From David Maughan Brown in York: The naivety of hope.

5th November

One might have thought one had learnt by now.  It wasn’t, surely, possible that people in the UK could be so easily fooled, or perhaps so desperate, that they would think Brexit a good enough idea to vote for.  Wrong.   Donald Trump was so unspeakably awful that, however uninspiring Hilary Clinton might be, there couldn’t really be any serious chance that he might become President.  Wrong again.  Boris Johnson had made such a dog’s dinner of the Brexit negotiations and showed such overweening contempt for parliament that if he were to win the 2019 general election it had, surely, to be by a wafer-thin margin.  Wrong yet again.  Well, anyway, if anything was absolutely certain it had to be that, after four years of racism, misogyny, deranged tweets and 220,000 Covid-19 deaths, the predicted ‘blue wave’ of Biden-voting states must surely materialize as an eminently well deserved landslide come-uppance for Trump.  You didn’t need a vibrantly youthful and charismatic visionary to knock a grotesque caricature of a President out of the park; surely you just needed someone who was decent, intelligent and reasonably articulate? Wrong again – at least where anything remotely resembling a landslide is concerned.

So where does my seemingly irredeemable naivety in such matters come from? High on my list of suspects would be my 43 years spent working in Higher Education.  You can’t spend your working life in the company of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed university students, almost always intelligent and often very idealistic, without coming away with some hope for and belief in the future.   Higher education must, surely, imbue graduates with an ability to distinguish what has a good chance of being true from what is obviously untrue; with some degree of ethical sensibility; with some level of social conscience and environmental awareness?   Wrong again – or, at least, there seems to be a lot of evidence to the contrary. 

60% of the United States electorate is said to be ‘college educated’; 35% of them have bachelor’s degrees.  I haven’t seen a more recent statistic with regard to the number of USA adults who believe that the world really was created in seven days in 4004 BC, but in 2000, when George Bush was elected President via the infamous ‘hanging-chad’ election, the figures I saw indicated that precisely the same proportion of the electorate, marginally over 50%, were full-blooded creationists as had voted for him.  That may, or may not, have been a coincidence.  Sceptics might be inclined to ask: ‘What about the multi-million year-old fossils that would seem to belie this belief?’  The answer to that is obvious:  ‘God planted the fossils in 4004 BC to test our faith.’  If a context of wholly irrational religious belief, which must, statistically, be informing the lack of thinking of many voters in the USA who have been through Higher Education, provides any kind of clue, one can begin to understand some otherwise incomprehensible aspects of the wider intellectual climate behind what our televisions have been showing us over the past few days:  how can so many women be ardent supporters of a man who has such obvious contempt for women? How can any black American possibly support so blatantly obvious a racist?  How can anybody from any religious faith root for a man who has spent the last four years sowing division and hatred, and deliberately fomenting violence?  So, what price universal education, and higher education in particular?

This side of the Atlantic, significantly over 40% of UK voters between the ages of 25 and 65 have first degrees, but it won’t only be the remainder who are sufficiently undiscriminating to regard The Sun, and the Daily Mail as sources of wisdom, nor will it have been only those over 65, many of whom are also university-educated, who will have voted for Brexit and Boris Johnson. It is a commonplace that Trump and Johnson have a great deal in common.  When Johnson stands up and tells us that it is a “moral imperative” to impose a four-week lockdown, we don’t have any reason whatever to think he has any greater acquaintance with the morality he invokes than his grotesque American counterpart.  Trump spent two years at Fordham University and followed that with a bachelor’s degree in economics from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.   Johnson, as everyone knows, has a degree from Oxford.   Whatever else they might have imbued these two eminences of the global political landscape with, the universities that Trump and Johnson attended have clearly not cultivated in them a sense of morality, or much in the way of common decency.  That will not have stopped the universities in question from regarding Johnson and Trump as a credit to them, or deterred the universities in any way from cynically trying to exploit their political eminence for recruiting and fund-raising purposes.  Such is the nature of the Higher Education marketplace.  But that won’t stop me, perhaps naively, from regarding higher education as being ultimately a force for good, in spite of individual examples to the contrary.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Very testing

May 10th

When, rather more than a month ago, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care set his arbitrary target of ‘100,000 Covid-19 tests a day’ by April 30th few of us will have appreciated just how literal he was being.  What Matt Hancock meant by ‘a day’ was very precise: the one day he meant was April 30th.  His triumphant claim of 122,000 tests for that day has been debunked, but, leaving that aside, he will no doubt have been feeling intensely relaxed about the fact that no day since then has seen more than about 80,000 tests – it is not his fault if we were silly enough to imagine that 100,000 ‘a day’ meant every day.  It won’t have been his fault either that, even with substantially fewer than 100,000 being conducted every day, we have still had to send 50,000 tests to the USA recently to be processed.  So much for his promise of “capacity” for the promised number of tests in the days immediately before April 30th,  at a time when he clearly feared (correctly as it happens) that the target wouldn’t be met.   And what does Boris do when he realises that the 100,000 tests every day target isn’t being met?  You guessed it: he just raises the target to 200,000 tests a day (no doubt forgetting that he fleetingly declared 250,000 as the target several weeks ago.)

If our government’s Covid-19 testing strategy leaves a lot to be desired, its communication strategy, in so far as there is one, has been even worse.  Boris  announced a grandstanding address to the nation at 7.00pm this evening to tell us what the Government’s exit strategy from lockdown is going to be.  This was greeted with a tart suggestion from the Speaker of the House of Commons that it would be a good idea if such statements were delivered in Parliament before being offered to the nation as a whole.  We have a very good idea, once again, about what he is going to say, because he went off-piste at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday and indicated that there would be some easing of the lockdown tomorrow.  This brought our brain-dead tabloids out in a rash of excitement with banner headlines the next day of the order of ‘Hurrah! Lockdown freedom beckons’ from The Daily Mail, and ‘Happy Monday!’ from The Sun.   Ministers had to spend the rest of the week rowing back from any suggestion that there would be a major change of policy.   

With a sunny bank holiday weekend predicted, what did the tabloid editorial boards think would happen, other than that people would assume there wouldn’t be a problem with ignoring the soon to be lifted social distancing restrictions?  The police were predictably appalled.  With well over 30,000 families mourning their loved ones on that ‘Happy Monday’ for The Sun, any increase in infection rates over the next few days should lie heavy of the consciences of Boris and the tabloids, were they to boast such inconveniences. Why address the nation on Sunday evening, after the governments of Wales and Scotland have already made it clear that any tweaking of the lockdown will be pretty minimal? Quite simply, one suspects, because if Boris made his announcement either in Parliament or at his daily Downing Street press conference people would have the opportunity to ask questions.  And Boris isn’t good at answering questions.

Barack Obama has described Donald Trump’s federal government’s response to Covid-19 as a ‘chaotic disaster’.  The same could be said of our government’s response by influential people in UK, but it won’t be.  As a nation, the UK is far too deferential.  Reporters from the quality newspapers and broadcast media have been coming in for flak just for asking awkward questions at the daily Downing Street press conferences.  The official opposition knows that it needs to be extremely careful not to sound conflictual, rather than bi-partisan, in its approach to the government’s handling of the pandemic.  The general attitude seems to be: ‘Don’t be nasty to Boris.  He’s just been in hospital, and he is doing his best.’  Never mind that ‘his best’ has also been a chaotic disaster responsible for the unnecessary deaths of thousands and thousands of people.   Even allowing for instinctive deference being a national characteristic, I still find myself wondering how on earth, in view of the number of deaths, the testing debacle and the communication deficiencies, it is even remotely possible that public approval ratings of the way the government has handled the crisis can have steadily risen by 17% as the disaster has unfolded.