From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: One flag or two?

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.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Two long-term victories.

Two long-term victories over the weekend

Firstly, after several weeks trying to unlock the supermarket delivery system, we finally succeeded, thanks to a government scheme that actually seems to be working.  The scheme goes like this:

  1. The NHS circulates GP surgeries for information on patients who might be vulnerable not to infection as such, but to developing severe conditions once infected.
  2. It writes to a million and half patients, including my household, telling them that they are exceptionally vulnerable and instructing them to stay at home under all circumstances, except medical appointments that cannot be conducted remotely.
  3. Those receiving the letter are urged to log in to the Gov UK site, and enter details of their residence and their circumstances.
  4. Gov UK then contacts the nearest supermarket at which the vulnerable individual is registered, asking it to make delivery slots available.
  5. The supermarket (in my case Tesco) writes to the customer informing them of their special status.
  6. The customer, to their astonishment, discovers that whereas the unavailable slots had stretched away to the edge of doom in all the major supermarkets, now there are delivery times open all next week.

Thanks to local farm shops, and friends adding our needs to their shopping lists, we weren’t hungry nor were likely to be. But the prospect of regular deliveries takes away a significant degree of worry and effort.  We have submitted our list.  Due for delivery on Friday.

Secondly, Keir Starmer has been elected leader of the Labour Party.  I had re-joined the Labour Party specifically to vote for this outcome (as had many others).  It is the first time since 2005 that I have cast my vote on the winning side in a public election.  In the words of Polly Toynbee in The Guardian, ‘a trusted, tried and tested, big-brained grown-up arrives’.  It is too soon to know how he will turn out.  During the election he had to tread very carefully as he took on the Corbynistas who had spent the last four years trying to ensure that they would never again lose control of the party.  He comes to the position not as a life-long politician, but as a professional who has run a complex, value-driven organisation.  Those of us who have been involved in managing universities know that it requires a different skill set than being a political advisor or, for that matter, an academic historian.  And unlike Corbyn, a failed public schoolboy whose tertiary education lasted one week at North London Polytechnic, who, according to his recent biographer, thereafter never read a book in his life, Starmer has an applied intelligence.  Helena Kennedy, who was a colleague in a human rights law chambers, said ‘he was the smartest by far, and we need clever’.  At this moment, we do indeed.