Insomnia Journal 07 May 20

It’s not strictly insomnia as once I get to sleep sometime around dawn I’ll likely be out for at least 8 hours, if not more, but insomnia is usually associated with being awake in the wee hours, and that’s what I’ve been over the last month or so. Sometimes I keep myself busy, sometimes I watch all those films I’ve had queued up, but often I find myself drifting and so I’ve decided to start writing about whatever’s on my mind, for myself, not expecting anyone else to care, though hopefully someone might find some of it useful. Blogging-as-it-was and-should-always-be, in other words.

I’ve managed to avoid the sound-and-fury outrage circus of late, mostly because there have been far more important and interesting things to pay attention to, so I was a bit confused when I saw Prof Neil Ferguson had resigned from Sage. Ferguson was the scientist most publicly associated with the UK being in lockdown and Sage is the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. If you wanted to briefly explain why the UK is currently in a holding pattern you could point at him. He is, after all, an epidemiologist of quite high standing and while the actions based on his advice are for the government to decide, his advice is, we can assume, based on some rock-solid research.

Ferguson resigned because his girlfriend travelled from the other side of London to visit him twice during the lockdown. She considered their two households to be one. He considered himself immune having had the virus. But the lockdown said this wasn’t the done thing. They broke the rules that he had advised. So he resigned.

I mean, I guess that’s OK? We used to have a grand tradition of condemning hypocrites in this country who preach that we should all behave in a certain way then practice the opposite in private. I shed no tear for the populist moraliser caught with his pants down.

But I also had a sense that we’d moved past that. Boris Johnson is a philandering serial liar who exhibits no shame, and he became prime minister with that firmly on the record. If you’re a Johnson supporter, being found saying one thing and doing another might generate an eyebrow raise or maybe a quiet word, but it can’t be taken too seriously, right?

And yet… the scoop on Ferguson was lead by the Telegraph, Johnson’s loudest cheerleader, with the Mail close behind. And what do these two august periodicals have in common? They both think the lockdown might be a bit much.

In short, this was a tabloid hit-job by vested interests in changing government policy. Britain needs to be reopened, no matter the cost. Ignore the fact that most Britons are content with the lockdown continuing until the country is functionally able to deal with it. The ideologues with the money are upset, so something needs to be done. Dig up some dirt on that scientist guy. He’s a human so he’s bound to have made a mistake, and he’s far too busy to be watching his back.

So they found the dirt and they published the dirt and now one of the country’s intellectual resources, one of the elements that might help us get out of this reasonably intact, is throw out while the others are feeling the chill.

If I was being hyperbolic, and if you can’t be hyperbolic at 2am when can you, I might ask how many people will die because of that tabloid hit-job. The point of Sage is to put all the relevant big brains that the educational establishments of this country have produced in a room so we can figure out how we can stop people dying. That room is now on brain down. Nice one, fuckers.

And it’s not like he did anything that wrong. I mean, who hasn’t broken the lockdown once or twice over the last couple of months? Who amongst us can honestly say they haven’t done something that could contravene the restrictions? And that’s fine. Doing lockdown correctly 99% of the time is as good as doing it 100%. Less that 90%, then we have a problem, but nearly all the time is fine. The point of a lockdown is not to eliminate the threat. The threat is the same as it was back in February - massive and scary. Lockdown is a tool for slowing it down so we can get ready. It’s a fire-break, a pause button. At some point we’ll have to unpause, because whatever you think of lockdown it’s not much of a life, but unless the testing and PPE and therapeutics and ventilators and everything else we didn’t think we’d need until early this year is in place it’s going to be a fucking massacre.

But even in a lockdown people are going to catch the virus because there are still opportunities. We need to shop, we need to exercise, we need to talk to someone else at the top of our voices across the park. The point is way way fewer people will catch it.

That’s another tedious tabloid trope - binary thinking. The erasure of grey. Either you’re a saint, or you’re a villain, and I guess there haven’t been enough villains for their liking of late. (At least not outside their ideological playground.)

One of the ideologies hiding behind all this is the notion of British Exceptionalism, and it’s a particularly nasty and troublesome notion. We’ve basically lived through 3 years of bullshit fuelled by this notion - the idea that Britain will be fine outside of the EU, not because of any planning or economic modelling or commercial/industrial reality but because we’re British. And the British are better at this sort of thing. We are exceptional.

It’s certainly true that the British character is different to, say, the French, or the Guyanese, or the good people of Nepal. The communities that spread across our islands have evolved certain ways of thinking which inform certain ways of doing which have outcomes which you might find subtly but significantly different in other countries. But this doesn’t mean the British people are somehow immune to sodding huge realities just because enough of them like beer and sarcasm.

There’s this nice post by David Eggerton, a historian specialising in science and technology and twentieth-century Britain, titled The Government’s Response To Covid-19 And Brexit Are Intimately Connected, because of course they are. The current government was selected specifically to deliver Brexit this year and that mindset is now trying to wrap itself around the coronavirus. But what’s interesting is how the notion of British Exceptionalism just fucks everything up.

Remember way back in the mists of March when Great British Businesses were going to rapidly rejig their factories to make ventilators for the NHS?

The current crisis has been an opportunity to illustrate the argument that the UK was a powerful innovation nation that could do very well without the EU. The government launched a programme, the details of which are still murky, to create new emergency ventilators.  First off the stocks in the PR blitz was the Brexiter Sir James Dyson, who was teaming up with another Brexiter capitalist Lord Bamford of JCB to make many thousands.  This, it turned out was just one of many projects to design new ventilators, and to modify others for mass production. There were lots of allusions to the second world war as if Spitfires had been conjured out of thin air in the heat generated by patriotic enthusiasm. It is telling too that the government decided not to take part in the EU ventilator procurement programme. This had to be a British programme for PR purposes.

Of course, it didn’t work at all. It turns out you can’t just innovate your way out of a crisis. You need boring stuff like planning, resources, expertise and experience. The sort of things that helped win World War II.

That wartime analogy was deeply misleading – the UK was a world leader in aircraft before the Battle of Britain. It had been making Spitfires since the late 1930s, and had huge long-planned specialist factories making them.  What is clear is that we are not in 1940.  The UK is not a world leader in ventilator manufacture, far from it. […] Indeed there may be a wartime analogy which could become pertinent. Churchill did attempt to conjure up new weapons in a hurry in the face of expert advice.  They included anti-aircraft rockets, spigot mortars, and indeed a trench-cutting machine.  They were universally late, did not work well or at all, and represented a huge waste of resources.

I’ve always thought the whole “We will prevail, because we are British, and British is best” was a joke, poking at the bombastic nonsense of an Empire in terminal decline. From Carry on films to Monty Python to Brass Eye. But as we tailspin through the end-game of post-modernism, the absurd jokes have become policy. Because there’s nothing else left.

No country is responding well to Covid-19 because it’s literally a slow-motion massacre, but it’s arguable that Germany is doing better than most, possibly because Germany is boring and prepares for stuff and is run by a scientist. Britain has embraced the false god of efficiency and used it to justify inflicting austerity the flay the thin flesh from its bones. And we’re run by a serial liar who, allowing for the liar bit, seems to actually believe this British Exceptionalism nonsense.

Some of my lefty friends sneer at Kier Starmer because they can’t help themselves but my god isn’t it nice to have someone speaking in public who’s not a fucking moron? PMQs today was like a breath of fresh air. What we need right now, more than anything, are people who are able to think clearly and ask the right questions. People who can tell the difference between useful information and hyperbolic bullshit. Nobody like this has made it to the upper levels of British politics for as long as I can remember, and certainly not this early in their career. You see it someone like Ken Clarke over the last few years but he was as much a chancing bullshitter in the 80s as the cabinet are today. Maybe John Major, if you squint and ignore Back to Basics? Possibly Gordon Brown if he’d caught a break. Note how Major and Brown were hated by the far-right press and their enablers.

That’ll do. Boil lanced. See you again tomorrow, maybe.