top of page

After Brexit #1

COVID-19: We’re Not In Control

Philip Cunliffe, George Hoare, Lee Jones and Peter Ramsay

28 March 2020

As coronavirus ravages the world, quarantined citizens are clearly not in control – but nor, despite appearances, are political elites or experts. The hastily assembled Tory police state has a hollow core where an active citizenry should be.

Seven weeks ago, Britain formally withdrew from the European Union (EU), belatedly enacting the decision of the referendum of 2016. The referendum was famously won by the Leave campaign on the slogan “Take Back Control”. This slogan resonated effectively with voters because it pointed beyond the injunction merely to restore the national sovereignty lost to the EU (see Analysis #2 - Popular Sovereignty and “Taking Back Control”: What it Means and Why it Matters). It captured widespread feelings of political alienation from the state, disenchantment with a remote technocratic elite, and widespread regional immiseration – sentiments that could effectively and meaningfully be bundled up with the injunction to restore sovereignty. For all the calumny heaped on Leave voters as atavistic and spiteful nationalists, in truth the vote to leave expressed a powerful and ultimately rational democratic instinct – that the people should rule. Seven weeks on, the man who coined that potent slogan, Dominic Cummings, is indeed one of the most powerful men in the country. The population at large, however, has been reduced to impotence and passivity, confronting the prospect that Brexit will in all likelihood be suspended to enable the enfeebled British state to concentrate its efforts on stemming the coronavirus pandemic. 

Since the announcement of a de facto state of emergency on 23 March, a whole range of civil liberties have been drastically curtailed as part of the government’s strategy to combat the pandemic, with the police empowered to break up public gatherings of more than two people. The population have been reduced to spectators, confined at home and with a growing proportion now on the state’s payroll as a Tory government enacts a sweeping programme of disaster socialism – closing the borders, directing industry, nationalising railways, subsidising whole economic sectors: a caricature of the policies that the anti-Brexit left warned against as the alleged vision of the pro-Brexit Left. Although it is supposedly a national emergency, the Tory’s disaster socialism is an inversion of a war-time economy, with the population being demobilised, paid by the state to stay at home and consume rather than work and produce, while we passively observe the government’s frantic efforts to stem the spread of the virus. The public has been excluded from decision-making – we’re not in control.


They’re Not In Control

However, if we the populace are not in control, it is equally clear that our politicians are not in control, either.


Nothing indicates this better than parliament’s decision to dissolve itself for at least a month. This is supposedly to “lead by example” by respecting the government decree that all “non-essential” workplaces should close. This decree has allowed the middle classes supposedly to “work” remotely from home, while the working classes are compelled to continue working even longer hours in cramped kitchens, sewers, urban transport systems, supermarkets, hospitals and warehouses to support the stay-at-home middle classes. The rest of the labour force is left befuddled as to the state’s orders – are construction workers essential or not?


Our parliamentarians are under no such confusion however. “It looks mad for us to still be here,” an anonymous Labour MP told The Times. The “Mother of all Parliaments” has effectively deemed its own work inessential – and in the midst of a national emergency no less. Parliament continued to meet throughout the Second World War despite the formation of a government of national unity and the threat of Nazi bombs. By dissolving themselves in face of the supposedly greatest peacetime challenge to the British state since 1945, parliamentarians reveal themselves not as democratic representatives guiding the nation through a critical emergency, but just another inessential, middle class, salaried profession that can stay at home – as if the business of governing the country could be conducted remotely. In advancing their Easter recess, parliamentarians have abdicated their democratic responsibility: not only are they not even pretending to “work from home”, they are not conducting regular parliamentary business at all.


Many of these same parliamentarians fleeing the virus to their taxpayer-subsidised accommodation are the very same people who howled that the Prime Minister’s proroguing of parliament for one extra week in October 2019 was a fascistic attempt to subvert democracy. Now, when the economy is collapsing for real rather than only in the fetid imagination of Remainers, parliamentarians have decided that they are themselves inessential. Parliamentarians should be willing to risk their own health – and indeed their lives – to ensure that democracy lives. However it is done, whether through creating a new virtual parliament or by putting Westminster into lockdown so that MPs can continue working in the palace, democratic representation must continue. The need for democratic scrutiny even during a national emergency was demonstrated only last week, when the prospect of a backbench Tory revolt helped to ensure that the draconian Coronavirus Bill will at least not endure for two years, as the government had previously intended. A BEIS select committee report released earlier this week examining how low-paid workers in warehouses and call centres – the “essential” labour force – are being treated, showed once again that democratic representation remains critical. If parliamentarians are not needed in a crisis then when will they be needed?


In dissolving parliament, parliamentarians reveal their own lack of belief in themselves and their role as elected representatives. It is not MPs spreading the coronavirus that should alarm us, but their relentless propagation of their cowardice and contempt for democracy. What the dissolution of parliament reveals most of all is that even after having formally withdrawn from the EU, Britain remains a neutered, technocratic member-state rather than a sovereign democratic nation-state; a state in which the legislature is still treated as an expendable, even redundant prosthesis to the process of government, just as it was in the EU, thereby leaving executives free to coordinate amongst themselves without reference to national parliaments.


The delinquency of our parliamentarians is thus not merely moral, but structural: fifty years of EU membership has indeed rendered democratic representation “inessential.” In response to the coronavirus crisis, parliament has now vacated the field not to Brussels but to our own technocrats – experts and bureaucrats, epidemiologists, civil servants and unelected advisers such as Cummings. Meanwhile, over the last few days, half a million people have put themselves forward to join the “volunteer army” being recruited to expand NHS capacity. The people have stepped up, just as parliament has stepped down. Not only are our democratically elected representatives not in control, what is worse, by dissolving parliament in the midst of a national emergency they have shown that they do not want to be in control – despite us having elected them to be so.


He’s Not in Control

If we’re not in control and they’re not in control, is Prime Minister Boris Johnson in control?

It is a remarkably unauthoritative leader who cannot resist a smirk creeping up onto his face in the midst of announcing the supposedly greatest challenge to the country in peace-time in a televised address to the nation, in addition to a state of emergency that effectively puts the nation itself under house arrest. The prime minister switched from “relax, keep calm and carry on” to a nationwide lockdown according to the latest expert advice. He appears to have little or nothing to add of his own.


Yet at the same time, the new Tory police state declared overnight is strikingly uneven: freedom of assembly has been banned, but some movement is encouraged in the form of daily state-sanctioned exercise. This gives every citizen a conceivable, legal and legitimate reason to be breaking the curfew, leaving it entirely to police discretion as to whom to punish. The “inessential” workforce is encouraged to work from home, leaving instructions ambiguous for those who cannot – let alone the question as to who is “inessential” in the midst of a national emergency. Meanwhile, the police publicly announced their incapacity to enforce the curfew under the laughable guise of Britain’s supposed history of “policing by consent”.


What we have is a post-modern police state whose biopolitical justification is the health of the population, not the political life of the nation. It is a performance of state power and authority, not its reality. Police forces in the north that did nothing to defend working class girls from paedophile gangs now use drones to enforce social distancing on citizens walking through empty countryside. Therein lies the problem itself – the very need to flaunt power and control speaks to its absence, and risks drastic escalation in the need to perpetuate itself. If the police are incapable, will the army be required?

The Experts aren’t in Control

If Boris Johnson is not in control, then perhaps the technocrats are in control – the chief medical and scientific officers, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, civil servants and bureaucrats, or perhaps Cummings himself? Can technocracy, resting on the solid foundations of expertise and evidence, offer the solidity that our cowardly parliamentarians and childish prime minister lack?


If the coronavirus crisis demonstrates anything, it is that technocracy cannot be a stable basis for rule. This is for the simple reason that the experts disagree amongst themselves as to what the evidence is telling them, what are the right assumptions to rely on to inform their predictive models, and therefore what the best course of action is. Expertise is ultimately a synonym for capacity to participate in complex and technical debate; it is not a capacity for decision-making, let alone political decision-making and it is only ever as solid as the last peer-reviewed paper. The government established its police state in a panic, in response to a recently published Imperial College study that predicted half a million deaths from the pandemic. A recent Oxford study challenges some of the findings of the Imperial College study, which in turn is being challenged by other experts. Different groups at different institutions disagree between themselves, while experts disagree across countries, too.


The global data on coronavirus is highly uneven, a hastily assembled composite of data taken from drastically different national contexts with poor control over sampling. Is presence of the coronavirus evidence of it causing death? Germany and Japan appear to have few deaths related to the virus, while Italy and China have plenty. Is it because Wuhan has comparatively worse pollution and higher rates of smoking, and Lombardy a higher proportion of elderly citizens living in more contagious, multi-generational households as a result of EU austerity? Will Wuhan or Lombardy be the outliers in mortality, or the norm? Only time will tell. Sweden, South Korea and the Netherlands have opted to avoid strictly-policed states of emergency in response to the virus, while Hong Kong and Singapore indicate viral resurgence once lock-down abates.


If the epidemiological data is messy, how are epidemiologists expected to assess the risks and costs of drastic economic demobilization and collapse – possibly at a cost greater than that of the Great Depression – in trying to control the virus? And if economists are to be consulted about such risks, then who is to arbitrate as to whose expertise takes precedence, that of epidemiologists, or that of economists? Who should be consulted about the drastic curtailing of liberty mandated by government to halt the spread of the virus? Can anyone count as an “expert” in liberty? Political decisions are not subject to peer review or even erudition. The flailing of experts, and with them the British state, shows us why government must not rest on expertise, but rather seek to mediate expertise through its own political authority and decision-making capacity. It is precisely this political authority that the British state lacks. 


Taking Control

If the British parliament surrenders democracy to the virus and the British government’s decision-making disintegrates into academic factions warring over how to interpret the most recent epidemiological data, what might taking control mean, after Brexit and in the midst of the corona pandemic?


As the COVID-19 crisis shows, we have accustomed ourselves to a health system that buckles under the strain of seasonal illnesses every year. Each winter for many years now, our hospitals struggled with flu, turning a multi-year crisis into a new norm. The question with COVID-19 was, how many will die in excess of seasonal flu to count as a “real” crisis?


Now in the midst of the corona crisis, the government has told us that we must “protect the NHS” in order to “save lives”. This inverts all logic: surely the NHS should be protecting us and saving our lives, rather than us protecting it. We have been put under house arrest in order to protect the NHS. What this shows is that our lack of control reflects state failure – its basic lack of capacity. This lack of technical capacity has shaped the response to the corona pandemic from the start: the lack of available surge capacity in our health system, the lack of testing kits, the lack of personnel, the lack of hospital beds, the lack of ventilators, the lack of capacity to manufacture ventilators. All of these have dictated the character of the state’s halting “nudge” policies, and ultimately driven the establishment of the Tory police state itself. Despite the British state’s pandemic planning reaching at least as far back as the far milder SARS pandemic in 2003, when a serious pandemic actually arrived in 2020, the most the British state could offer was social distancing enforced by the police.


The British state’s lack of technical capacity only reflects its underlying lack of political capacity: its inability to generate power and authority from its citizens, and consequently its inability to justify and plan for even adequate, let alone meaningful, collective goods for the benefit of the nation as a whole. Greater democratic control would generate greater political capacity, and with it, greater technical capacity. At a minimum then, taking control would mean the mass of citizens exercising greater democratic control over their collective and individual lives, and coming with that, greater collective ownership and control of public resources and the expansion of those resources, too.


The people have to find a way to take control. In addition to the Brexit vote itself, the social basis for taking greater control is perhaps beginning to emerge: the 600,000-strong volunteer army for the NHS indicates a greater willingness to collaborate in the pursuit of social goods and collective ends, and a greater willingness to involve ourselves in the public good. In stepping up, citizens embarrass those who claim to lead us. The task is to translate this incipient social solidarity, this effort to take responsibility into our own hands, into a political vision. The state will seek to bend this social solidarity to itself, but it has nothing to offer except a pathetic rallying around a crumbling public health system: “Protect the NHS”. The task for us is to translate these new stirrings of social solidarity into a political vision – a vision

that combines democratic authority with the instinct to shape the collective good and expand public resources by orders of magnitude.

About the authors

Dr Philip Cunliffe is Senior Lecturer in International Conflict at the University of Kent. Dr George Hoare is a London-based researcher and author. Dr Lee Jones is Reader in International Politics at Queen Mary University of London. Prof Peter Ramsay is Professor of Law at the London School of Economics. They are among the co-founders of The Full Brexit.


This work represents the views of the author only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

bottom of page