January 7. In Zoomworld, we have all become conscious of the backgrounds behind our heads as we talk.
Bookcases are the default for those whose business is words, but then which spines should be in view (not my Elmore Leonard collection, safely out of sight in a bedroom), and for regular dialogists, should there be occasional changes on the shelves to indicate that they are more than wallpaper?
You may be certain that serious thought has been given to the sets in front of which we are addressed by our political masters.
Boris Johnson’s handlers long ago determined that a rather dull, bookless room in Number 10 should be enlivened by two union jacks, identically furled so that the bright red of the cross of St. George is prominent. Apart from the panelling in the room and a slogan tacked to the podium, there is nothing else to inform the eye. The clearly brand-new flags convey the principal message. Never mind that Johnson and his Government, through Brexit and the clumsy handling of Covid negotiations with the nations have done what may be irreparable damage to the Union. Shame was surgically removed from Johnson’s psyche long before he became a public figure.
Thus on Monday the third lockdown is announced from Downing Street with the two flags just to the left of his podium as the Prime Minister looks at the camera. At a subsequent news conference they are placed on either side.
We live in a democracy. Johnson’s broadcast is followed a day later by a response from the Leader of the Opposition. Here again the set has been carefully designed. Behind Keir Starmer’s head and shoulders is a dark screen to minimise any distraction. The only other object on view is, again, a union jack, also on his left side. It looks exactly like Johnson’s, freestanding on its pole, once more furled to foreground the cross of St. George. It is clearly unused, very definitely not a banner that a trade union once marched behind, or that had been waved on a barricade, shot through with bullets by the forces of reaction.
So what does Starmer’s flag mean?
Most obviously that the Party is desperate to escape the label of unpatriotic that was hung around Corbyn’s neck, most notoriously when he failed to blame the Russians for the Salisbury novichok poisoning.
More generally that Starmer sees his role in the midst of the pandemic as a loyal echo of the official message. In a five-minute address he makes only the most generalised criticism of the Conservatives. “There are serious questions for the Government to answer”, he says, furrowing his brow, mentioning the wasted 22 billion on testing, and the recurrent delays in announcing actions. But, he concludes, “whatever our quarrels with the government and the prime minister, the country now needs us to come together”. Most of the speech repeats Johnson’s vaguely uplifting call for a national endeavour. It ends by appropriating the Queen: “We will recover. We’ll rebuild. We’ll see each other again.”
There is a recognisable short-term strategy at work, and without question the country needs a collective effort, as Johnson and/or Starmer puts it, to win the race between the vaccine and the virus.
But it will not do. If we are to end this crisis with any sense of forward propulsion, Starmer has to ride two horses, wave two flags. The delays reflect the incompetence of a government recruited from Brexit loyalists and led by a serial liar. The maladministration, from PPE shortages to testing scandals, to the likely failure of the vaccination timetable, is a product of a semi-corrupt faith in the private sector and the hollowing out of local democracy. The immense variations in every aspect of the pandemic experience, from infection and death rates to coping with school closures, are a consequence of decades of growing inequality which have urgently to be reversed. If the union jack is waved, there must be some sense of how the loyalty of the Scots in particular can be regained by a party whose representation north of the border has been all but wiped out.
In the midst of the Second World War, Churchill viewed any attempt to plan for peacetime as a distraction from the fight with Hitler. But in 1942, when victory was far from certain, Beveridge wrote his plan and Labour won the 1945 landslide because the Tories were, rightly, not trusted to implement it.
We need to come out of this national struggle with a vision for the future already conceived and articulated.