These are unsettling times – there is much to fear and much to lament. But of all the developments of the last few weeks, the one that I’ve found most head-in-hands-depressing is the emerging phenomenon of ordinary people blaming each other for the situation we all now find ourselves in. It is a trend that both reveals the need for, and has implications for, NLGN’s calls to radically shake up where power resides in this country.
New YouGov polling finds that, while most people think the Government is acting responsibly, an astonishing 87% of people think that the rest of the public are not taking the COVID-19 pandemic “seriously enough”. Where do ideas like this come from? Perhaps people are looking out their windows and making random judgements over whether the people they see walking are key workers or not.
What’s more likely is that they are taking their cues from an avalanche of media misreporting, and viral social media posts. News providers have discovered a new variety of article – one in which they publish long strings of photos of people allegedly breaching public health guidelines. However, considering guidelines allow for people to leave the house once a day, and for people of the same household to walk together, it’s almost never clear that any rules are actually being broken.
Another staple has been pictures of crowded tube carriages, which rarely mention that tube journeys are down 88% and that the traffic that remains is what you would expect considering key workers are still commuting. The only reason the carriages are full is because TFL have reduced the number of services. Judgements are rarely made about whether this is a good idea.
Stories of panic-buying have also been encouraging people to turn on each other, decrying our neighbours’ “selfishness”. And yet here again, the facts just don’t fit the narrative – only 3% of people report seriously increasing their shopping. Most of us have simply increased the amount we buy a modest amount, an entirely rational and responsible response to advice that tells us to shop as infrequently as possible, and to the reality that we are now all home for lunch.
The YouGov data shows, however, that this shaky relationship to reality is not preventing the idea that what’s going wrong in this country is the fault of ordinary people from taking hold. A global crisis, caused by nature, exacerbated by the structures of global politics and the global economy, and responded to by central government in a manner that has been widely questioned, is becoming a story about the stupidity and lack of consideration of our fellow citizens.
This inability to understand where real power lies is something that has afflicted British political culture before. George Osborn managed to convince the overwhelming majority of the political class, and a critical mass of the population, that a global financial crash caused by the irresponsibility of financial capital, was actually a crisis of the fecklessly workshy and public sector salaries. The sight of refugees desperately trying to reach Europe is blamed on them refugees themselves, not the economic, ecological and foreign policy choices that have led them to that point.
We know why narratives like the justification for austerity and this blame-game response to the pandemic take hold. Psychologically, they are very appealing. They invite you to understand yourself as a “’good’” citizen who has made responsible choices, and make the intoxicatingly simple claim that the only thing holding you, and your government – with whom you are now rhetorically aligned – back is the selfish choices of a minority of others.
But for this narrative to be true, one would have to imagine that the combined power of that minority is somehow greater than or equal to the power of the majority of citizens, backed by the entire apparatus of state.
It’s a dangerous fantasy, but the fact that it keeps rearing its head in British politics speaks of a seemingly pathological inability for our political class to recognise where power actually lies and what it means. This has material effects even in normal times. Political power in Britain is more centralised than in almost any other developed nation. Westminster hoards control, and cedes it only rarely, conditionally, and seemingly randomly – a situation which is rarely questioned in popular political discourse.
Civil society, and the power of communities, is stunted by this, which in itself then breeds the kind of alienation with the state and with politics that has caused the (non-pandemic-based) crises we face in our democracy today.
The situation is such that it’s now hard to imagine that any real progress can be made in overcoming any of the major challenges Britain faces today – be it responding to this pandemic, dealing with climate change, or rebuilding trust in democracy – until we renew our understanding of power. This needs to happen among both political elites and the wider public.
We need to see the existing arrangement, of power being hoarded by a tiny elite, for what it is, and then shatter it. We need to radically democratise and decentralise political and economic control in our society. This means devolution, this means deliberation, and this means community empowerment. We can be hopeful that the aftermath of this crisis can provide us such a clarifying moment.
But in the here and now, it means focusing our attention on holding the government to account during this crisis, as they are the ones with the power to actually shape how it plays out. It also means coming together with our neighbours, rather than seeing them as the problem. Even if they are seeming to ignore guidelines, there’s a very good chance that’s because they’re confused rather than malign.
Focus on the people who matter.