The anniversary of the lockdown was a sombre occasion. Thinking back over the year, everyone had lost something, and some had lost so much. For most of the day it passed in solemn remembrance. Even the Prime Minister managed to sound serious in his press conference. On either side of him the grownups in the room – Whitty and Valance – ensured that their child/leader behaved.
And then, last night, in a zoom meeting with backbench Tory MPs the Prime Minister appears to have broken ranks with himself to claim that the success of the vaccination programme was the result of ‘greed’. This was not just a jarring note but more importantly, given the significant role that altruism played in getting us all through this – every single day, it felt insulting to all those who had done so much for so little.
Why would he, as Prime Minister of our country, say this?
Thinking about it I understood what many commentators have been saying for so long. The Prime Minister is, first and foremost, a particular type of journalist. It’s what makes him tick.
Occasionally he uses his journalist skills as a means of engaging in popular politics – to reach out politically to some people in the country. Sometimes he does this well and connects with millions of people, but sometimes this reaching out fails to chime with the public and instead his words clang emptily as he wrestles with their sound rather than their meaning.
And then, very occasionally, with a lot of help from his friends and, as in the case of the successful vaccination programme, his enemies (or certainly the enemies of greed), he pretends to actually run things.
But he is happiest being a particular kind of journalist. His particular history in that profession explains the comment about greed and the vaccination. His style of journalism is not based on 1500 words of researched argument. He is much more at home with a headline that will stick in the mind and connect with some of his readers.
As his former boss at the Telegraph, Max Hastings, wrote about his journalistic style in the Guardian,
“He would not recognise the truth, whether about his private or political life, it if confronted by it in an identity parade”
Guardian 24 June 2019
So, when he refers to the successful vaccination programme as being a good result for greed, you might expect a decent journalist to have looked at how much greed was actually going on when Astra Zeneca developed and manufactured the Covid vaccine. That would be a different type of journalism – one that linked a good headline with what had actually happened in the instance he was talking about.
But that’s not a form of journalism favoured by our Prime Minister.
Instead, he tries to rebuild a relationship with the right of the Conservative Party (put at risk by his failure to be as libertarian as they thought he should be) by reaching for a slogan they would like – about how capitalism works.
Shuffling through his collection of words, he came across greed, not because of any intrinsic meaning, but because in the film Wall Street (1987) Gordon Gekko famously argued for the idea of greed as a driver of good. As he prepares to asset strip a company he is taking over he tells the shareholders,
“The point is ladies and gentlemen that greed for want of a better word is good.
Greed is right.
There have not been many popular quotations in favour of greed since 1987. Most people, even those strongly in favour of capitalism, recognise that in terms of popular consciousness there is a problem with the word.
But this quote lives in the memory as the one strong use of the word and this is why – as an unapologetic out-front headline in favour of a particular form of capitalism – it was this word that floated to the front of the Prime Minister’s mind.
As Max Hastings emphasised truth is not necessarily something that concerns this journalist. Just as well, as the Astra Zeneca vaccine is a very bad example of greed as a driver of innovation.
I know many of my readers will not feel easy with any defence of ‘big pharma’ as they feel they are the worst of capitalism. But my point today is not a general one about big pharma and capitalism, but a specific one about how Astra Zeneca has developed, made, and now sell the Covid vaccine.
Firstly, capitalism versus socialism aside, the development of the vaccine is a wonderful demonstration of the capacity of humanity, science, and industry to achieve something to save lives. There are many drivers bringing this about in 2020/21. Our times and our people have achieved this. So well done.
But greed had extraordinarily little to do with it.
Early on Astra Zeneca said they would sell this vaccine, at cost, across the world. They would do that until the pandemic was finished. Therefore ‘greed’ as a driver to create and implement the vaccine comes pretty low down the list.
And, within capitalism, there are costs to Astra Zeneca as a company that develops this sort of pricing model.
In late November 2020 Astra Zeneca announced promising data for its vaccine. I remember the day very well and took a keen interest in how the company would be treated as a result of this breakthrough.
The next day Nils Pratley of the Guardian commented,
“The Stock Market is cruel Astra Zeneca’s reward for unveiling promising data for its vaccine for the world, was a 3.8% fall in its share price. No gratitude there – just a decline of roughly £4 billion in the company’s value” …The day when the company can move to a “for profit” model is still some way off”.
So, whatever you think or feel about big pharma and profit – the company that developed this vaccine LOST £4 billion as a result of its development.
This may provide an example for learning all sorts of lessons – altruism, government and industry working together or just the wonders of science at the service of mankind. There are all sorts of lessons.
But greed is NOT one of them.
In searching for a good headline, the Prime Minister missed the truth that really makes our world go round.
But don’t let facts get in the way of a good headline.