About 6 weeks into the lockdown there were many predictions that our society would never go back to being the way it was before the virus hit. The thinking was that because we had learnt so much about our society and its need for key workers, and had experienced pulling together – just as after World War 2 – things would inevitably change. My response at the time was that no future – good or bad – is a given. I suggested that, just as in normal times, history will be made by us all and there will be political battles ahead to shape that future. We are beginning to see now what they might look like.
I’ve also commented on how, during the lockdown, belief in the Government’s capacity to see us through this crisis has declined considerably. Last weekend, Michael Gove’s suggestion that wearing masks in shops should be left to British common sense, underlined two of the consistent philosophical problems the Government have had.
Firstly the Government fundamentally believe in ‘British exceptionalism’. They really do think that British ‘common sense’ is in many ways better than its French or German equivalent. Because of this they depend upon our ‘specialness’ to see us through the crisis as being a ‘thing’ in and of itself. (As in our “world beating” test track and trace system). Looking at this philosophy from the outside it looks weird, but for those inside the philosophical bubble this supposed world view of our ‘specialness’ is a policy tool to be used at every opportunity.
The second philosophical problem is that this exceptionalism is based in part on a strong belief in freedom. Never forget that on March 24 – the day after lockdown began – the banner headline in the Daily Telegraph was ‘The end of freedom’. They saw the Government, now led by their former columnist, as having let everyone down by taking our freedom away.
Although the Government told the public what to do within a month sections of the Governing Party were wanting to stop lockdown and organising against it. Coming out of lockdown has been chaotic because so much of the Government keeps wanting to declare Freedom or Independence days. This confusion between voluntary action and the law led to Michael Gove saying on Sunday that it’s up to all of us whether we wear masks in shops, only for the Prime Minister to say on Monday that wearing masks will be enforced by law.
Robert Buckland, the Secretary of State for Justice, hedged his bets by saying that face masks should be “mandatory perhaps”. Whilst this may be genius-level internal party politics it’s a bit confusing for the public.
They really don’t want to pass laws to make us do things – but they feel they have to.
This can be summarised by another of Corrigan’s simple laws of Government,
“Governments are not very good at implementing policies they don’t believe in”.
Put that way it seems obvious, but we expect them all to be good at everything. But let’s be honest, in December 2019 there would have been very few people who went to the ballot box thinking,” Hmmmm. That Boris Johnson looks as if he would understand the epidemiological implications of an unusual virus and act swiftly on those implications to restrict its spread”. I know people’s voting decisions are sometimes influenced by strange beliefs – but not that strange.
On the other hand there were undoubtedly many millions of people who voted for Boris Johnson to ‘Get Brexit Done’ and quite a few of those wanted to ‘gain control of our borders’.
I make these points because on Monday the Government announced the details of its immigration policy and, with the exception of migrant NHS workers not having to pay to use the NHS that they are providing, it’s very much business as usual.
The Government has weighed up the politics of making a decision considering – on the one hand – how the country thinks about social care staff shortages, and on the other how it (the Government) feels about restricting immigration. They decided that the latter was the thing they really believed in and that upsetting those of the public who are sympathetic to social care staff is ephemeral and a political risk worth taking.
To be clear. On Monday the Government could have stuck to its big picture guns and allowed more migrant social care workers to work here. But for the Government’s Brexit policy the big picture is that this country, not the EU, should be in charge of its migration policy. The issue of migration between Britain and the EU revolves around the latter’s principle of freedom of movement. Being part of the EU means that citizens of EU countries can move to work in any other country.
The one issue in the EU referendum that exemplified why taking back control was important to leavers was immigration. The ‘threat’ of the country not being able to stop millions of Turkish people coming to the UK was a big issue in the campaign.
So on Monday the Government could have demonstrated that they are taking back control of immigration and at the same time relaxed the rules for social care workers. After all there is in the plan a new, special visa for NHS and social care. Yet despite the name, there is something rather odd about the current list of jobs this visa covers. None of them are in social care. (Why call it something that it has no relationship to?)
They could have ‘taken back control’ by saying that they are exercising it by choosing to include social care. They could have worked with the current political feeling for social care provision and said that because of the nation’s shared understanding of its importance during the Covid crisis, we will introduce social care visas as part of our taking control agenda.
They decided not to do this. Instead they decided that taking back control was not enough in itself. They decided that it was important, having taken back control, to also demonstrate that this means strictly limiting the number of foreign workers that come to work with vulnerable people in social care.
Over the last few weeks, the public have come to realise how fragile our social care provision is. The Government have now made a decision that will clearly exacerbate that fragility.
In terms of what we can learn from this about post-Covid politics it is apparent that the Government see no medium-term political risk arising from the public’s newly acquired affection for social care workers. They are confident that limiting migration will trump providing social care staff.
As with Covid the reality of what happens next year will test the validity of that confidence.