For the last two months, my physical world has shrunk immensely. For nine years I cycled almost every day, capturing the changing face of London on bike rides that have taken me to the furthest postcodes of Europe’s largest city, and that, since the first Covid lockdown in March 2020, involved me cycling most days into central London — the City and the West End — to capture what began as apocalyptic emptiness, to which, by degrees, human activity eventually returned, but on nothing like the scale that it was before Covid hit. I post a photo a day from those bike rides — with accompanying essays — on my Facebook page ‘The State of London’, and also on Twitter.
Two months ago, however, I sprained my leg quite badly — crossing an unexpected line when what I thought was healthy activity turned out to be something that, instead, signified that my body’s resilience was finite, and that I was wearing it out.
Since then, I’ve barely left my immediate neighbourhood. For most of the last two months, I felt fortunate if I was able to hobble to the bottom of the street I live in in Brockley, in south east London. The worst of it is now over, as the muscle I sprained has finally healed, but in the process of compensating my knee itself is now bruised and painful, and although I can walk further — up to and and around my local park, Hilly Fields, and around the streets nearest to me, I haven’t been able to venture further afield, except on a few occasions when my wife has driven me somewhere.
Throughout this whole period, I’ve had only a handful of social interactions, beyond my immediate family, because we were in a version of lockdown in which social mingling wasn’t wildly encouraged. On the few occasions I have socialised, it has been sweeter than I remember when we all used to take it for granted — a gig with my band The Four Fathers at the end of May, a few dinners, drinks or brunches with friends.
I’ve grown accustomed to being largely housebound. I’ve been doing more writing, and, in any case, I have a book to work on, based on ‘The State of London’, for publication next year, that won’t write itself. In addition, the weather, over the last few months, has sometimes been unseasonably cold, and has frequently involved more rainfall than is usual, so I haven’t been generally missing out on those long sunny journeys when London shines. Mostly, however, I haven’t felt like I’ve been missing out because the world outside my shrunken radius of activity — and Boris Johnson’s England, in particular — doesn’t seem like a particularly welcoming place.
Brexit, Covid and the worst government ever
We are governed, at present, by the most corrupt, inept and self-serving government I’ve had the misfortune to endure in my 58 years on this earth. Led by the uniquely unqualified Boris Johnson, the very definition of an incoherent narcissist (especially now that Donald Trump has been pushed off the world stage), Johnson and his Cabinet have absolutely no meaningful substance, as they are all in their jobs because of their deluded belief in the benefits of Britain leaving the EU.
These are benefits that are patently non-existent to anyone actually paying attention, rather than extolling the illusory virtues of cutting ourselves off from our nearest neighbours, with whom half of all our business used to be conducted in a frictionless manner that was the envy of all those excluded from its benefits.
The ravages of Covid — and this wretched government’s appalling mismanagement of our response to it — has largely hidden the ongoing disaster of Brexit, and its crippling effect on our economy, as businesses that used to sell their products and services in the EU find themselves largely unable to do so because of “red tape” that is loftily dismissed as “teething problems” by lying ministers, when it is really much more fundamental and permanent, and as workers from the EU, who used to do all manner of jobs that British people were either unwilling or unable to do, have all returned to their home countries, never to return.
In March, it was reported that “UK exports of goods to the EU plunged by 40.7% in January”, which was “the biggest monthly decline in British trade for more than 20 years”, and in April Al-Jazeera reported that “[b]anks have moved or are moving more than 900 billion pounds ($1.2 trillion) in assets from Britain to the EU, while insurers and asset managers have transferred more than 100 billion pounds ($138bn) in assets and funds, reducing the UK tax base.” In terms of worker shortages, just yesterday the Guardian reported that “Britain’s employers are struggling with the worst staff shortages since the late 1990s, amid the rush to reopen from lockdown and a sharp drop in overseas workers due to Covid and Brexit.”
This alone ought to be enough to condemn this government to the most chronic unpopularity, but that is not the case. Buoyed by their own right-wing media, and by the spinelessness of most of what passes for the liberal media, they continue to hold a lead in the polls, appealing to the third of the population that voted Brexit, or that constitutes their fundamental base of support, and that, with our unfair “first past the post” system, and the apathy of the third of the registered electorate (between 28% and 38%) that never votes, keeps them in power.
Worse still, Johnson’s ministers are not just fantasists, believing in the illusory benefits of Brexit; some are crooks, benefitting from it (and from Covid) financially, while others are the very definition of the “nasty party” that the Tories used to be known as, and with good reason. Guarding the UK’s borders is Priti Patel, an immigrant who hates immigrants, and is determined to keep out everyone who isn’t British (except those with money, of course), and who also hates those who dare to protest against the government, or who dare to live a different lifestyle (the Gypsies and Travellers that the Tories have been hunting down since the 1980s).
In the giddy world of Brexit delusion, one fantasy the likes of Patel seek is the one that unmoors the UK from any EU-wide or international standards of behaviour regarding refugees, human rights, labour laws, and much, much more. Never in living memory has there been a government that even dreamt of tearing up all the rule books in such a giddy and irresponsible manner, and yet now, since Johnson’s rise to power, the bigots and bullies believe that they can literally do whatever they want, and with Johnson himself setting a supremely sleazy example of a leader who believes that he should be able to do whatever he wants, and that with power there should be no accountability whatsoever.
And now, as if all of the above wasn’t enough, Johnson and his ministers are hell-bent on dropping all Covid restrictions and forcing the return of “business as usual” — as it was before Covid hit. With Covid infections rising steeply — far more so than in mainland Europe — this is a hugely risky policy, but it is in line with right-wing Tories’ beliefs from the very beginning of the pandemic: that the economy is more important than people’s lives. The government is gambling that the huge NHS rollout of vaccines — at a rate far higher than our European neighbours — will keep deaths down to what they regard as an “acceptable” level — perhaps 20,000 deaths a year, or 400 deaths a week — but ministers actually have no way of knowing how many deaths will result from a countrywide policy of dropping as many restrictions as possible.
As well as appeasing the most hardline parts of the business community — who want all their workers to return to their offices, for example, rather than accepting a new balance of part-time office work and part-time remote work from home — the government’s drive also seems clearly designed to appeal to those who will keep it in power, as can be seen in the huge disparities between the treatment of the sporting industry and the treatment of those involved in culture.
Culture and sport
Brexit had already revealed that, in pursuit of Priti Patel’s dream of keeping as many foreigners as possible out of the UK, negotiations with the EU on behalf of the UK’s highly profitable music industry showed complete indifference to the requirement of artists to be able to freely tour European countries without incurring prohibitive costs in terms of visas and other obstacles.
Musicians’ most high-profile defender is Elton John, who told the Observer last month, “I’m livid about what the government did when Brexit happened. They made no provision for the entertainment business, and not just for musicians, actors and film directors, but for the crews, the dancers, the people who earn a living by going to Europe.” Angered by his unsuccessful attempts to lobby politicians, he responded to a question about why he had met such resistance, by stating, “The government are philistines. We’ve got used to governments – especially the British government – just telling us lies every day, and I don’t feel OK with that.”
He added, powerfully, “Look what they did with the NHS. After all that those people did during Covid, they give them a 1% increase. I find that extraordinary. It makes me so angry. I’m 74 years of age and I just don’t get this unfairness and this ridiculous ability to lie through your teeth every f*cking minute of the day.”
To add to this sacrificial slaughter of the arts, the government has also done nothing to support the UK’s summer music festivals — despite them being another huge generator of income — and their refusal to provide insurance means that most festivals have now been cancelled.
When it comes to sport, however, the government has done all it can to open up events, and it’s hard not to conclude that, at some level, the arts sector, easily dismissed as being left-wing, is regarded as a threat, whereas the sports sector — and its supporters — are not. Announcing the cancellation of the WOMAD world music festival just two weeks ago, organisers commented on “the irony that the Silverstone Grand Prix — a five-day camping event attended by 140,000 people — could take place, yet music festivals could not.”
Such is the government’s disdain for the arts that even Andrew Lloyd Webber, the theatre impresario whose shows have contributed so much to the economy, finds himself abandoned by a government that doesn’t really care if theatres can re-open or not. As Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, apparently explained to Lloyd Webber, the Cabinet views theatre as something that is “‘nice-to-have’ rather than essential.”
The Euro 2020 championships provide the starkest example of this disparity between sport and culture, as the government seeks to capitalise on allowing people the “freedom” to celebrate wildly, as though Covid no longer exists, in terms of popular support, and with Johnson seeking to seal his role as the saviour of sporting freedom by declaring a new national holiday if England manage to beat Italy in the final on Sunday.
In Britain’s new propaganda-soaked reality, it doesn’t matter that Boris Johnson doesn’t like football, and that his history of racism stands in complete contrast to the multi-racial, inclusive national team that Gareth Southgate has put together. In the government’s fake reality, it doesn’t matter either that, without free movement, most of England’s players would’t even be here at all.
None of it matters because this is the England of ‘Get Brexit Done’, where reality has no place, and where a minority of the population, soaked in their delusional notions of a proud and plucky nation standing alone against those who would do business with us, or who would like to come here to work hard and contribute to society and the economy, are pandered to by a government that is using these delusions solely to cling to power. Brexit is an irredeemable disaster, but the government doesn’t care. All they want is to stay in power, shutting down immigration, shutting down trade, grinding dissent under an iron boot, persecuting nomadic people as though this is Germany in the 1930s, and ignoring the most salient fact of all: that “business as usual”, pre-Covid, was helping to hurtle us towards irreversible environmental catastrophe, and that no amount of marketing spin can disguise that reality.
Covid and its lockdowns provided us with a moment to re-think our relationship with capitalism, the environment and the wider world, but to a government without vision, seeking to endear itself to those who seek only the gratification of their desires in an insanely materialistic world, it doesn’t matter that we’re running out of time. They have no vision beyond their own appetite for power, and that extraordinarily greedy emptiness can only be a disaster for us all.