If Prime Minster Johnson's illegal prorogation of parliament in the autumn of 2019 marked the end of the "good chaps theory of government," then yesterday's intemperate revelations by Dominic Cummings mark the end of the era of common decency in public political discord. The uninhibited criticisms untempered by any vestige of politeness, and their reporting in today's media, must be the most bizarre episode in UK politics in a century.
It is refreshing that the "revelations" contained few if any of the evasions and fudges so common from politicians of all stripes, but particularly government ministers and spokespersons, but the Cummings tirade has exceed the boundaries of ordinary courtesy.
Revenge porn at its worst?
The revelations do not in fact reveal anything those of us who have been following events didn't already know or a least suspect. Those who need to refresh their memories could read items 10 to 20 of this indictment of Johnson in an earlier post. For even greater detail read "Failures of the State. the Inside Story of Britain's Battle with Coronavirus," by Sunday Times reporters Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott (HarperCollins 2021)
Nevertheless it is interesting to have conformation of the reality of events from the inside.
Whether these lurid accusations will make an immediate political difference remains to be seen. So far Johnson and his Cabinet have been "Teflon coated." Johnson has an ebullient personality which is attractive to many who seem happy to give him the benefit of the doubt in an admittedly difficult situation. I'm beginning to wonder if this preference for personality over competence is the result of the fact that the voting most people do these days is to retain or throw people off "Love Island" or to get "Celebrities. . .out of Here."
However, I'm pretty certain that, sooner or later, the Johnson shine will fade (as did Margaret Thatcher's and Tony Blair's) and competence and relevance will come to be seen as more important in making serous political choices.
What I have seen no mention of so far in the media furore is the "in depth" reason for our failure to deal competently with the pandemic: the systematic underfunding of the NHS and care system over a decade with the result that, when the pandemic struck, our health and care systems had no spare capacity to deal with it.
As the King's Fund reports:
During the period of austerity that followed the 2008 economic crash, the Department of Health and Social Care budget continued to grow but at a slower pace than in previous years. Budgets rose by 1.4 per cent each year on average (adjusting for inflation) in the 10 years between 2009/10 to 2018/19, compared to the 3.7 per cent average rises since the NHS was established.
Although from the accession of the Conservative-led government in 2010 the NHS was supposed to be protected from cuts, in fact, in order to "stand still" the health and care services need above inflation increase in order to accommodate increasing longevity (such as me) and advances in, but increasingly expensive, medical techniques.
And Britain's heath and care crevices were not in a robust state to begin with.
As journalist John Kampfner records, Germany has 8.3 hospital beds per 1 000 population, France 7.3 and the UK 2.7. At the start of the pandemic Germany had 28 000 intensive care unit beds, the UK 4 100. Germany has 4.1 doctors per 1000 population , the EU average is 3.5 and the UK 2.8. (Pages 223/4, "Why the Germans do it Better." Atlantic books, 2020)
So the "tens of thousands" of people who have so far died unnecessarily in the pandemic are partly the result of current government errors, some of which may be excusable, but mostly the result of the British illusion, fostered by both major patsies, that we can have Scandinavian-style public services with US scale taxes.
We can't, and we need to grow up and recognise this.
If there is to be a "new era" of politics after the pandemic, and I hope there will be, we need grown up political parties who will speak to a grown up electorate about realistic taxation levels to fund the public services we think we deserve.
Post script, added 17h45.
The Ko-Ko Defence
I had intended to leave the emphasis on the longer term rather than immediate causes of the pandemic catastrophe rather than of the failings of the current government , but I have just caught a clip of Health Secretary Matt Hancock's defence in response to Cummings's the accusation that in the Cabinet room Hancock assured colleagues that elderly people in hospital would all be tested for the virus before the were returned to their care homes.
It went like this (I précis):
I knew what had to be done.
So I planned how to do it,
My team worked tirelessly to prepare and implement the plan.
and [eventually] it was done.
Though he didn't actually say "eventually."
This reminds me of the closing scenes of Gilbert and Sullivan's opera "The Mikado" in which the Lord High Executioner, a timid chap called Ko-Ko, has to explain to the somewhat bloodthirsty Mikado why he, Ko-Ko, hasn't actually executed anyone.
"It's like this: When your Majesty says, 'Let a thing be done,' it's as good as done -practically, it is done - because your Majesty's will is law. Your Majesty says, 'Kill a gentleman,' and a gentleman is tolld off to be killed . Consequently that gentleman is as good as dead - practically he is dead. - and if he is dead, why not say so?"
Gilbert, thou shoulds't be living at this hour.