Listening to Boris Johnson make his conference speech, as inverted a pyramid of piffle as any he has made; anyone would think 72% of young people in the UK were not afraid of the future, and almost two in five planning not to have children because climate breakdown means that they would be bringing them into a world that will be nightmarish by the time they are adults.
Barely addressing the climate crisis – for what could he say -and skidding swiftly over thin ice – as he tends to do – he tickled a few reliable rabid reflexes of the Tory faithful instead.
No reflection at all on the gravity of the situation, the impacts that are already hitting home. That there has been more disruption to normal traffic from flash floods in the last couple of months than from the actions of Insulate Britain. Yet we have no reflection on the former, just a little dig at the latter.
And no comment – of course – on the government’s abject failure to retrofit the leakiest, draftiest, most expensive to heat homes in Europe. They have tried twice since 2010, and failed ignominiously both times. And they currently have no plan at all.
Insulate Britain have two demands.
1. That the UK government immediately promises to fully fund and take responsibility for the insulation of all social housing in Britain by 2025
2. That the UK government immediately promises to produce within four months a legally binding national plan to fully fund and take responsibility for the full low-energy and low-carbon whole-house retrofit , with no externalised costs, of all homes in Britain by 2030 as part of a just transition to full decarbonisation of all parts of society and the economy.
This is because, as they put it
The UK has some 29 million homes and they are the oldest and least energy efficient housing stock in Europe. Every year vast amounts of precious energy are wasted in heating and, increasingly, cooling our buildings.
In order to meet UK commitments under the Paris Agreement to stay below 1.5C, and legal obligations under the Climate Change Act 2008, as amended in 2019, emissions from heating and powering homes must be reduced by 78% in less than 15 years and then to zero by 2050.
Nearly 15% of the UK’s total emissions comes from heating homes: an overhaul of the energy performance of the UK’s housing stock is needed to reduce the energy demand.
The UK needs a nation-wide programme to upgrade almost every house. The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) 2018 report, Scaling Up Retro fit 2050, advises that nearly every home in the UK needs to be upgraded with energy efficiency measures. That is 1.5 homes per minute to the year 2050.
Any government serious about the scale and urgency of the climate crisis would be doing this already.
People supergluing themselves to motorways is a desperate measure for desperate times, coming from a justified anxiety that the scale of the response from a blustering and blithering government is completely out of whack with the scale of the problem. People not in denial about the implications of “code red for humanity”- and alarmed by it – will increasingly take actions that disrupt the flow of normality. Because it is “normality” that is stoking the crisis. As the Dennis Price character says in Kind Hearts and Coronets: “The prospect of impending execution concentrates the mind wonderfully”.
The problem is that action directed at people just trying to get by in someone else’s world annoys them directly and gives those responsible for the crisis a way to divert anger at it onto the people trying to change it; thereby diverting attention from their failure to deal with it and giving them a chance to bring in more repressive legislation directed at protest, with the general public cheering on the restriction of their own rights. The Conservatives are very practiced at this.
Polling indicates overwhelming support for insulating homes, but equally overwhelming condemnation for the actions. YouGov Polls show 53% have an unfavourable view of IB, with just 16% favourable. The scale of this varies from a 7:1 unfavourable view from Conservative voters to a 2:1 unfavourable view among Labour and Lib Dem voters; just over 4:1 among over 65s and 2:1 among 18-24 year olds. YouGov put their questions about the protests first, and the issue second – just so everyone can be prompted in the most negative way. In a local poll in Newbury Today framed as “Would you take tougher legal action against the Insulate Britain environmental protesters” 87% voted “Yes, their tactics are too disruptive to the public” and just 11% “No, they are fighting to save our planet”. The framing of the narrative is the “Eco mob” vs you and me. Anyone arrested at a protest who has ever driven a diesel vehicle or cooked with gas is gleefully “exposed” as a “hypocrite” in the written lynch mob tactics the tabloids have honed to perfection over the years.
The issue here is that the initial framing of XR’s direct, peaceful disruptive action strategy was that it was designed to be disruptive enough to make the powers that be accede to their demands as a easier option than carrying on with business as usual. This always over estimated the potential for this and under estimated the determination of the ruling class to keep their show on the road even as they began to see that it is running over a cliff. However, even this strategy was contingent on the generation of mass support. The tactics deployed therefore needed to be carefully chosen, so that mass sympathy for the issue could be further generated by the example of the sacrifice of the people carrying out the actions. The actions of the most conscious, determined and disciplined people had to act as a catalyst for mass pressure in the right direction. A misjudged action – like the attempt to stop the tube at Canning Town in November 2019, which led commuters to physically attack protestors – acts as a catalyst for reaction.
Action to insulate homes is a priority. For reducing carbon emissions. For creating jobs. For cutting bills. It is being blocked by a government unwilling to invest in it. As a demand it has mass support. The question for the whole movement is how to mobilise that support in campaigning on a mass enough scale to make continued delay politically impossible.
The open rift between the England Football team and 10 Downing Street, with the team refusing to allow the Prime Minister to cash in on their popularity after his failure to condemn the “fans” who booed them when they took the knee, is a challenge to the government’s monopoly hold on notions of “Englishness”. A diverse team full of people whose families come from all over the world, and often from poverty, whose members have campaigned for free school meals, and who collectively turn the previously one dimensionally retro patriotic pre match ceremonials (national anthems) into a challenge to racism as well; have refused to be used as window dressing by the most reactionary government of my lifetime.
Suddenly, there’s a price to be paid for blowing racist dog whistles, especially if you do it on trombones. When even the Sun prints photos of the three black players who were abused with the slogan, “we got your back”, the same slogan used by Stand up to Racism, you know where the popular sentiment lies. People look at the team, then they look at the government, and think who is more like they are. Boris Johnson has 1.4 million Twitter followers. Marcus Rashford has 11.4 million. This is not a competition thats going to penalties.
Like the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, a Conservative government finds itself a bit beyond the right wing fringe of popular sensibility about what’s good about the country they are trying to lead. As do the tiny minority of bitter and twisted racist fans who did the booing, abused fans from other countries, including children, and sent the racist tweets. The PM was slim enough to formally condemn this once he realised how strongly the wind was blowing- rather than saying they were “very fine people” – but this was too little, too late. People are starting to know who he is and what he’s about. The Teflon is looking scraped.
This is also challenge to the worst aspects of football fan culture for the last half century or so.
If you look up at the statue of Bobby Moore standing in splendid isolation outside Wembley stadium – in memory of a time when men were men and balls were made of leather in more ways than one – the epic treatment of it shows that there is something going on that’s not just about football. The heroic but modest man of destiny posture, half Roy of the Rovers, half Alexander the Great, head slightly bowed by the weight of responsibility, the ball under his foot not going anywhere without his say so.
The only time England ever won the World Cup – at home at Wem-ber-lee – was in 1966, at a point of turmoil and ferment in which all that had previously seemed solid was melting into air.
The preceding 20 years saw the British Empire shrink from direct rule over a quarter of the world to a residual global archipelago of tax havens and military bases – the Falklands, Gibraltar, the Cayman Islands and so on – with a series of brutal late colonial anti insurgency campaigns in Kenya, Malaya and Aden to add a bitter late coda to its passing. These would also be “coming home” to the North of Ireland – the weakest link of the UK’s ramshackle constitution- soon enough.
A sense of bewildered loss of status – along with a nervous sense that the countries that had lost the Second World War were – terribly unfairly – doing rather better economically than Britain was – was widespread. Morris and Austin were losing out to Volkswagen, and BSA was going under because Honda made better motor bikes. The last of the big ships were being launched and the slipways would lie empty within ten years. The obsessive concern with “the balanceof payments” was not so much an economic consideration as one of standing and prestige. The phrase “who won the bloody war anyway?” was quite common, and carried with it the presumption that having done that, other countries should know their place. After all we did for them too.
At the time, this went along with a mockery for the upper class, and the old, who had lost all our places in the sun and could therefore no longer be respected, and a desire for modernity; to simultaneously erase the loss of past status while maintaining the benefits of it. The Satire wave lampooned old and feeble politicians, while films like Oh What a Lovely War and Charge of the Light Brigade sent up the ruling class as useless, incompetent, carelessly murderous, rather dense and possibly inbred chinless wonders; certain of the little they knew and oblivious to all else in a world that had moved beyond them and out of their time. This was double edged. A negation of the negative, but was not able to look much beyond it.
Winning the World Cup in the middle of all this came as a sort of compensation for it – still top of the world in something – which gave it a weight and significance that it could hardly bear. The world was no longer under our boot, but a ball was. The losses ever since confirm that even this is out of reach, but this has, if anything, deepened its hold in a manner that is almost masochistic. “We’re shit…and we know we are!”
When you look at the newspaper headlines, the phrase “55 years of hurt” from Skinner and Baddiel’s “Three Lions” song, is featured again and again. There is something so self pitying about this phrase that it is faintly nauseating. The “hurt” comes from not winning. That is the common experience of every team in every competition bar one. The notion that not being that one team is particularly hurtful implies a view of national standing that assumes that “we” are somehow better by birth. It also underlies the rather previous habit of the Newspapers of running headlines and graphics on the day of the big match that simply presume a win. The montage of the current teams heads on the photo of Moore and his team mates holding the World Cup – “Jules Rimet’s still gleaming” -is a classic in its way.
The blending with World War Two themes – “Two World Wars and One World Cup – do-da do-da” – is a mixture that is toxic for those that take it too seriously; as it locks them into a frozen narrative of who they are capable of being and a state of suspended childhood. “Achtung! Surrender!” a headline from Euro 96 was obviously written by editors who had read too many copies of the Victor and Valiant at an impressionable age. But this reflects the overall national mythology that World War 2 – with its themes of fighting Nazism and being the good guys – was our defining historical experience. This is the dominant view here. The Washington Post pointed out a couple of years ago that no other country has that impression. The view in every other country in the world is that the defining experience of British History was the Empire. Not the good guys. Hard to think that we’re the only ones in step. Britain is, after all, the country that forced a war on China so that our merchants could sell their people Opium. The promise of what Billy Bragg called a “New England” can only be realised by coming to terms with all that and rejecting it – which means internationalism, recompense, reparations and repair; and treating football as a game not a metaphor for national triumphalism. It will probably be more enjoyable that way.
On Monday morning my neighbour, who was still wearing his face paint from the night before – called out from the steps outside his flat about how well they’d done and how much they were in with a shout at the World Cup next year. Hope springs eternal. Maybe Bobby Moore will get some company. Maybe it’ll be Marcus Rashford. It won’t be Boris Johnson.
Two points on terminology. The confusion between “Britain” and “England” – reflecting the dominance of the latter within the UK -was common enough for England fans to wave Union Jacks at international football matches until Euro 96. The self conscious wallowing in WW2 themes is peculiar to England fans. The Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish fans don’t spend a lot of time singing “10 German bombers”.
When I write “we” this does not imply equal culpability for historic imperial crimes. The ruling class were – and are – in charge and are therefore directly responsible. The guilt or otherwise of subordinate classes reflects the extent to which they challenged or colluded.
When Boris Johnson said this time last year that he had an “oven ready” deal with the EU, he neglected to point out that the oven was broken.
He is now breezily assuring us that an “Australian style” deal won’t be too bad; as retailers warn of price rises and supply shortages of everything from food to medicine.
An Australia style deal is no deal at all. Mongolia and Afghanistan have the same “deal” with the EU as Australia does. But, Australia has a certain “White Dominion” atavistic “kith and kin” resonance with a certain kind of Tory voter, all positive associations of Barbecues and beer on Bondi Beach, aspirational Neighbours style suburbia and just a little bit of “common sense” casual racism. Johnson could say “Mongolian style deal” or “Afghan style deal” instead, but that would go down as well as yak milk with these people, so he doesn’t.
Of course, Australia is currently trying to negotiate a closer trade deal with the EU, while the UK is pulling away. Total Australian trade with the EU is significantly smaller than that of the UK.
When considering the percentage of imports and exports, the difference weight of EU trade is even more stark.
What also has to be factored in here is that just under half of Australian trade with the EU is actually with the UK – for historic colonial reasons – so the proportion with the rest of Europe is even smaller than appears here. It is therefore less of a problem for Australia to be trading with the EU without a deal than it will be for the UK in three weeks time.
No deal means World Trade Organisation terms. That means tariffs, costs, hold ups. The cost of that will be borne by all of us and it will hit the worst off hardest and will form part of the austerity offensive already being carried through; as the costs of COVID are pushed downwards in lost jobs and cut or frozen wages while the government pulls patriotic poses, ramps up the hostile environment, lines up organisations like the EHRC to pursue culture wars, forbids any teaching that encourages “victim narratives” and pursues a rightward shift in the media environment – because they don’t want a institutionally conservative commentator that passively reflects their line, as the BBC does, they want a cheerleader generating zealous enthusiasm for the traitor hunt that is already well under way; and will be ramped up to shrieking pitch as the “easiest deal in History” fails and lorry drivers stuck in Kent queue up to piss in bottles.
“The food here is terrible. Yes, and such small portions.” (1)
“Hmm. This is burnt AND undercooked.” (2)
This is Boris Johnson’s ten point plan for the Environment with comments (in italics). This “plan” is an almost random curates egg of proposals with no overall strategy – other than a series of hopeful nudges at the private sector in the hope that it will take up the slack and fill the gaps between the limited and truncated ambition and the almost laughably small commitment the government is putting in to realise it; bringing to mind the two jokes above.
“Imagine Britain when a Green Industrial Revolution has helped to level up the country.”
You might have been able to achieve this by voting Labour last December, but for now you just have to imagine.
“You cook breakfast using hydrogen power before getting in your electric car, having charged it overnight from batteries made in the Midlands. Around you the air is cleaner; trucks, trains, ships and planes run on hydrogen or synthetic fuel.”
The poverty of imagination in this vision is almost numbing. Imagine instead that you don’t need to go to work by car every day because there is effective broadband that allows you to work for home more often; nor have to pay through the nose to use a car to travel, because everything you need is within a fifteen minute walk or cycle ride; with longer journeys covered by clean, efficient electric buses, trams and trains or community car clubs.Imagine fewer vehicles and less space required for them, with car parks turned into parks with bike hangars; with a car scrappage scheme paying for travel passes and electric cycles.Imagine your home properly insulated and fueled with renewable energy – and imagine no homeless because we have built an additional 500,000 council houses to passivhaus standards.All of this is doable.
“British towns and regions — Teesside, Port Talbot, Merseyside and Mansfield — are now synonymous with green technology and jobs. This is where Britain’s ability to make hydrogen and capture carbon pioneered the decarbonisation of transport, industry and power.”
Towns and regions and cities all over the world will need to be synonymous with green jobs. This has to become a global norm. Hopefully Britain will do its bit in this global process without striking vainglorious poses about world beating systems – or Apps. CCS will be important for heavy industries but research into it has been going on for a long time without viable results – and can be a fig leaf for carrying on as normal while we wait for a technological solution that might not come. It is not a basket to put most of our eggs in.
“My 10-point plan to get there will mobilise £12bn of government investment, and potentially three times as much from the private sector, to create and support up to 250,000 green jobs.”
“Potentially” – “up to.” So, maybe not even that much.£12 billion of government investment is – frankly – peanuts – and compares pitifully with the £27 billion earmarked for expanding the road network; not to mention the sums being pledged by comparable countries in Europe.
The Green Jobs Task Force was announced a couple of days ago with the supposed aim of generating 2 million green jobs by 2030; yet here we have a plan aiming to generate “up to” just 250,000 (an eighth of that figure).Are they making this up as they go along?
“There will be electric vehicle technicians in the Midlands, construction and installation workers in the North East and Wales, specialists in advanced fuels in the North West, agroforestry practitioners in Scotland, and grid system installers everywhere. And we will help people train for these new green jobs through our Lifetime Skills Guarantee”.
And there will be an airport in the Thames Estuary and a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland and, and..Moonshot, what moonshot? Typical broad brush fabulism from Johnson. What are the specifics? How many? Where? Doing what? What funding is committed to apprenticeships in the desperately needed areas and who will manage the transition?What is the plan for overhauling the curriculum?
“This 10-point plan will turn the UK into the world’s number one centre for green technology and finance, creating the foundations for decades of economic growth.”
In your dreams Boris! If you look at the patents filed for renewable energy technology, the UK doesn’t even get its own column, being bundled in with the “rest of the world”. China is right out there in front with 7544, with the USA trailing on 2059, Germany on 571 and Japan on 89. So the UK is well below that. (3)
This ten point plan has neither the ambition or the imagination to stimulate a more positive and creative contribution to the global effort we need from this country – preferring instead post imperial fantasies of being back up where we belong: a slightly greener gated community.
The phrase “decades of economic growth” implies that this can be growth of the sort we have now – with an ever intensifying pattern of worktaking over our entire lives and making depression an epidemic, compensated by accelerated consumption to fill the holes in our souls; overlaid ona widening gap between people in poverty and insecurity and those who need the FT “How to spend it” supplement to work out how to dispose of more money than they know what to do with; rather than the growthin security, health, care, wellbeing, community and shared cultural creativitywe need.
This Plan could well be retitled, “everything must change so that things can stay as they are.” (4)
“One — we will make the UK the Saudi Arabia of wind with enough offshore capacity to power every home by 2030.”
This is the least we can do.All this is already planned for and on the stocks.There is no mention of onshore wind which the Conservatives have gone out of their way to discourage; hitherto favouring fracking and now fantasising about mini nuclear power stations instead.Perhaps people should be given the choice as to which they prefer in their local area. The comparison with Saudi Arabia is another absurd vainglorious pose. Saudi Arabia exports vast quantities of oil. This programme does not even supply all domestic energy demands.
“Two — we will turn water into energy with up to £500m of investment in hydrogen.”
The prominence given Hydrogen here implies that it will be the main plank in replacing natural gas for heating and cooking, rather than looking to going wholesale with electricity generated by renewable sources – either on the grid or on local grids or using heat pumps.There is no rationale here – or exploration of alternative costings – for why they have gone with this. However, the investment allocated is so tiny that it won’t make much of a dent in any transition they have in mind; and there is that wonderful get out of jail free phrase “up to” again; so it might not even be that much.
“Three — we will take forward our plans for new nuclear power, from large scale to small and advanced modular reactor.”
There are no specifics here nor any rationale. The small modular reactors are unproven technology. So is the technology currently being built at Hinckley point for that matter, which is already over budget and off target. Investment in nuclear takes a very long time. It is also absurdly expensive compared with wind or solar power – and becomes more so as time goes on. the government is committing to a herd of white elephants. (5) The excess costs for taking on this less than optimal option will be paid for by everyone’s energy bills.
“Four — we’ll invest more than £2.8bn in electric vehicles, lacing the land with charging points and creating long-lasting batteries in UK gigafactories. This will allow us to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans in 2030. However, we will allow the sale of hybrid cars and vans that can drive a significant distance with no carbon coming out of the tailpipe until 2035.
Five — we will have cleaner public transport, including thousands of green buses and hundreds of miles of new cycle lanes.”
After decarbonising the energy grid, which the proposals above fumble, this is the most important sector to get a grip on. Emissions have been rising, largely because car companies have been pushing SUVs and there are more cars on the roads overall. SUVs also have a negative impact on road deaths for anyone unfortunate enough to collide with them.
The ban on new fossil fuel car sales from 2030 is welcome, though the loophole for hybrids implies that they don’t pollute. They do. And they should be included. SUVs should also be phased out as rapidly as possibleand the companies that build them fined substantial sums every year they continue to do it.
A green transition in transport does not simply imply a 1:1 swap between fossil fuel cars and electric cars, but a significant shift away from cars altogether. The investment in gigafactories will be more significant in the transition to electric public transport. Unlike most cars, buses are in almost continuous use. This can be done much quicker than the snails pace currently projected even by TFL – the best run local transport network in the country. In Shenzen in southern China, they converted every single one of their 16,000 buses from diesel to electric in one year (2016). Where there’s a will…Making the most rapid transition also requires a coherent national transport plan – both to tie city neighbourhood together and provide a web of connections for rural areas too. That requires investment in public transport that is genuinely public.
The level of investment in bike lanes is absurdly small. “Hundreds of miles”, when you consider that there are 247,100 miles of roads in the UK.
“Six — we will strive to repeat the feat of Jack Alcock and Teddie Brown, who achieved the first nonstop transatlantic flight a century ago, with a zero emission plane. And we will do the same with ships.”
Air travel is significantly down as a result of COVID. Heathrow expansion is probably dead. Much to the relief of anyone who lives anywhere near the airports, who have reported a wonderful release from a constant barrage of noise.There is no mention here of the need for transition for workers being made redundant by this industry. A Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines competition to build a zero carbon emissions aircraft capable of getting across the Atlantic is another of Johnson’s imperial nostalgic wheezes and as fanciful as the Thames Garden Bridge.Serious work on reducing the carbon emissions of shipping is crucial however, and tacked on as an afterthought it seems. Nothing is spelled out here about how this is to be done, nor who will do it, nor is any investment earmarked.It should be.
“Seven — we will invest £1bn next year to make homes, schools and hospitals greener, and energy bills lower.”
Must try harder. The schools sector alone needs £28 billion by 2030 to get to zero carbon. Retrofitting housing would be best done through a national plan using local authorities to grow skilled direct labour workforces able to utilise economies of scale with a rolling programme starting with the worst off estates and areas. The current system of grants for homeowners via accredited local installers – of which there are too few – leads to an incredibly inefficient and time consuming system in which improvements are made in penny packets by those most able to afford it – whose energy bills are then subsidised by those that can’t. A perfect example of an unjust transition. The Conservative obsession with treating all situations as an opportunity primarily to benefit small business plays well with their base – mostly small business people – but is the retrofitting equivalent of growing wheat in flower pots.
“Eight — we will establish a new world-leading industry in carbon capture and storage, backed by £1bn of government investment for clusters across the North, Wales and Scotland.”
The small total of investmentimplies that this will be about as world leading as the COVID App and not especially immediate in its impact; and therefore more likely to be playing the role of a fig leaf or gesture to allow business as usual to carry on.
“Nine — we will harness nature’s ability to absorb carbon by planting 30,000 hectares of trees a year by 2025 and rewilding 30,000 football pitches’ worth of countryside.”
If you work out that the mean average size of a football pitch is 0.72 hectares, this means that the proportion of land in the UK scheduled to be rewilded in this plan looks like this.
“And ten — our £1bn energy innovation fund will help commercialise new low-carbon technologies, like the world’s first liquid air battery being developed in Trafford, and we will make the City of London the global centre for green finance through our sovereign bond, carbon offset markets and disclosure requirements.”
An energy innovation fund is a good thing, but the aim should be to produce the most usable technologies for the greatest number of people – not follow the commercial imperative that means it will follow the demands of the people who can afford it: thereby skewing research in the wrong direction.“He soon became a specialist, specialising in diseases of the rich.” (6)
“This plan can be a global template for delivering net zero emissions in ways that create jobs and preserve our lifestyles.”
A global template cannot be one in which every country claims it will be world beating and a world leaderanymore than everyone can be above average. It does appear to be a plan to “preserve our lifestyles” as they are now – with no reflection that if they were duplicated across the world we would need three planets to sustain them – with strenuous efforts put in to avoid anything that might actually make them better but don’t follow a commercial imperative.
“On Wednesday I will meet UK businesses to discuss their contribution. We plan to provide clear timetables for the clean energy we will procure, details of the regulations we will change, and the carbon prices that we will put on emissions.”
Let us see how much of a contribution comes from business and, conversely, how much contribution they are given. Hopefully the process of managing this will not be outsourced to SERCO or companies run by friends of the cabinet.
“I will establish a “task force net zero” committed to reaching net zero by 2050, and through next year’s COP26 summit we will urge countries and companies around the world to join us in delivering net zero globally. Green and growth can go hand-in-hand. So let us meet the most enduring threat to our planet with one of the most innovative and ambitious programmes of job-creation we have known.”
It would be nice if we were going to. But this plan is a feeble shadow of what is needed. The government currently has polices that will get to a fifth of the 2050 target. This plan will barely improve on that because only a third of it is new money.An investment of £68 billion would create 1.2 million green jobs in the next two years. The TUC and others have presented the government with detailed plans that it has not picked up on. The consequence will be mass unemployment AND a failure to meet the green transition targets we so desperately need.
Perhaps I’m one of them. My local High Street is ghost town full of aspirant ghosts. This is a look at how we got here and what we might expect.
Phase one. Phoney war in the West
While China went into lock down and South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam quickly closed borders, tested and traced, governments in “the West” reacted in a way that at first defies rational explanation; being more concerned with making political milage out of how China’s reaction was “Draconian” and not what could be contemplated “in a democracy” than making serious preparations for the impact on their own countries when the virus spread – as it was bound to do. At the same time, the conventional wisdom last month that Covid 19 is basically flu so nothing to get worked up about, we could “take it on the chin” with business as usual and power through it, lulled people into a false and fatal sense of security. In the local supermarket just two and a bit weeks ago the guy in front of me asked why the price of his item had gone up.
“We had a new delivery this morning. and the price was higher because of the situation.”
With a dismissive sniff, “what’s Coronavirus? Just flu.”
I had to point out that it is twice as contagious and ten times more lethal than ordinary flu and appeal to everyone who was listening to please take it seriously. They all looked a bit shocked but took it in. There’s the evidence of a failure to launch a timely public information campaign right there.
Just two weeks ago only a few meetings or social events were being closed down and there was a sense that this might be being alarmist even amongst those of us starting to do it, but a sense of unease was building and there were signs all around of partial steps being taken before there was any serious steer from above. On the tube at Golders Green on March 7th, a small group of friends passing round hand sanitiser and rubbing it in before they got off. A young man sitting with two guitars and wearing a face mask, but seeming a bit bashful about it and keeping his eyes down. Not many people sitting apart from each other. There was soap and water in the public toilet but the water was running cold – and it probably still is. Something ominous coming but no one thoroughly prepared for the full measure of it. The cafes were full and the streets were busy.
There are three possible interpretations of this failure to meet a growing threat on the part of Western governments, and “the establishment”, the 1%, the ruling class, the bosses; whatever you want to call that layer of society who, as R. Taggart Murphy puts it are “the people who have first claim on economic resources and are the last to suffer when anything goes wrong, even when they are directly responsible for the damage.” (1).
The ruling class are stupid. This is a very tempting interpretation, especially when watching Boris Johnson doing his Prime Minister impersonation or President Trump bullshitting his way through yet another daily briefing of lies, fantasies and insults; or contemplating the complete failure of the US, UK and EU to take account of the evidence that was being shoved under their noses by events and reinforced by the World Health Organisation. But, taken as a whole, these are highly sophisticated, well educated people capable of detailed analysis and highly intelligent manipulation of public reactions; so it would be a mistake to underestimate them.
The ruling class are ruthless and have less regard for human life than the profitability of their system and the need to maintain their power. This would be indignantly rejected by most of them, and most people who tend to look kindly upwards with rose tinted glasses, but there always had to be ice in the veins of people who ran Empires built from the slave trade, in which millions died of famine while grain was exported, which waged wars for the right to sell opium; and it still runs in that of their descendants; who preside over a world still structured by the inequalities and injustices that are their legacy. The ability to “smile as you kill”, as John Lennon put it, the capacity to lie with total self belief and behave like a vandal while maintaining impeccable manners is built into the way these people are brought up through the elite public schools and institutions like the Bullingdon Club or US Frat Houses. The sort of character satirised by Shaw in St Joan, where the ghost of the Earl of Warwick explains with disarming charm to the ghost of Jean d’Arc that burning her to death was “nothing personal. Your death was a political necessity” could be written because he was so easily recognisable. This way of thinking is reflected in Dominic Cummins remark that “herd immunity” was worth pursuing because the deaths of “a few pensioners” was neither here nor there; and the article by a Daily Telegraph economics correspondent that the deaths of thousands of unproductive elderly people would be “mildly beneficial” to the economy “when looked at dispassionately.” A Malthusian approach to “the surplus population” (as Dickens’s Mr Scrooge puts it) is nothing new; and likely to be far more common in private than in public. Just consider the Grenfell fire in this context.
Ruling class thinking is so dominated by the structures, relationships, laws and values that ensure their continuing wealth and power that any challenge to it – from wherever it comes – is literally unthinkable; so the first reaction to challenges that appear like a deus ex machina almost has to be denial. This comes across as a sort of hubris – that the normal functioning of business could defy an imperative that is beyond its limits. The element of “stupidity” – an inability to learn faced with incontrovertible evidence – is structured by this. This is corroborated by the experience of other challenges. On the crunch day of the 2008 financial crisis the CEO’s of the UK Banks that were about to crash and take the whole system down with them were sitting in a meeting with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Treasury team refusing to agree to the government bail out that saved their arses until the last possible minute; because they saw the terms on offer as an impossible and unacceptable restriction on their freedom of action; describing it afterwards as a “drive by shooting” – even though it socialised their debt at enormous cost to society with no consequent obligation on their part to restructure their operations to meet social needs. The case of climate change is even more evident. One example symbolically stands for all. In November last year the Veneto Regional Council, with its offices on Venice’s Grand Canal, voted down measures to reduce CO2 emissions barely two minutes before rising flood waters drove them out of their chamber. George Osborne’s asinine boast to the Conservative conference in 2011 that “We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business” is still the mind set for those who hold our fates in their hands in the West – and evidence of why they don’t deserve to.
A deeper problem is that this way of thinking is also dominant in the general population, whose lived reality is within these structures and “values”, that define the limits and imperatives they bump into while trying to get by in a world constructed for someone else’s benefit, so they appear so much as common sense or normality to most people that it is barely possible to imagine living or thinking in any other way. Crises shake that and reveal to those with eyes to see that the Emperor’s clothes are – at least – threadbare. People imagine alternatives and start trying to construct them when they have to.
President Trump expresses ruling class thinking as an expression of pure id. Coherence and higher level thinking have nothing to do with it. He takes the old jokes that were so effective against Gerald Ford – “his library burned down and the tragedy was both books were burned – and one of them wasn’t coloured in yet” – and turns them into a strength. Who likes reading anyway? He is an impresario of knee jerk reactions. The targets of his barbs are finely calculated to avoid thought and go straight to fears and exploitable emnities. He is mobilising fears and turning them against targets that strengthen his position while throwing out false hopes – because people need to believe that this will be easier than it is and want to hang on to whatever shred of “normality” they can.
Initially claiming it to be a hoax perpetrated by the Democrats. This claim was loudly repeated by Fox News, so one of their commentators has since had to be sacked. Trump himself remains in place saying he doesn’t want to look back. Amnesia is a condition compulsory for true believers.
Initially saying it was “totally under control”, or since that this or that medicine might be a miracle cure that was already ready, or that it would “disappear’ like a “miracle”; none of which has or is going to happen, all of which have had to be denied by the FDA, some of which have led to people getting ill from taking inappropriate meds on his say so; but none of this matters because he “has a good feeling” about it.
Relentlessly labelling it as a “Chinese virus” or a “foreign virus”, as if diseases have a nationality and could be made subject to border control. With an irony that would be wonderful if the consequences weren’t so serious, the higher rate of infection in the US has led to the Mexicans closing the border against American visitors. Build that wall. His attempt to offer large sums to a German company for exclusive deployment of the vaccine they are developing for use in the US alone – an offer creditably turned down by the company which quite rightly declared that any vaccine it produced would be for everyone – and the continuing and intensifying exploitation of medical sanctions against vulnerable countries like Iran and Venezuela, highlights the nationalistic recklessness that is stripping US power bare of its previous “global leadership” and “human rights” pretensions and leaving it ugly and naked for all to see.
Meanwhile his followers round on anyone campaigning for an effective approach as “politicising the crisis”. Perish the thought. Similar charges are made in the UK where we are all supposed to “pull together” behind a government that helped dump us in the leaky boat we’re in and has taken initiatives when forced to do so not because they have ever been ahead of the curve.
Meanwhile petty sorcerer’s apprentice figures over here like Nigel Farage railed against the WHO. “The World Health Organisation is just another club of ‘clever people” who want to bully us and tell us what to do. Ignore.” Can’t have ‘clever people” who might know what they are talking about telling us what we need to do to save our lives and bullying us into health. Where will it end? Just take back control, light up that fag, have another pint and infect all your mates. Tim Martin of Wetherspoons, just before the government finally moved to close down pubs and cafes, declared that his pubs would stay open because there had “hardly been any transmission” of Covid19 in pubs; so thats alright then. We can afford a few transmissions to keep the beer flowing. Its a matter of priorities after all. Never forget where this idiocy leads.
Phase two: Waking up to several months of Sundays
Last Saturday, the day after the government told cafes, pubs and restaurants to shut, most did in my local High Street; a few rapidly repositioning themselves to offer take out only with delivery. One or two were open with no signs. All but one were empty. There were fewer people but still too many, some wearing masks, some with scarves across their mouths and nose in an attempt to avoid viral roulette. Hopefully the Prime Minister won’t say they ‘look like bank robbers.’ Traffic, normally jammed on a Saturday, flowed freely. Walking past the barbers, the bloke who usually cuts my hair was working wearing a face mask – but he had pulled it down to breathe more easily – hoping – presumably – for symbolic protection. It was possible the next day to look out over West London from our living room window which – because we are on a hill – gives a vista right across past Wembley Stadium on the foreground all the way to the distant hills of Richmond park on the southern horizon – and appreciate the hush. The roofs seemed to be dreaming. For years you could count the aircraft flying East to West across the City to get to Heathrow, an orderly queue, one every thirty seconds. On Sunday, nothing. I counted three all afternoon, and no vapour trails. The sky is an unbroken blue of oddly celebratory weather.
The sudden change in the rules was way too slow and came partly from pressure from below and partly from pressure from other countries experiences. An example is what happened with schools.
At the beginning of the week the government was saying that there was no need to close schools.
Other countries, accepted to be only a week or two ahead of us in the trajectory of infections, had closed theirs and people could see that their health systems were already struggling. The shortage of ventilators and beds meaning that anyone over 60 was being left to sink or swim. In some cases ventilators were being removed from elderly patients to go into younger ones because they were the only ones available.
The National Education Union publicly asked for the modelling being used by the government to argue that keeping schools open was a safe course of action to be publicly shared. At the same time they told all of their members who were in vulnerable categories to inform their Head teachers that they would be self isolating at home from Monday and that if the Heads resisted that the union would see them in court.
The government failed to come up with its model, which undermined what authority their stance had – and as the week went on, more and more teachers went off, either with symptoms or as a measure of self protection, 2 000 more teachers joined the union and Reps emerged in quiet schools so they had a voice, while the Heads unions also expressed concerns. At the same time, an increasing number of parents took their children out without waiting for an instruction from government.
Faced with a chaotic break down of the school system the government ordered partial closure on the terms set down by the union – with some places left open for the children of key workers.
The experience this week has been that very few of those children have actually come in – even in those few schools that tried to hold open more places than the 10% maximum laid down.
The impact of all this is that rules and expectations previously taken to be imperative and unchallengeable have suddenly become optional. Deadlines have evaporated to be replaced by the incessant buzzing of WhatsApp messages from the local mutual help group; as real life proves that there is such a thing as society. Some basic lessons.
When it comes to the crunch the market can’t deliver. The state has to step in. The question there is the extent to which it is doing so in order to subsidise businesses and to what extent to guarantee a social need. In Spain they have requisitioned private health care. Here they have done a deal. Italy has renationalised Al Italia. Here Richard Branson wants a bail out. The pattern of 2008 is at risk of repeating itself but that is not inevitable. If people are to “all pull together” that can’t be in the interests of keeping Richard Branson in yachts and private islands while everyone else suffers.
Just in time deliveries and the production pattern that goes with them requires a society living on its nerve ends all the time.
Once a pattern of home working and zoom conferencing gets established there’s every possibility that they will become the norm.
Air travel looks like becoming far rarer.
TINA (“There is no alternative”) is dead, even “going forward”. This has enormous consequences for the movement to save us from the even greater challenge posed by climate change. If the government can nationalise railways, guarantee 80% of wages, direct car companies to produce ventilators, require non essential businesses to shut down (even Sports Direct and Wetherspoons) – at least for a while – mobilise volunteers to work in the Health Service, set up local co-ordinations of councils, the health service and voluntary organisations to meet emergency responses and require huge changes in social behaviour to save us from a virus, the taboo against taking similar action to repurpose our economy and society so that we can drastically cut carbon emissions and live in a sustainable way has been broken. We can think outside the box because the walls of the box have broken. There will be strenuous efforts to rebuild them as was in an attempt to go back to “normal” but we don’t have to let them get away with that.
Phase three: Whats next?
The genie is already out of the bottle and running riot. Because of the failure to test there is no grip on who has and who has not got this virus. Kings College has launched an App for people to log into with their state of health, so some backdated information can be gathered, but this depends on a critical mass of representative people taking part so patterns can be observed. Voluntary initiatives like this have come to the fore because there has not been an attempt to do this by the government, which needs to step up.
The measures taken so far have been too little too late, which will mean that they will have to be intensified for longer while increasing numbers of people die. None of us is invulnerable. I am acutely aware that I am writing this as a 66 year old with high blood pressure and a longstanding chronic cough.
So far there has been a certain amount of social discipline and a huge level of social mobilisation from the bottom up. 405 000 people have volunteered to help the NHS deliver medicine and probably food to vulnerable people on lockdown. The Communication Workers Union has volunteered en bloc to be the fourth emergency service and do similar (2). The government and much of the media will attempt to frame this outpouring of social solidarity in nationalist terms – as a patriotic duty more than social solidarity, precisely because the latter has the potential to go beyond the limitations of the former. Johnson always appears for his daily briefings bracketed by Union Jacks, making him look as though he is framed in rather stuffy patriotic parentheses – which, of course, he is. Meanwhile people at home with their eyes misting up look at videos of Germans on balconies singing Bella Ciao in solidarity with Italy.
This social solidarity has partially broken down around panic buying. This reflects a genuine fear of being stuck at home without enough food (or toilet rolls) that was completely predictable and could have been blunted by a far more rapid imposition of limits on purchases of particular items. The notion that “the customer is always right” inhibited the needed response for far too long. We have also had some criminal elements trying to exploit the situation, either by profiteering on scarce goods or posing as volunteer support to get info and access to the bank accounts of vulnerable people. In one case very tastefully targeting people whose children are in free School Meals.
As this drags on, unless there is a deepening of the underpinning of economic security, and as the death toll climbs, that cohesion is likely to start fraying at the edges as those not covered by the wages guarantee start hearing the siren voices of those calling for a return to work before the virus has been eliminated. Further measures of socialisation – what we used to call “social security” – will have to be taken to prevent this. Employers of key workers who have not staggered start and stop times to take account of rush hour crushes on public transport – which make social distancing impossible for anyone caught up in it – will have to be instructed to do so.
As this crisis works its way through this summer there will be a three way divergence globally.
If China sustains its effective suppression of the virus and starts cranking its society and economy back up – as it is starting to do – it will be seen to have recovered with a relatively low level of casualties.
The total in Europe and the US will be far higher and the economic disruption far greater. Goldman Sachs estimates that US GDP could collapse by 25% in the next quarter, pushing unemployment up to 13%. This will have political as well as economic consequences. (3)
If and when the virus runs out of control in the developing world, the death rate is likely to be higher still unless there is a massive and co-ordinated international effort to strengthen health systems. China and Cuba are already trying, but can’t do this on their own. The approach of the current US administration, to maintain medical sanctions on threatened countries while whipping up racist reactions, is the opposite of what is needed.
Recognising this, Sadiq Khan’s appeal to Boris Johnson to step up to the global co-ordinating role played by Gordon Brown in the financial crash is almost surreal – not just because its Boris Johnson but because what Boris Johnson and his government believe in makes it impossible for them to play this role.
Conclusions will be drawn about global leadership through the experience of who is providing it in practice. This is dramatised by the scarcely believable statements from Trump and Brazil’s President Bolsonaro today and some US senators starting on Monday. Bolsonaro denounced city governments ordering lockdowns calling for people to “get back to work” while boasting that he personally could survive this virus because of his “athleticism”. The only thing missing was a box of Lemsip max strength poking out of his pocket. Trump – since Monday – has started talking about the cure being worse than the disease and floating a “return to work” around Easter Sunday and that having churches full to bursting on that day would be a “beautiful thing.” This is not because he is hoping for a miracle – though a connection with deeply atavistic sentiments about rising from the dead in Spring should not be ruled out – but is quite explicitly posed as putting the needs of the economy above the needs of the people. This means that there will be a political drive from forces animated by Trump to go back to business as usual as rapidly as possible if they can get away with it. No one should be in any doubt that this will kill many, many people. The extent to which they get away with this will be the extent to which there is mass revulsion and push back.
Out with them!
A personal post script
The meeting that I went to on March 7th was for XR Educators to work out their perspective in the wake of the general election. I was there for the NEU Climate Change Network. The immediate campaigning plans discussed at the meeting are all on hold because of the virus, but what I took away from it has been invaluable in another sense. in the crisis we now face.
I am not a member of XR and have a more traditional Labour movement way of operating. Some of that involves a rather functional approach to meetings. When doing introductions we usually just say who we are and who we’re representing. At this meeting – possibly reflecting the Quaker influence in the long tradition of non violent direct action that goes back through Occupy all the way to the Committee of a 100 – and possibly reflecting a need to face an existential crisis with some appreciation of life so as not to fall into despair – we were asked to introduce ourselves and say something we were grateful for. At the time I was grateful for my Freedom Pass because it enabled me to get to the meeting for nothing. Since then, every day I have felt and noticed things I am grateful for – the cloud of bees in the frothy white cherry blossoms on the tree outside my flat – the light reflecting on the ceiling as it comes through the curtains in the morning – the uplift at the end of Beethoven’s violin concerto, my wife’s wit, my daughter’s laugh and my son’s hugs. And I am grateful for the nudge to let that gratitude in.
R Taggart Murphy. Privilege Preserved. Crisis and Recovery in Japan. New Left Review 121 Jan/Feb 2020
The key task for the climate change movement in the UK between now and the end of the year is to get rid of Boris Johnson’s government.
Movements like XR argue that they are “above politics” and its quite right to aim to mobilise everyone regardless of existing affiliations or leanings. However this election offers a stark choice that can’t be ducked because the resulting government will either be one that will push ahead with the most ambitious green investment strategy in any developed country, or be one that will be trailing in the wake of Donald Trump’s denialist international.
The movement will either have a government it can work with – or one that it will have to keep mobilising against.
And we don’t have a lot of time.
Boris Johnson himself has not voted for any practical measure to reduce carbon emissions since he has been in parliament. By contrast Jeremy Corbyn and Caroline Lucas have voted for 92% of them. Conservative MPs have on average voted for less than half of these measures; Labour for more than half. The Guardian has a useful graph on this which shows the 50% mark mostly red above and blue below (1). Jo Swinson is on 50% and the Lib Dem record is wildly inconsistent.
Johnson is in an explicit alignment with Donald Trump.
If elected we can be sure that he would move Conservative government rhetoric away from current greenwash into line with his voting record.
The Conservative manifesto is being written by a lobbyist for a fracking company (2).
By contrast Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution pledges the following; and its worth reading all of this. What follows is a lightly updated and edited version of the full document from earlier in the year to take account of conference decisions. If there are significant alterations in the Manifesto I will update this blog accordingly.
Decarbonise the energy grid by the 2030s. Fracking banned.
Support the development of tidal lagoons,
Upgrade and invest in flexible energy networks capable of supporting a transition to decentralised renewable energy
Remove the barriers to onshore wind put in place by the Conservative government…invest in wind, solar and other renewable projects. Five times as much offshore and three times as much onshore wind.
Work closely with energy unions to support energy workers and communities through transition
Upgrade 4 million homes to Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) band C in five years, investing £2.3bn per year to provide financial support for households to insulate their homes, with a zero carbon standard for new-build homes introduced as soon as possible.
Insulation schemes to be done by local authorities working street to street to save at least £275 per year for affected households, improve the health and well being of families, reduce costs to the NHS and create thousands of new skilled jobs.
Prioritise affordable homes in the new zero carbon homes programme, provide funding to support councils and housing associations to build new homes to Passivhaus standards
Tighten regulation of privately rented homes, blocking poorly insulated homes
from being rented out
Introduce new legal minimum standards to ensure properties are fit for human habitation and empower tenants to take action if their rented homes are sub-standard
Introduce a new Clean Air Act.
Expand public transport, bring our railways back into public ownership, cap fares, and support the creation of municipal bus companies run for passengers not profit.
Expand and electrify the railway network across the whole country, including in Wales and the South West and build Crossrail for the North linked to HS2
Encourage greater use of public transport, introducing free bus travel for under
25s where local authorities regulate or own local bus services – paid
for with money ring-fenced from Vehicle Excise Duty
Position the UK at the forefront of the development, manufacture and use of ultra-low emission vehicles
Retrofit thousands of diesel buses in areas with the most severe air quality problems to
Euro 6 standards
Airport expansion must adhere to our tests to address, noise levels, air quality and the UK’s climate change obligations.
Establish new democratic public water companies which will be mandated by
DEFRA to meet environmental and social objectives
FARMING, FISHING, HABITATS AND WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT
Funds for farming and fishing to support sustainable practices,
Embed and enhance in policy the responsibility for farmers to conserve, enhance and create safe habitats for birds, insects and other wild animals, and encourage the growth of wildflowers.
New guidance to end the use of antibiotics for routine, preventative purposes with farm animals.
A science innovation fund to promote the most sustainable forms of farming and fishing, with support earmarked for our small-scale fishing fleet
Review the allocation of UK fishing quota to promote the most sustainable fishing
Protect habitats and species in the ‘blue belts’ of the seas and oceans surrounding
the United Kingdom and its overseas territories,
Set targets for plastic bottle deposit schemes,
Strengthen the Hunting Act, end the badger cull, make illegal hunting and all wildlife crime a reportable offence,
Initiate a large tree planting programme, working with farmers and foresters to
promote biodiversity and better flood prevention
End rotational heather burning and launch a review into the economic, environmental and wildlife impacts of grouse shooting
Ban wild animals in circuses
Put the environment and human rights at the heart of our foreign policy, drive forward new multilateral environmental agreements, direct our armed forces to devote more resources to tackle humanitarian emergencies
Negotiate a future relationship with the EU that maintains and extends all environmental rights, standards and protections as a baseline, while introducing more ambitious domestic environmental policy than that guaranteed at the European level
Develop a cross-government strategy to ensure UN Sustainable Development
Goals are implemented and reported on annually to Parliament
Commit to supporting climate mitigation and adaptation in the Global South, and to support countries severely affected
Oppose investor-state dispute systems in international trade and investment agreements, and other trade rules that can be used to undermine domestic or international environmental protections
Ensure UK aid does not support fossil fuel projects, divesting DFID away from fossil
fuels towards renewable energy sources
Promote UK Export Finance support for the energy sector towards low-carbon projects
in place of its overwhelming support for fossil fuel projects in previous years
This programme cannot be left to government ministers to get on with. Its not a matter of voting for it and sitting back. It will only happen if the whole movement engages with it and mobilises support for it and works on its implementation at every level and through every lever available to us.