There seems to be something in either our British psyche or our system that pushes us towards conflict rather than co-operation.
It is right that the government should make proposals, and that the opposition parties should, where necessary, criticise them and propose alternatives. I'm happy with that: it is our system.
Sir Keir Starmer is treading a fine line between probing the the holes in the government's often vague and inadequate proposals and avoiding too bellicose an approach which could alienate the electorate which is still largely supportive of the government. The Tories are still 20 points ahead in the polls.
Personally I'd like Starmer to be a bit more aggressive, but that's a matter for him and his party to judge. I'd also like the Liberal Democrats to be heard but we seem to have been squeezed out.
What worries me is that the government seems to present its proposals without appearing to have consulted the people most deeply concerned.
On Sunday evening Prime Minister Johnson used prime-time television to address the nations (sic) on how we would ease ourselves out of the lockdown. Unusually for the Tories, who are good at effective PR, the timing was bad, coming at the end of a three day weekend. Knowing it was coming many people made their own decisions about what he would say and spent three days cheerfully breaking the existing regulations.
The overall presentation of the broadcast was, except for Johnson's excessive use of gestures (it's as though he's trying to encourage a team of eight year old footballers to maintain their positions and not all chase after the ball) well done. There were clear graphics to show, in different colours, five levels of danger, a pie chart with moveable arrow to show the importance of the Reproduction rate, and to my relief, the approach was to be very cautious. He's clearly learned from his own experience of the illness.
So a pretty god over-all picture. But, as often is the case, the devil was in the detail.
The most glaring howler was that people who couldn't work from home should report for work the following morning. For those who start at 7am that's less than 12 hours notice, with no indications as to:
- if they were lucky enough to be receive the 80% of pay from the government, would they continue to receive it if they failed to report;
- how the employers would, in that short space of time, be able to make their workplaces coronavirus proof;
- whether the employees would have the right to refuse to work and return home if the necessary safety conditions were not in place;
- if they needed child care and hadn't time to arrange it, would employees still get paid, or even retain their jobs., if they didn't turn up?
The following (Monday) morning Dominic Raab, Johnson's stand-in, said that the prime minister had not meant Monday, but Wednesday. This morning, Tuesday, another minister (Matt Hancock I think) when questioned on this point, said loftily that if that was all the "Today" programme had to worry about, then everything was really fine.
I've read somewhere that the officer class concentrates on broad strategies and leaves it to the NCOs to fill in the details. maybe that's the trouble.
In the 1960s and 70s we Liberals argued as part of our economic policy that there should be a joint council representing the government , employees and employers (effectively the TUC and the CBI) to hammer our ways to make the economy work more effectively.
Surely the same principle is appropriate here.
Why is there no joint meeting of the government, unions and employers to work out an agreeable way of re-introducing normal economic activity? Why is there no meeting of the Department of Education, the teachers' unions, and representatives of the many other workers involved in schools, to work out when and how and in what order to re-open the schools?
And why no "four nations" permanent council to devise a strategy for the whole UK if that is thought desirable? (though I think it isn't - even in these circumstances differences are possible and sensible. That is what devolution is all about)
On the issue of re-opening the schools, as one who has taught every age-group from reception class (not for very long) to pensioners, I'd like to know the argument for starting the re-opening with the infants and year six. Surely the infants will be the hardest with which to enforce physical distance (not to mention their parents at the gate), and I'm not sure that 11 year-olds actually need special induction to transfer to secondary schools. Surely they could just watch "Grange Hill."
Maybe this decision to start with the infants is nothing to do with education at all. Many countries with allegedly more successful educational outcomes than ours don't start school till seven. But the infant group need looking after, so if they're back at school their parents or careers can go back to work, and the reason is the economy. If so, we should be told.