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The Boy Who Cried Wolf
Earlier this week the UK government deported 17 people to Jamaica as part of their policy of creating a hostile environment for undocumented migrants. The number was meant to be 50, but after a high-profile campaign by prominent Black public figures the government agreed to allow those on the list who had lived in the UK from the age of 12 a reprieve from deportation. That said, you could have a family here, have no connection to the country of your birth, perhaps even be the victim of human trafficking (as the Morning Star has reported)—and the bad fortune of having moved to the UK at 13 instead of 12. Off you go! The Guardian reported the Home Office's statement that they had removed ‘serious foreign criminals’.
Since 2010 when the Conservatives came to power, they've introduced swingeing budget cuts that have reshaped the state and British society, leading to the ‘preventable’ deaths of approximately 130,000 people. The NHS is suffering the worst funding crisis in our lifetime, despite constant claims from the government that the service is receiving record funding. Of course, in absolute terms they're not incorrect: the Exchequer throws more money at health care than ever before. But after decades of privatisation by the back door, in which parasitical for-profit companies are handed contracts to do jobs that used to be done in-house by the NHS itself—well, it doesn't take a mathematician to see that these companies' profits have to come from somewhere.
In an effort to quell their own eurosceptic back-benchers, the Conservative government held a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, believing in their arrogance that people would do what they were told and vote to remain. While I have a negative opinion of the EU, I don't relish a Tory-led exit from its clutches. Their arrogance is matched only by their incompetence. Nowhere has this been clearer than in the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has placed England and Scotland in the unenviable positions of having some of the worst death rates in Europe.
Before the Tories, a Labour government led us into a devastating war that left a million people dead, on patently false pretenses, despite overwhelming public opposition.
Why would anyone believe anything the government has to say?
So it comes as no surprise to me that there is a crisis of trust around the new vaccine being rolled out to tackle the pandemic. Much is made of the anti-vaxxers and their imperviousness to science. But as the FT reported on Monday, recent polling has shown that ‘there have been signs that the public is increasingly cautious about the vaccine. Concerns are centred on the safety of experimental vaccines and the speed with which they have been tested—and come against the backdrop of broader mistrust of the government's handling of the pandemic.’ People don’t believe that the government has their best interests at heart. And why should they?
It doesn’t seem like the rantings of a crank to wonder how safe the vaccine could be in the long term, considering the astronomical speed at which it was developed. That said, in any reasonable risk analysis the chances of the jab having a long-lasting negative impact on a significant number of people's health is clearly outweighed by the evident and manifest danger of letting Covid continue to destroy the lives of millions of people. In other words, the risk is worth it and we need to take the vaccine. But it should be a strategic decision based on scientific understanding, not one that is taken on faith that the government knows best or is working in your interest.
Liberal democracy is the political face of the free market economy where everything is reduced to transactions of commodities. Truth is just such a commodity, and you might not be able to afford it.
This gets to the heart of the issue: people have lost faith in liberal institutions. It’s the Boy Who Cried Wolf. Rose Bernard, commenting in the FT on the government's plans to combat false, misleading or disputed information about Covid, said ‘If your main belief is that liberal institutions are lying, then you will see any warning as confirmation that you are being lied to.’ But what if you know that these institutions are filled with charlatans? Surely the crisis stems from the fact that the same people who are one minute telling you bald-faced whoppers are the next minute trying to impress upon you that they really are telling the truth this time. And online, where the “free market of ideas” takes its purest form, placing little official notices beneath the tweets of known liars works about as well as encouraging people to go out to eat—and that you'll pick up half the bill!—then hoping they don't take you up on it.
On the latest episode of the Spaghetti For Brains podcast, Norm and I talk about the recent anti-lockdown protest in London and the group Save Our Rights UK who organised it. Of course, most of the time that Norm and I talk it comes out silly and buried in jokes about farts, but the point is still there: uninformed people will make uninformed decisions, but sometimes their basic common sense will lead them part of the way in the right direction. So, while the anti-vaxxer, QAnon conspiracy theorist, Save Our Children, ‘Have you ever read 1984’ types do utterly get it wrong, they’re at least operating on the relatively correct premise that we’re being lied to.
Save Our Rights in particular are interesting because they bothered to come up with a political explanation. It’s a dumb political explanation, of course, because they see out-of-control capitalism as a product of bad government, instead of the other way around (as well as believing that elections should be conducted by YouGov survey). But where your average crank fails at analysis, it's worth pointing out that your average liberal-minded person fails equally and epically by misplacing trust in the institutions of the ruling class.