another to maintain that once the status quo has been resumed. The commitment of £5bn to help the service through the extra pressures of Coronavirus is, undoubtedly, a welcome measure. What remains to be seen is whether this commitment to ‘society’ extends beyond a time of crisis.
It is, of course, no surprise that Johnson’s government is perhaps less willing to commit to the notion of society as they would like to make out. The Conservative party has long been an advocate of a limited role for government. The Prime Minister has certainly suggested that this is an approach he would like to reconsider. Yet it should not be forgotten that he has his sceptics. He does, after all, remain a champion of free enterprise.
‘Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’ is the motto of the government action plan. Chancellor Rishi Sunak may have promised that, ‘Whatever it needs, whatever it costs, we stand behind our NHS’.”
The fact remains that, at its political core, Johnson’s party remains largely opposed to any excessive state involvement in government affairs. Look to the plight of Flybe. Here, the government’s failed to save the airline in the wake of COVID-19 related pressures. This sheds a harsh light on the realities of their commitment to greater regional connectivity. ‘Society’ requires commitment. It is as yet unsure as to whether the Conservative party can actually deliver.
The current pandemic provides Britain with an opportunity. If approached correctly, it could set a precedent. One of egalitarianism, equality and the true exercise of social responsibility. Yet, to achieve this, the Conservative party must face up to reality.
Without a firm and committed conviction for change, the ‘society’ Johnson now appears to believe in will remain little more than a catchphrase. Just a tool in the Conservative political toolbox, used when it suits them, and quietly tucked away when it does not. Until such a shift actually occurs, little will change.
Look to the plight of Flybe…‘Society’ requires commitment. It is as yet unsure as to whether the Conservative party can actually deliver.”
In this case, Mrs Thatcher will remain alive and well, cemented in the psyche of British Conservatives.