Here be dragons: Johnson versus Varadkar

Tuesday 24 March 2020 18:26

Here be dragons: Johnson versus Varadkar

In recent years I have been struck by the fundamental difference between British and Irish politics. It’s interesting because in both countries we have essentially rightwing governments with strong elements of neoliberalism in their thinking. However, I’ve been struck not so much by the similarities (the fetishisation of austerity policies for example) but by the fact that things happen in the UK that are unimaginable in Ireland.

This is not to say that the Irish government has not transferred the cost of the crash of 2008 onto the shoulders of the poorest. We have suffered massive wage-cuts, cuts to social welfare, to health services, to education and to disability services. Over a longer period we have seen legislation limiting the rights of trade unions and workers and favouring employers. We have seen the government defend even in the European courts the rights of multinational corporations to avoid paying their taxes while, at the same time, they have fought through the courts the actions of whistle-blowers and people seeking redress for past human rights abuses. In this regard, Fine Gael (and to a slightly lesser extent Fianna Fáil) are indistinguishable from the Tories.

However, in certain key respects they are different – not, I suspect, for ideological reasons, but simply because Irish society will not tolerate certain things. Take the appalling treatment of disabled people through the Department for Work and Pensions Work Capability Assessment system. In this system staff are encouraged to find against the person being assessed in order to save money. There are quotas for reducing the number of recipients. The presumption is that a disabled person is capable of work regardless of whether anybody will employ them or not. Thus, people literally at death’s door and who have subsequently died, have been found fit for some level of work. Quadriplegics with chronic pain have been found fit for work. People with serious mental health problems have been found fit for work. 

A 2015 article in the Guardian revealed that ‘during the period December 2011 and February 2014 2,380 people died after their claim for employment and support allowance (ESA) ended because a work capability assessment (WCA) found they were found fit for work’. All the evidence suggests that things have got worse rather than better.

It would be quite impossible to institute such a punitive and patently unfair system of assessment in Ireland because the people simply wouldn’t stand for it. Other things pass unnoticed certainly (hospital cuts arguably have a similar effect and cuts to disability services have passed without demur), but an egregious unfairness such as that would provoke marches and protests and, very probably, resignations from government.

All of this is by way of background to what I think of the contrast between Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic and Leo Varadkar’s. I hasten to add that I do not vote for Varadkar’s party, nor would I vote for Johnson’s if I lived in the UK.

Johnson’s now infamous interview in which he talked casually of allowing ‘the disease to move through the population’, of ‘taking it on the chin’, of acquiring ‘herd immunity’ ‘without really taking as many draconian measures’ would be political death in an Irish setting. Firstly the language of ‘population’ (rather than ‘people’), of the stiff upper lip (‘taking it on the chin), of the people as a ‘herd’ and of public health measures as ‘draconian’ would be anathema here. But secondly, and more importantly, the idea of allowing the sick, the elderly and the disabled to die so that the ‘population’ could achieve ‘herd immunity’ would lead to a public outcry.

The word ‘draconian’, which is used so casually, and which has connotations to our ears of dragons, actually derives from the name of an ancient Greek statesman called Drako who gave Athens its first codified laws. They specified the death penalty for even minor offences. It’s worth remembering that there are periodic calls for the reintroduction of the death penalty by members of Johnson’s party, including from Priti Patel the present Home Secretary.

By comparison, Varadkar emphasised our duty to take care of ‘the most vulnerable’ by acting responsibly, to do our duty by our family and neighbours, to respect the medical professionals who put their lives and health at risk in defending us. He too, in effect, talked about the ‘virus moving through the population’, predicting fifteen thousand infections in the next fortnight, but he used completely different language, speaking instead of ‘the calm before the storm’, the coming ‘surge’ and the neat paradox of ‘in short we’re asking people to come together as a nation by staying apart from each other’. The speech included references to grandparents wanting to hug their grandchildren, to his pride in his own partner and sisters who work in hospitals and his respect for medical personnel, and calls for people to look in on the elderly or other people in isolation.

Taken with President Michael D Higgins St Patrick’s Day address to the nation, an equally powerful call for solidarity, the entire emphasis of the Irish government has been on the public health emergency with economic measures as a secondary consideration. The stated position is that there will be a time to worry about the economy when the epidemic is under control.

In the past week there have been many comments from the UK about how they are following ‘the best scientific advice’ in their herd immunity strategy whereas Ireland, as someone said to me, was ‘taking a punt’. The reality is that it is Ireland which has followed scientific advice and the UK has now partially reversed gear to follow us. We followed the advice from Wuhan, from the WHO and from Italy. The UK seems to have been acting in the Brexit spirit - that is to say it believed itself in some way superior to everyone else. Remember all those fatuous comments about having survived the second world war and therefore they would survive Brexit? I’ve seen exactly the same remarks on social media in relation to COVID-19. “We survived WWII, we’ll survive this’. Yes, they did survive WWII at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives and the complete destruction of their economy. Were it not for the Marshall Plan and the remnants of empire, not to mention the arrival of the Windrush Generation, they would have  spiralled downward into chaos.

As someone who has admired the UK for many reasons - the NHS, their multiculturalism, their literature to name but a few - it’s disheartening to see them lose their way so profoundly. This is not just a political aberration that will correct itself in time, but a profound cultural shift that may take a generation or two to reverse. Remember it began with Thatcher. I greatly fear that our neighbours are lost to us for the foreseeable future. We should redraw the maps and, over the space occupied by England, write ‘Here be dragons’.