Over the last few months I have, like many others, become increasingly dispirited about the big politics framing the Government’s response to the Covid crisis. From March until July it had seemed to me that a useful exercise would be to point out the problems inherent in implementing their policies and the relationships they might forge to improve that implementation. The nation’s fight with Covid; the heroic work of health and care workers; the discipline of the population during lockdown, all these positive factors seemed to demand a competent response in the detail of the execution of Government policy.
But since July I have been developing a stronger and stronger feeling that this is not what the big politics of this Government are about. And criticising them for not achieving something that is not their main aim – increasingly seems a bit of a mug’s game.
Then, between the 18th and 20th September we saw the Sun, the Star, the Mirror and the Times all pointing out not only the Government’s lack of competence but a lack of honesty about what they were doing. On the 18th the Sun’s contrasted the honesty of Churchill’s speech promising the British people blood sweat and tears with the current Prime Minister’s approach. They pointed out that Churchill did not say to the British people “The Luftwaffe? Pah! We’ll zap them with lasers we haven’t yet invented”.
After this level of criticism, the odd blog feels a bit feeble.
Like a lot of my readers I have spent a few decades (most of them somewhat fewer than me) working through how the detail of implementing health and health care policies fit in with the high politics of ideology and political thought. To do this requires a combination of understanding what very different governments believe, how those beliefs can be turned into policy, and identifying the practices needed for real people to deliver real services. If, more than 20 years ago the Government was elected on reducing maximum waiting times to 6 months, how might this in practice be achieved by involving private sector hospitals in delivering services to NHS patients? If ideologically you want to achieve that, what are the mechanics of the policy and the practice?
But over the summer a gradual epiphany has led me to believe that whilst this may have been the way in which I work, I don’t think it’s the way in which this Government or the President of the USA operate.
So resuming the blog by simply returning to criticisms of Government competence seemed a waste of time. It may be a bit of fun for me – and may be keeping us all warm as the nights draw in – but it’s really nothing to do with what this Government is about.
So when, last Monday and Tuesday, the Government reworked their policy on Covid restrictions, I would previously have engaged with the detail by, for example, considering that if you really want to reduce the R (reproduction rate) of the virus will reducing the amount of time you can drink in a pub achieve that or do you need to do something more? An interesting and important issue – but not I fear what last week’s announcement was all about.
I will return to the detail of what, in these strange times, I think it was all about tomorrow.
Here I want to make some bigger points about what this Government may be trying to achieve. This is a different view of politics than we have seen before (and one which is exemplified even more by the ways of working of Donald Trump). I’m not entirely at home with this, but I think it needs exploring.
For some time now we have become used to the way in which Governments make announcements. Sometimes they are devoid of anything important and made simply because they want to generate media interest in a topic. For the last few decades journalists have become used to being advised of an ‘important press announcement’ by Governments – including the one for which I worked – only to find it full of words and lacking anything that is really going to have any impact in terms of policy and practice. We have become used to content-free announcements made not only to fill air space and newspaper columns (if they’re writing about us – then they are not writing about them), but also to try and promote an emotional picture of what the Government is trying to achieve.
“This announcement says we are a Government that cares about older people”, “We are a Government that is bold in its policies” etc., etc. Announcements that didn’t only announce a policy but also declared an emotion. String 10 of them together and they project emotions they want the public to feel about that Government. (In the past they also even announced some real things they were trying to do).
Current politics has moved this on to a new dimension where content is reduced to zero and emotion assumes complete dominance. For example, just a fortnight ago – the announcement of legislation (The Internal Market Bill) – which would see Britain breaking a treaty with the EU that it agreed just 8 months ago could reasonably have been supposed to be an announcement about a piece of legislation. But it wasn’t. It was an announcement about an emotion. Defiance against the EU. The legislation was the ‘hook’ by which the Government wanted to portray the emotion of defiance.
The purpose of the announcement was to reinvigorate – amongst those that voted for this Government to ‘Get Brexit done”- fervour for Brexit and defiance against the EU. When it was made people like me started to work out voting patterns in the Houses of Commons and Lords, the timetable of the legislation, when committee stages would take place etc., because we – foolishly – thought this was announcement about a piece of legislation – and we get into the detail of that.
But in fact, it isn’t. It’s actually about English defiance towards the EU.
The 43.6 % of the population that voted for the Government last December probably resonate strongly with defiance and whilst some may be anxious about breaking international treaties their emotional relationship with what they voted for last December has been re-ignited.
The whole purpose of the announcement is to reawaken English defiance of the EU.
Whilst the announcement has some content its main aim is to generate an emotion. Over a few days the content falls away and becomes unimportant. Emotion however soars and develops a strong life of its own. This is more than just a speech because the Government is ‘doing something’. But the thing that we think it’s doing is entirely secondary to the emotion that it demonstrates.
As I hope is apparent, those of us who spend our lives working on the content of all this are sort of missing the point with this sort of politics,
And yes, and yes I know that of course content and delivery does matter to the public (who are of course also voters) but I have a sneaking suspicion that it might matter a lot less than the emotions that are unleashed around the announcements.
So this is what I am going to be blogging about for the next few weeks. (That’s a warning!)
 I was emboldened to develop this way of thinking by an article by John Harris in the Guardian. If he had the nerve to explain this odd phenomenon in a national newspaper then I could at least try to explain it in a blog.