“That’s just your perception”. This is a phrase I heard a lot as a trade union activist. Management make changes, you respond with your verdict on what they mean and then you’re told that you’ve misconstrued what they were trying to do. At first I used to find this infuriating but after a while, I started to look out for it and ready myself. It usually meant that the managers didn’t have much of an excuse for what they were doing. They knew their changes would hurt but by shifting the blame from themselves to our perception of the changes they were effectively inviting us to judge them on what they said they meant rather than what their changes did to the workers.
I’ve started to see this creeping into government messages regarding the Covid 19. I should apologise for not writing my column for a while but I managed to catch the virus, albeit mildly compared to those that have suffered the worse effects. It has been odd recuperating in this new Britain, which seems just like the old Britain but with fewer people.
As already documented, the government response to the pandemic has been shambolic and deadly, the calls for an inquiry loud and clear. The government communications machine seems almost entirely devoted to preparing for such an inquiry. When it comes they will be keen to ensure that they don’t get the blame. We have already seen the prime minister let slip that care home managers and staff did not follow the guidelines correctly. He rowed back a little when this caused an outrage but it was clearly deliberate. One rule for them and another for care homes, the NHS, local councils and anyone else who might be in the firing line.
Slowly but surely we are finding out what sort of conservative Boris Johnson is. There is a paternal element to his style of governing, mixed with that neoliberalism. Maybe he really thinks he is everyone’s dad now. He can’t remember how many children he has because it’s all of us. A terrifying thought but check your birth certificate to be sure. It’s a paternalism that tells us firmly that him and his small team of people (basically Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove) know best. Perhaps contradictorily, his neoliberal impulse is to tell us to make common-sense decisions about a deadly virus.
I quite admire the idea that we are all rational enough to do this and make decisions that will be in the public interest. It almost sounds like freedom, except it is individualistic and therefore prevents a common understanding from being reached. It is a freedom that requires understanding to be developed in any useful sense. The people cannot just make the right decision without information and the government has sent out mixed messages throughout. What are people supposed to do in certain situations has become far too confusing. We don’t live in a perfect existence with knowledge and understanding downloaded into our brains just when we need it. Decisions can’t happen without community, without fraternity or without solidarity. Neoliberalism is a bastardisation of freedom.
Or is this just my perception? The last refuge for managerial excuses is very useful for the Tories right now. In a battle over the facts the government simply cannot win. The death tally is clear. Labour leader Kier Starmer has asked the right questions at PMQs and received the Johnson bluster as an answer. The facts are irrelevant to the father of the nation though. He wants us to judge him on what he says and not what he does.
It’s much safer ground. On not encouraging people to wear masks until a few days ago he can say he was guided by the science, in the public interest etc etc. When looking at deaths in care homes he can point to his desire to ensure that the NHS was not overstretched. At every stage of the pandemic he can say that he and his government were clear in their desire to put a protective ring around care homes.
Their statements are what we should judge; that’s their strategy. If we judge their actions and find them wanting then it will be our perceptions that are at fault. We must have misunderstood what they were trying to achieve by focusing on what they actually achieved. How silly of us. Blame that on the right people: those that didn’t make the common-sense decisions they should have.
This strategy might just work for them too. Their policies severely affected the death rates but by pointing to the notion that they simply set the agenda and others then respond to that, they can start pointing the finger at those they think responded poorly. When the word paternal is used in politics it is often in a condescending way, meaning an overbearing leader. We are witnessing a deft touch paternalism here, one that sets out the guidelines and leaves us to it, for good or ill.
The new normal currently seems to be powerful men shoring up their defences in order to wage battle against anyone who might question their wisdom.
Photo by CC BY 3.0, published under