Sometimes you’d get close to despair. The government of the island next door to us has decided to embark on a highly dangerous and completely unethical experiment. They’re calling it Freedom Day, but it will put tens of thousands of men, women, and children at risk.
Now in the UK there’s no limit on the number of people who can meet indoors, no legal requirement to wear a mask or socially distance, no problem standing at the bar in your local for hours on end and then staggering off to a nightclub — almost no sensible public health restrictions at all.
If it goes as badly wrong as it could, it could overwhelm their health service. At worst, it could kill people who would not otherwise die. But no doubt Boris Johnson will say that at least there’ll be no limit on the number of people who can attend funerals.
This experiment is based on the belief (apparently) by the British government and its fun-loving prime minister that if he lifts all restrictions, people will be responsible and behave themselves. Where has he been, you’d have to wonder. He clearly didn’t manage to see any of the disgusting behaviour of English fans during the European Championship, for starters.
He doesn’t even seem to know how to behave himself. As a result, he now has to go into self-isolation because of his contacts with his health secretary as the latter became a confirmed case. He can’t even bring himself to keep the most basic public health measures in place on a mandatory basis. Mask-wearing and social distancing are to be a matter of personal judgement.
A poll published in the British newspapers over the weekend shows that a considerable number of young people are now deleting the NHS Covid tracker app from their phones. The reason? If you don’t have the app, you won’t get the alert that you’ve been in contact with someone with a confirmed diagnosis. So you won’t have to self-isolate or restrict your movements. Make sure you don’t get the information you need, in other words, to make sure you don’t have to exercise decent judgement.
Isn’t this just crazy? Johnson is leading his people into a dangerous and unnecessary situation, with no scientific basis for it, and in the full knowledge that his people are likely to let rip. All in the name of freedom. Someday, somewhere, someone is going to ask him the question: How many people have to suffer and die as a result of your leadership before you accept that you’re a criminal failure?
But do you know what I find even worse? There is no opposition to this. The British Labour Party has been utterly pathetic in the face of Boris Johnson. A man who will go down in history as one of the most cavalier, reckless, and irresponsible leaders in the history of the UK is confronted, day after day, by an opposition that has undoubtedly been one of the most supine in the history of democratic politics.
This matters to us because the British experiment with the Delta variant will affect us. We see our numbers climbing daily and we see the need for careful management. The people of Ireland have proved themselves to be world leaders in coping with a pandemic, and there is no reason why, left to our own devices, we won’t come through the Delta surge. What has been called the race between Delta and the vaccine can be won, with care and caution.
But the madcap British experiment endangers that — in the number of cases we can import, and in the terrible example being given in the abandonment of essential safety measures. You can see, in some of the craziness on social media for instance (and one or two crazy voices in Dáil Eireann), anti-public health voices being enabled.
Anti-vaccine, anti-mask, anti-lockdown people are all being empowered by this spurious clarion call to “freedom”. The endless tirades about discrimination – get a vaccine and you can eat indoors, don’t get a vaccine and you have to eat outside – is a particularly specious example.
Because the British experiment matters, and because it can fuel all that, I long to hear a responsible British opposition really taking their mad government on. But there’s nothing.
It is tragic to watch. Look at the British Labour Party’s website if you like. It’s full of platitudinous horse manure. No leadership, no vision, no sense of anger at the risks that are being run. You look at it, and you wonder – what the hell happened to them.
Throughout history, there have been political parties and movements that have really mattered, that have made a profound difference to their countries. Willy Brandt’s Social Democrats transformed Germany and the history of Western Europe. Margaret Thatcher’s Tories sent Britain in a different direction. de Valera’s and Lemass’s Fianna Fáil left an indelible mark on this country.
Among the giants, the British Labour Party stood tall. They didn’t build an empire, but they built a form of economic management that was consistent with world-leading social policies. Especially the jewel in their crown, the National Health Service, built in the teeth of vested interests to become a priceless asset of the British people.
Labour was packed with great, meaningful men and women whose passion and vision were enormously influential. The values of the party — the central commitments to community and equality — influenced thousands of other activists around the world. They weren’t afraid of tough language then — two of Labour’s central tenets in the aftermath of the Second World War, for instance, were the elimination of ignorance and squalor (not exactly politically correct terms).
Britain is awash with ignorance and squalor now. A deeply divided society, riven by racism, and led by irresponsible charlatans. If ever there was a need for the Labour Party to be passionate about its values, to be furious in the face of recklessness, it is now.
Yet the party is more dead than alive. It’s led by a man who seems, from this distance anyway, to have as much intellectual capacity as the best of his predecessors. But none of the passion of a Kinnock, the vision of a Barbara Castle, the sheer political guts of an Aneurin Bevan. None of the soul his country needs.
I guess Brexit was the start of it. They were led then by Corbyn, who was an emotionally pro-Brexit leader of a pro-European party. So they lacked the courage of their convictions in that campaign and ever since. And since Covid began, they’ve been terrified of being upstaged by Boris.
Even Corbyn moved a vote of no confidence in Theresa May. But Boris has never had to face anything like a strong and determined opposition. He’ll just carry on, doing whatever he likes, while Her Majesty’s loyal opposition wrings its hands and bleats ineffectually.
At a moment when their country needs leadership based on principle, they’ll be off conducting a focus group somewhere, and deciding that Boris’s idea of “freedom” is too popular to be challenged. It doesn’t get much more pathetic than that.