Debt wiped off hospital bills, rough sleepers housed, social security streamlined, children drawing rainbows on storefronts… Britain is experiencing a little taste of socialism. But why did it take the coronavirus catastrophe to force government and media to advocate for something so basic and fundamentally moral?
Society when it suits them
In the early-1980s, Tory rejection of democratic socialism, called the New Conservatism, influenced the party’s thinking. Future Chancellor Nigel Lawson said at the time that the doctrine “rejects the idea that it is the function of the State to create … wealth”—for the poor, of course. The rich are made richer with government procurement, subsidies, tax cuts, etc. Towards the end of the decade, having cut budgets for schools, healthcare, and more, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher infamously said “[t]here is no such thing” as society.
But when the Tories wanted volunteers to plug their austerity-driven funding gaps, they promoted the Big Society under PM David Cameron; a scheme to privatise local services and keep expenditure to a minimum by appealing to volunteers.
In 2017, Tory PM and millionaire Theresa May scornfully told a nurse who had not had a pay rise since 2009: “there isn’t a magic money tree.” After May stepped down, the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ director, Paul Johnson, said that the new PM Boris Johnson’s planned, pre-coronavirus budget merely continued austerity. After the virus hit and it became clear that state intervention was necessary to prevent complete collapse and ruin the Tories’ chances of re-election, Johnson recanted: “I want to thank all our public sector workers … [T]here really is such a thing as society.”
Undoing the health cuts?
Thatcher called New Labour’s PM Tony Blair her “greatest achievement.” Following Thatcher’s model, Blair closed and/or merged 112 hospitals between 1997 and 2006. The Tory-Lib Dem coalition (2010-15) merged a further 12. The King’s Fund reports that between 1987 and 2019, the total number of hospital beds in England fell from nearly 300,000 to just 141,000. Budget cuts and mismanagement meant that by 2014, 32 wards within NHS England hospitals had closed, depriving patients of a further 502 beds. By 2018, the figure had risen to 82 wards and 1,429 beds.
A House of Commons Library paper published in February and concerning NHS England, states that in the previous year: A&E “[w]aiting time performance reached record lows”; “Waiting lists for treatment have risen to record levels”; “Cancer waiting times are the worst on record”; “Waits for diagnostic tests are at their highest level since 2008”; and “[t]he number of permanent qualified GPs continues to fall.”
When coronavirus struck, it was bad PR to anticipate thousands of deaths, hence the government’s about-face on four decades of hospital policy and their rapid construction of COVID-19 pop-up hospitals in London, Birmingham, and elsewhere. Suddenly, gin distilleries switched to producing hand sanitiser and billionaires used their production capacities to build pop-up factories for PPE production.
At the end of March, the “nasty party” (Theresa May’s description) offered no-fee visa extensions for migrant NHS workers and exemptions from the Immigration Health Surcharge, something which could have been done before in a simple act of decency.
What society actually looks like
To handle the crisis, the Home Office, Ministry of Justice, and Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies urged the government to “promote a sense of collectivism.” But collectivism (one of the tenets of socialism) is good for mental health. So, why does the government support policies beneficial to mental health only in times of what it deems crisis? For many single parents, the indebted, the homeless, destitute, self-employed, gig economy workers, and others, every day was a crisis needing government intervention and collectivism. Now, the government has rapidly, albeit temporarily, moved to solve many of these problems.
With a simple decree, the Tories have gone from presiding over a 50+ percent increase in tenant evictions between 2010 and 2017 to banning evictions for six months. By 3 April, 4,000 out of England’s 5,000 rough sleepers had been housed in hostels, hotels, B&Bs, etc. Suddenly vanished were what James Brokenshire (then-House Secretary) called the “complex issues” preventing successive governments from dealing with rough sleeping.
But during coronavirus, the magic money tree grew enough leaves to give Universal Credit claimants an extra £20 a week. Prior to the crisis, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was rocked by scandals, including bosses encouraging staff to treat claimants like dirt to discourage applications. But as soon as the COVID-19 crisis struck, the DWP decided that claimants would no longer be forced to conduct often humiliating in-person meetings with staff. Again, why couldn’t this streamlined policy have been enacted sooner?
Over the decade of austerity, 3,000 bus routes were cut by councils due to reduced funding from central Tory (and Liberal) governments. Having cut 40 percent of local bus budgets, Johnson’s pre-coronavirus budget pledged £170m for buses and was described by Unite the Union as a “drop in the ocean.” By April, the magic money tree was given a little shake and £400m to save local bus services materialised. In addition, various local authorities extended the hours of concessionary bus passes, again raising questions of why this could not be done sooner to help disadvantaged people.
The media agenda
It is also worth bearing in mind that the agenda-setting corporate media trashed as unrealistic the Labour Party’s manifestos in 2017 and 2019, both of which centred around massive borrowing to invest in a better society. Media also chose not to frame the daily struggles of the poor and many of the middle-classes as a crisis that needed urgent and widespread government intervention, but rather as an unfortunate but inevitable fact of life, the causes of which were mysterious and the solutions nebulous.
The Resolution Foundation said that Labour’s 2019 manifesto would add an extra £135bn to public spending. The Express opined: “Corbyn’s spending will bankrupt Britain”; The Telegraph yelped, “Labour’s spending plans would plunge Britain into recession”; The Daily Mail shrieked, “Corbyn’s Marxist politics of envy would bankrupt the UK”; and so on.
After the Chancellor dwarfed Corbyn’s plan with a £330bn coronavirus stimulus (much of it a debt-con), The Express fawned: “Tory triumph! Rishi Sunak Coronavirus bailout could save 1.5 million jobs”; The Telegraph trumpeted, “Sunak unveils £330bn bailout to save British economy…”; The Daily Mail bootlicked with, “Budget will ease coronavirus damage to the economy”; and so on.
The response to coronavirus has proven beyond doubt that Britain’s tough, heartless society is a political choice driven by a corporate media agenda. Where there is the political will, there is a quick way to a much more compassionate society, in which the needs of the disadvantaged are prioritised over the greed and complacency of the privileged. There is still a long way to go and many promises remain unfulfilled, but the voting public must never again believe the lie: “it can’t be done.” Voters must remember what was achieved in 2020—and in such a short space of time.