All posts filed under: UK

Lockdown Scepticism Was Never a ‘Fringe’ Viewpoint

Whether or not lockdowns are justifiable on public-health grounds, they certainly represent the greatest infringement on civil liberties in modern history. In the UK, lockdowns have contributed to the largest economic contraction in more than 300 years, as well as countless bankruptcies, and a dramatic rise in public borrowing. This does not mean that lockdowns were the wrong policy, since they might have been necessary to prevent the National Health Service from being overwhelmed with COVID-19 critical-care patients. (And such measures are justified, proponents argue, on the grounds that they prevent infected individuals from harming others by inadvertently transmitting a deadly disease.) But as I will argue below, there’s plenty of evidence that supports those on the other side of this issue, notwithstanding the efforts of politicians, experts, and social-media companies to paint such dissent as marginal or even dangerous. * * * Throughout the pandemic, the British government has assured the public that it is being “led by the science.” However, a number of scientists and other commentators have disputed this claim. These “lockdown …

Scottish Nationalists in Turmoil

Who would have thought that Scotland’s largest party would be roiled by sex scandals? Sex is not normally seen as part of Scotland’s national brand, but it is now and it has not added lustre. The Scottish National Party (SNP) has, for nearly 90 years, sought the break-up of Britain, believing that the Union of 1707 between Scotland and England was illegitimate. It was attained by bribery of the Scots parliamentarians, thereby destroying the Edinburgh parliament and absorbing political Scotland into Westminster government. The home of eccentrics and literary men and women, nationalism was for a long time regarded by most Scots as a tartan fringe and a wasted vote. Before and during the Second World War, some of its leaders even leaned towards the Nazis, in the cranky hope that a German victory over England would deliver liberation for Scotland. To this end, the most prominent Scots writer, Hugh MacDiarmid, wrote unpublished poems calling for the Luftwaffe to destroy London, “the earth’s greatest stumbling block and rock of offence.” The electorate remained unconvinced. Nevertheless, …

COVID-19’s Death Toll: A Historical Perspective

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, public discussion of the virus’s lethality has focussed on two metrics: the infection fatality rate (the percentage of those who become infected that go on to die), and the absolute number of deaths attributable to COVID-19. The latter quantity has been estimated in two different ways: (1) the number of deaths in which COVID-19 was a plausible contributing factor (“confirmed deaths”), and (2) the number of all-cause deaths in excess of the average over the last five years (“excess deaths”). Governments typically report confirmed deaths on the basis of whether the deceased recently tested positive for COVID-19, or whether COVID-19 is mentioned on the death certificate. Many national health authorities also report data on excess deaths, much of which is compiled on the Our World in Data website. There may be a significant discrepancy between confirmed deaths and excess deaths. If a country lacks testing infrastructure or many people die without being properly diagnosed, confirmed deaths are likely to be lower than excess deaths (false negatives). By contrast, if many …

Rise of the Coronavirus Cranks

I am no lockdown junkie. I’d like to get that straight before I explain why the most extreme variant of lockdown scepticism is rebarbative and destructive. I will never forgive the government for dragging out the first lockdown for 14 weeks, pointlessly exhausting the public’s patience and sowing the seeds of the non-compliance we see today. I think the second lockdown was an unnecessary overreaction to a surge in cases in the north-west that was being dealt with by local restrictions. I think the 10pm curfew was counter-productive and the tier system was clumsy and unfair. I always thought “circuit breakers” caused unnecessary hardship and had no chance of nipping the problem in the bud, as their advocates claimed. It was criminal to not reopen the schools in June and I’m not entirely convinced they should be closed now. I scorn the likes of Piers Morgan and “Independent” SAGE who would have had us in lockdown all year if they’d had a chance. No amount of comparing Sweden to its immediate neighbours will persuade me …

Britain Needs a New Approach to Homelessness

Author note: Some of the names in this essay have been changed in accordance with the wishes of those interviewed. “Out here, everyone’s taking something,” a man named Karl explains as he scratches his chest and tries to gather up the copies of the Big Issue he’s just dropped. Karl is standing in the middle of a busy high street, across from Norwich’s historic market. He is one of the estimated 40 men and women in the city who sleep rough every night. Originally from east London, the 45-year-old left the capital after a relationship broke down and headed northward and settled here. After a number of serious issues with alcohol and drugs, he lost his flat and has spent the last three years bedding down on concrete in and around Norwich. Homelessness is an extremely contentious and emotive issue. As a general rule, those on the Right view it as an employment problem, while those on the Left tend to see it as the result of austerity and cuts to social spending introduced by …

Despised—A Review

A review of Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class by Paul Embery. Polity, 216 pages (November 2020) In the 2019 British general election, the Labour Party was eviscerated, losing 60 seats and handing the Conservative Party a massive 80-seat majority. The most dramatic repudiation came in the Midlands and the North, where seats that had never voted Conservative fell to the Tories. It was an electoral catastrophe, and Paul Embery’s book Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class is intended to provide an autopsy and an analysis of the Left’s deeper ideological and cultural errors. Embery comes from within the left-conservative, Blue Labour tradition of Tory Socialists like John Ruskin—a left-wing form of post-liberal politics that leans left on economics and right on culture. Cultural distinction without exclusion; relationality over autonomy; community self-help over government centralisation. In clean, clear prose over 200 pages, he mourns the destruction of his party as a serious political force, and sets out what he thinks it must do if it is to be able …

Commemorating Mary

I’ve seen several interesting discussions about the controversial new Mary Wollstonecraft sculpture recently unveiled at Newington Green, the London community where the pioneering feminist briefly operated a school for girls. On the whole, I have seen more criticism than praise. Rachel Cooke of the Guardian called the little female figure at the top of the sculpture, “A Pippa doll with pubic hair.” A few reviewers have praised the sculpture and taken a faintly condescending tone toward philistines like me who don’t “get” it. “[M]ight [the nudity] be understood as a metaphor for Wollstonecraft’s vision of personal authenticity?” asks Eleanor Nairne in the New York Times. She describes the controversy as a “fuss,” and points out that there is a full-length statue of Wollstonecraft’s son-in-law, Percy Bysshe Shelley, in Oxford, which leaves nothing to the imagination. Nudity in pubic—pardon me, public art—is part of our Western cultural tradition, surely. An article by scholar Vic Clarke posted on the History Workshop website at least corrects the common misconception that the little naked woman emerging out of the …

The Russia Report

A report released this July by the UK’s House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee is more concerning than its relatively restrained prose appears to indicate. It shows us that Russia is an enemy determined to undermine liberal values and institutions, and it exposes a galaxy of details of Russian malignity—an alarming reminder of just how deep and how dangerous the threat is. Much of the report rehearses what is already known about Russian efforts to hack into democratic states’ networks to influence citizens’ voting, and to produce results which will benefit Russia’s foreign strategy—that is, whatever is bad for the West is considered good for Russia. These hacks included intervention in the 2014 referendum on Scottish Independence, where a vote for secession would have meant the break-up and weakening of the United Kingdom—a plus for Russia denied by a substantial vote to remain in the union, at 55–45 per cent. Then, in 2017, hackers entered the networks of the new French party, République En Marche, and leaked a large number of emails which were …

Twilight of Democracy—A Review

A review of Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum, Doubleday (July 2020), 224 pages. Historian and journalist Anne Applebaum’s new book The Twilight of Democracy sees a democratic world, as Rupert Brooke saw his world at the onset of World War I, “grown old and cold and weary.” So weary of democracy’s institutions and processes, so coldly contemptuous of the liberals of the Left and Right who administered them, that many of those who previously supported these central pillars have instead embraced one or another form of right-wing fundamentalism. This may manifest as nostalgic yet virulent nationalism, or reactionary Catholicism, or an invocation of Great Leader-ism which is, she writes, “at once serious and unserious.” Illustrative of the last of these types, she says, is Santiago Abascal, the leader of the Spanish anti-immigrant party Vox, who was filmed riding a horse to the soundtrack of The Lord of the Rings—unserious, because plundering popular culture for the purposes of rousing self-glorification is so obviously crass; serious, because it is rousing, nonetheless. The title of Applebaum’s book communicates the seriousness …

Alex Salmond’s Moral Corruption

Corruption in government is usually thought of, and investigated, as the appropriation of public funds for private purposes. There are, however, other kinds, and the case of Alex Salmond’s leadership displays two of these vividly. One is the menacing nature of his rule and personal conduct while leader of the Scottish National Party and First Minister. The other is the propagandistic extremes to which his hatred of Britain has driven him. Salmond led the Scottish National Party from 1990 to 2000, before relinquishing the post to his deputy, John Swinney, for four years. When Swinney failed to sustain the party’s momentum, Salmond returned to lead it again in 2004. Three years later, when the SNP won the Scottish parliamentary elections, Salmond took the post of First Minister. Since then, his party has dominated Scots politics, reducing the once hegemonic Scottish Labour Party to third place behind the Scottish Conservative Party, itself a distant second. Salmond resigned in 2014, having failed to convince Scots to vote for independence in a referendum that same year. But the …