Union threatened by Johnson’s U-turn government

Union threatened by Johnson’s U-turn government

Union threatened by Johnson’s U-turn government
UK prime minister Boris Johnson has built a reputation for leading a government that is distinguishing itself by its constant U-turns. (AFP)
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In just over a year since becoming UK prime minister, Boris Johnson has built a reputation for leading a government that is distinguishing itself by its constant U-turns; mainly because it never gets things right the first, or even the second, time. It takes a courageous politician to admit a mistake, apologize, repent and then change course, but, when this becomes habitual, questions of competence and suitability for the job become increasingly probing and frequent.

Had it not been for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, the headlines might have still been dealing entirely with Brexit. Nevertheless, despite leaving the EU seven months ago, the rules of the new relationship with our European neighbors are far from being agreed and settled, which is having a detrimental impact on the UK’s recovery from the tribulations of the pandemic.

The country is heading toward a perfect storm and, if it does not change course, this government is more likely than ever to bring about the decline and breakup of the Union. For more than four years, the entire British discourse has been largely preoccupied with Brexit, causing enormous frictions domestically and with the EU. In the process, the Brexit calamity claimed the scalps of two prime ministers. The result of the 2016 referendum astonished the Brexiteers as much as the Remain campaign. Johnson eventually got what he wanted by undermining his predecessor Theresa May and taking over at 10 Downing Street. He then signed a much worse Brexit deal than May had agreed but, thanks to the mysterious ways in which British politics works, won a general election with a huge majority.

What Johnson discovered almost instantly is that running a country is way more difficult than undermining those who are in charge. Although national populism might reflect the current zeitgeist that is propelling to power unsuitable politicians with more ambition than aptitude, it far from equips them with the necessary skills or experience to govern. Even if one takes an extremely kind and forgiving stance toward the current British government, the reality is that it still has not managed to put a foot right.

Admittedly, no country or government worldwide has had an instant solution for the COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating social and economic consequences. However, the colossal health crisis brought to the fore many existing fundamental weaknesses and fragilities in British society, and by this exposed a leadership that is incapable of responding to them with any coherence, efficiency or sense of urgency.

Back at the beginning of the year, when the coronavirus first entered the global consciousness, the government acted with careless nonchalance, completely oblivious to the gravity of the situation and the urgent response that the unfolding tragic events required. Later, when the truth of the matter with all its implications finally dawned, it panicked. It was slow to put the National Health Service (NHS) and other essential services on high alert, it put the country under lockdown far too late, and its “world-beating” test and trace system has been a chronic failure. This appalling negligence and incompetence, which also exposed the results of the underfunding of the NHS over the 10 years the Conservative Party has been in power, has led to one of the world’s highest levels of infections and deaths per capita — world-beating indeed.

Divisions and unfairness in British society are not new. Those who suffer poverty, those who belong to ethnic minorities, those who live in areas with decaying or inferior infrastructure, and those who don’t belong to the elite or the middle classes experience it on a daily basis. One consequence is that people from ethnic minorities are disproportionately dying from COVID-19 — a fact that can be attributed to existing health inequalities, inferior housing conditions, and occupations that interface with the public. This situation is largely due to structural racism.

The PM discovered almost instantly that running a country is way more difficult than undermining those who are in charge

Yossi Mekelberg

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests held in the UK: “Thankfully, this is all based in response to events in America rather than here.” He later accused Labour MPs from black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds of engaging in “identity politics” after they accused the government of being dismissive of the concerns of BLM protesters. With these actions, he demonstrated a willful and ignorant insensitivity. The current pandemic is highlighting the severity of the situation for ethnic minorities in the UK and it is difficult to see this elitist government coming up with any solutions — for the simple reason that this government is part of the problem.

Similarly, the recent fiasco surrounding the A-level and GCSE results has made it clearer than ever that the education system favors students from more affluent backgrounds. Since students in the UK did not sit their exams this year because schools were closed, the official exam regulations body came up with an algorithm that — not necessarily deliberately — favored students from private schools over those from state schools. The justifiable uproar that ensued led to a government U-turn and restored the grades given to each student by their teachers, instead of tampering with them.

If this obvious bias was not enough, the fact that the situation was dealt with differently and more fairly by the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales was another source of embarrassment for the government. This also gave more ammunition to Scottish nationalists in their demands for another referendum on Scottish independence: A referendum that opinion polls suggest they are more likely than ever to win.

The dark cloud of the health crisis and its disastrous economic consequences is about to collide with that of the end of the Brexit transition period, with no agreement in sight, which is bound to lead to a deep recession and even deeper divisions in society. The British economy has already contracted by a record 20.4 percent in the second quarter of 2020 and, with the furlough scheme coming to an end next month, mass unemployment is almost inevitable unless the government acts now, and acts fast. This impending economic disaster is another driver for Scotland to leave the Union in the hope of rejoining the EU and saving itself from the folly of Brexit.

If there is a silver lining to this sorry situation, it is that, between them, Brexit and COVID-19 have laid bare some of the fundamental ills of British society. But it will take an honest and painful national dialogue — and a far more able and attentive government than the current one — to deal with the immediate crises we face and then dare to address the root causes and work to bring about far-reaching changes.

• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg

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