When will this be over? Something more of us are asking.

This is what the 20thC world wars must have felt like

There are a couple of student mental health nurses I’ve started following in recent weeks as the toll on our collective mental health continues to rise.

Some of those cases have inevitably been in Cambridge with a spike announced only a few hours ago. Which makes me wonder if going football training tomorrow is a good idea, even though the present guidance says the law still permits outdoor training.

Author Matt Haig also had the above reminder. The problem is, Chamberlain’s successors are the one’s in office, and Mr Haig has opinions about them as well.

I noted earlier that we are now eight months into the pandemic in the UK, and that Neville Chamberlain was forced out of office nine months into the UK’s entry into the Second World War. While part of me thinks that history could repeat itself with a PM with a large parliamentary majority being forced out by his own back benchers, it’s hard to see who an acceptable successor would be – not just to the Tories but to the rest of Parliament and the country as well.

Ministers are still in denial about the scale of the challenge we all face

I think Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was of a similar mindset with the situation he faced. Note that Chamberlain was Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1931-37 before becoming Prime Minister, so unlike Churchill who only came back into government in September 1939 after nearly a decade in the wilderness, all of the foreign policy failures of the 1930s have Chamberlain’s stamp on them. And unlike Prime Minister Johnson who, bar a mediocre stint at the Foreign Office had no previous ministerial experience, Churchill served in a series of senior Cabinet posts including Home Secretary under Asquith’s Liberal Government when he quit the Tories in 1904 (only to return in 1924 as the Liberals tore themselves to pieces after WWI, from which they never recovered).

The choices ministers made over the summer will be pored over at the inevitable public inquiry once we’re through this – in particular the distractions involving picking fights in random policy areas as Marina Hyde describes here. In particular, a number of policies are now looking very questionable. For example the ‘Eat Out’ campaign to get people back into restaurants again, to the veiled threats to office workers to get back to their offices in the hope it would get customers back into the coffee and sandwich shops in town centres now look reckless in the face of this second wave. The Labour Leader went on video earlier with this message:

The above is in response also to the rising anger from new undergraduates (and their parents) along with the absolute rage from the northern cities (in particular Liverpool and Manchester). This is following some of the utterly avoidable outbreaks in halls of residences. The failure to put in place comprehensive support packages for those places forced to lock down again like the whole country did back in March, are things that won’t be forgotten in a hurry. And that’s before we’ve examined the squandering of £billions on dodgy procurement contracts that are now the subject of at least one High Court action – with more pending. And remember that Brexit thing? And that rising anger isn’t going to go away when news items like this keep emerging.

One rule for the elite, another rule for everyone else. It didn’t go down well in wartime, it doesn’t go down well in a pandemic when so many people are being compelled to make so many sacrifices. Yet what we’ve found out is just how weak our institutions, systems, controls, conventions and processes are at preventing such behaviour by those in power.

With more than enough time until the next general election, one thing that is becoming more noticeable is people are continuing to pay close attention to what is happening in Parliament and politics compared to previous times. I remember the soul-destroying apathy of 2001 and the toxic environment around the MPs’ expenses when all parties had skeletons several years later. Despite so many chances to overhaul and make things better, I can’t pretend that the current Parliament is any better than say the duckhouse Parliament or even the dying ashes of John Major’s final administration in the mid-1990s.

One of the new old books I got hold of was the 1944 publication Your MP published under the name Grachus, but was actually by left wing author Tom Wintringham. And what he did was very clever. He picked the most important foreign policy votes in the 1930s and then compared the voting records of all of the sitting Tory MPs – who made up the large majority.

According to the Spartacus History site the book sold 200,000 copies and was a best seller in the run up to the 1945 general election. The hugely detailed site is the work of historian John Simkin. Can’t help but think we’ll see something similar for the next general election given the controversy around both the Internal Market Bill creating powers for ministers to break international law… (see below from James Bull, the Labour MP-candidate for South East Cambridgeshire at the 2019 general election)

Above – from Labour’s MP candidate for South East Cambridgeshire at the 2019 General Election

…to the outright false assurances given by Gove on protecting UK agriculture on telly below.

“Unemployment is rising, our cities are looking like ghost towns”

In the face of all of the political noise, Emily Maitlis on Newsnight just now reminded us of the fallout across the country. In the grand scheme of things I don’t really have any reason to go to the city centre in Cambridge – in fact quite the opposite given the outbreaks reported earlier today. But remember that the UK economy was not in a good place at all before all of this started. There was the Brexit uncertainties continuing alongside the collapse of a host of asset-stripped high street chains bought out on unsustainable leveraged buy-outs and saddled with debt, that inevitably led to the implosion of thousands of jobs. One of those chains – Pizza Express, closed a number of outlets including its Regent Street branch in Cambridge. It was the buyouts that resulted in the firm having unsustainably high debts that resulted in the debt interest payments being far higher than any profits the firm would otherwise have made. This is described in more detail in this BBC article.

On not wanting to go back to the way things were before

Let’s face it, this is a continual theme of any discussion on what things will be like once we are collectively through this. The climate emergency is going to force this upon us. But what I still find incredible is how few changes seem to have been made to our built environment and physical infrastructure – in particular those essential functions where social distancing is all but impossible. I’m thinking schools and hospitals. I’ve not seen ministers making use of powers they have under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 to requisition buildings and resources to help deal with the emergency. (S22 (3) b, CCA 2004)

It’s the uncertainty that’s a struggle for many of us. Not just asking when this will all end – and as our music collective discussed online last night, when will we be able to hug and hold each other again? Furthermore, there is the huge financial uncertainties for those no longer able to pay rents or meet mortgage payments due to redundancy or the closure of furlough schemes. Turfing out all of those who cannot make those essential payments is hardly a responsible thing for any government to allow to happen, pandemic or no pandemic. And the more people that get kicked out, the more premises that will be occupied. What are the over-stretched police going to do? There was very little they could do when many properties were occupied at the end of the two world wars. In Cambridge, the huts of the old Great Eastern Hospital were occupied by otherwise homeless families, as were the old army huts on Donkey’s Common. On the former is now the Cambridge University Library, and on the latter, Parkside Pools.

‘Complicated and cheerless’

It doesn’t make it any easier, but the Health Minister from the Czech Republic catches the gloom. Below from Rachel Kennedy of BBC News.

And that is how 2020 has been for so many of us. So many arts venues remain closed, and the inadequate support packages taking so long to deliver. So while live music remains off limits, we’ll have to stick to the recorded stuff.


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