In 1940, immediately following the fall of France and the humiliating retreat of the British Army at Dunkirk, three then-anonymous journalists rushed out the short polemic Guilty Men. It catalogued the complacency, incompetence and total absence of strategic vision at the summit of British politics, which threatened to lose the war less than a year after it had begun. The Government had refused to take the looming threat seriously until it was far too late; even when war was inevitable, the writers alleged, it had failed to mobilise the full resources of the state, terrified of harming the economy; the nation’s system of procurement and supply for the goods vital to prosecute the war was vastly unequal to the task ahead, and the Government saw no urgency in rectifying the situation until total defeat seemed almost certain.
“To grasp these facts we must patiently and clearly trace the origin and monstrous growth of this régime of little men,” Guilty Men’s authors wrote, whose “half-baked, uncoordinated scheme of economic mobilisation” was driving the country towards defeat. The hard truth was that “the dead bureaucratic hand of the Civil Service, coupled with the complacent willingness of some of our Ministers to relax their exertions so long as they could keep the public quiet by pouring the soft and soothing oil of optimism over their heads, was putting us in peril”.
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The analogy with today is painfully clear. Our Government has indeed mounted a wartime response to Covid, in that tens of thousands of fellow countrymen are now dead due to a series of catastrophic errors. The lack of foresight, the inability to plan effectively or marshal the full resources of the state, the incompetent governance and series of defeats snatched from the jaws of victory, all call to mind the series of disasters which characterised Britain’s first three years of the war. So who are the Guilty Men of the Covid crisis?
As the Atlantic journalist Tom McTague observed back in August, the entire British state has been found wanting, as this country “has found a way to be simultaneously overcentralized and weak at its centre”. The problem is not just the Conservative Government, though that has failed entirely: it is the entire superstructure around it, the Civil Service, Public Health England, the media. The British state and its parasitic para-state are both entirely unfit for purpose.
It is the very malaise identified by the pantomime villain of our expert class, Dominic Cummings, when he said, back in 2014: “We do not have a problem with ‘too much cynicism’ — we have a problem with too much trust in people and institutions that are not fit to control so much. When faced with the ‘fog of war’ in nonlinear systems such as the financial system, disease outbreaks, or terrorism, the current system is absolutely bound to respond with sloth/panic, chaos, and blunders.” Working within the heart of the British state, Cummings identified its fatal flaws long ago — so it is no wonder that the para-state’s immune system, the Westminster lobby, spat him out as a threat to its continued survival.
It is unfortunate that his suggestions for its reform suffer from what the writer Paul Kingsnorth identified in his essay on the scythe as an ingrained tendency to hope for technological quick fixes instead of simple, timeworn solutions. Surrounded by hapless administrators, Cummings identified the over-powerful yet ineffective state bureaucracy as the problem, and markets and Big Tech as the solution. Yet the global response to Covid reveals the opposite: surely the state is the solution. The market is as parasitic on the state for its survival as steppe nomads are on settled farmers: not the freebooting corsairs of neoliberal mythology, but entirely reliant on the state to pump taxpayer’s money into correcting their errors.
Back in the spring, distracted by the global crisis of liberalism, the pandemic was presented as a test between liberalism and authoritarianism. The success of East Asian democracies such as Taiwan and South Korea, however, shows that the crucial distinction is in fact simply that between functioning state bureaucracies and inept ones.
It is noteworthy, perhaps, that Taiwan and South Korea, as well as the also-successful Israel, are neighboured by enemies, and have experience in military mass mobilisation as a result; tucked away on our island at the most pacific corner of the European continent, we have lost a necessary appreciation of threat, like the flightless birds on previously undiscovered islands which waddled heedlessly into hungry sailors’ outstretched arms.
Surely an island nation with few entry points could easily have sealed the borders back in the spring, or at the very least instituted a system of health checks and quarantine for travellers from the outside world — something which, incredibly, has not been attempted nearly a year into the pandemic. Like the prewar government shrugging that “the bomber will always get through”, the British state decided that the virus will always get through, and that there was no point trying to limit its spread. Tens of thousands of people are dead, and thousands more will soon die as a direct result.
This defeat has many fathers, and among them is the enfeebling culture war that derived from the Brexit vote. Had the Government taken this simple, achievable step back in the spring, the cries of “rainy fascist island Brexit Britain” from our witless comment class would doubtless have caused Johnson some discomfort: his greatest failure is failing to appreciate that the opinions of these people simply do not matter, as the past series of election results show. With a strong majority in parliament, the Government could have taken decisive action swiftly, and been rewarded for it afterwards by a grateful nation.
The primary function, and duty, of the state is to keep the people safe; all authority flows from this compact with the nation. Yet instead of Hobbes’ Leviathan, the modern British state resembles a giant tutting HR administrator looming over the country, cautioning that decisive action is impossible: borders can’t be policed; volunteers can’t administer vaccines to those at risk, without an official certificate of correct opinions; the Army can’t be brought in; even if they can do it in other countries, we couldn’t possibly adopt such radical solutions here.
It is ironic, then, that the Government is engaged in a simultaneous struggle to defend the British state from Scottish separatism. On the basis of its current performance, there is little evidence that the British state even exists. What we are ruled by is only a negative state, that can pass laws in ever greater numbers to prevent people doing things, but is incapable of actively performing even the simplest and most important acts of governance itself. Who can blame so many Scottish or Welsh voters for wanting rid of this useless system inhabiting the hollow carapace of the British state? The temptation is to allow the Union’s dissolution, in the hope that some better system of governance might arise from the wreckage. But there is no reason to be confident that what replaces it will not be the same broken system in a shrunken form or, as in Scotland, something even worse.
There is a tragic quality — in its Classical sense, of protagonists brought low by an intrinsic character flaw — in observing prominent neoliberal thinktankers correctly diagnosing the British state’s total absence of capacity and pleading for action. The neoliberal logic of eroding the state was to make us freer — but trapped in our homes, nearly a year after the beginning of this crisis, by an incompetent and incapable state, it is clear these alleged freedoms are purely notional. We are now imprisoned by them.
Certain organs of British conservatism have been so captured by libertarian thought that their commentators disgrace themselves with Covid conspiracy theories in support of age-old British freedoms. Meanwhile, their brains addled by Right-liberalism, Conservative ministers view the state like a recovering alcoholic views an ice-cold glass of gin and tonic: afraid to give in to temptation, lest it take control and ruin them utterly.
This disaster has gone on too long, and Labour has been too meek not only in holding the Government to account but in proposing radical solutions. Surely the solution is this: to rebuild the capacity of the British state as quickly as possible, through a vast new programme of public infrastructure projects, and an immediate program of nationalisation of key industries and utilities, just as in the Second World War, while carrying out a root and branch reform of the Civil Service to remove the dross. The primary aim would not be to bring public goods back into public ownership, as they were a mere generation ago — that would just be a side benefit. The goal would be to rebuild a class of bureaucrats who are competent at actually administering the state and running major infrastructure projects, instead of merely handing out emergency contracts at inflated prices to friends and randomly-chosen private sector profiteers.
Starmer’s mooted proposals for radical reform of British governance along radically devolved lines sound promising, and it will be good to examine the details carefully when they are finally presented. What about a form of Tory Anarchism — in truth, a system of radically more localised governance across the country — which is not, paradoxical though it may seem, incompatible with a stronger state. Instead of being simultaneously too centralised and too weak, as Tom McTague noted, the British state ought to be both more decentralised and stronger: strengthened local governance with deeper and wider responsibilities ought to be seen as a real-world school of administration, identifying and promoting talent from the wider populace and incorporating their skills within the greater British state.
In France, suffering from its own Covid failures, Macron has suggested choosing 35 citizens by lottery to advise on rolling out the vaccine, and why not? Literally any 35 people plucked at random from the street would have closed the borders back in March, and exhibited greater urgency rolling out the vaccine than our own sclerotic state functionaries. Britain’s governance is simply too important to be left to its current political class.
Britain’s essential problem, revealed by the pandemic, is that the state simply does not function. To rebuild capacity, the state needs practice. The French and Chinese build our power stations and run our transport infrastructure not because they have inherited some unique genetic capacity for administration, but because they have preserved their states, which are, as a result, well-practised at actually doing things. Like a developing nation, we rely on others to do things we ought to be able to do ourselves — and perhaps, like a developing nation, we should invite bureaucrats from Taiwan or South Korea to audit our civil service and suggest improvements, like benevolent colonial administrators liberating us from our own ignorance and ideological superstition.
But first of all, we need a clear-out of government, which has failed this country at a moment of crisis. Johnson has fulfilled the role granted to him by history, of delivering Brexit. The time has surely come for him to leave the stage, along with those around him, and the incompetent civil servants beneath him. As the authors of Guilty Men wrote in 1940, “the men who are now repairing the breaches in our walls should not carry along with them those who let the walls fall into ruin. The nation is united to a man in its desire to prosecute the war in total form: there must be a similar unity in the national confidence. Let the guilty men retire, then, of their own volition, and so make an essential contribution to the victory upon which all are implacably resolved.”
The failures of Dunkirk, of Norway, of Malaya and Singapore led, once the battle was finally won, to the total reorganisation of the British state: if the British state of 2021 cannot reform itself after its failures in this crisis, surely it does not deserve to survive the aftermath.