In the UK,
the US and Australia, governments built on dirty money cannot be trusted to
protect us from the coronavirus.
Monbiot, published in the Guardian 18th March 2020
possible people are in charge at the worst possible time. In the UK, the US and
Australia, the politics of the governing parties have been built on the
dismissal and denial of risk. Just as these politics have delayed the necessary
responses to climate breakdown, ecological collapse, air and water pollution,
obesity and consumer debt, so they appear to have delayed the effective
containment of Covid-19.
it is no coincidence that these three governments have responded later than
comparable nations, and with measures that seemed woefully unmatched to the
scale of the crisis. The UK’s remarkable slowness to mobilise, followed by its
potentially catastrophic strategy – fiercely criticised by independent experts and now
abandoned – to create herd immunity, its continued failure to test and track
effectively, or to provide protective equipment for
health workers could help to cause large numbers of unnecessary deaths. But to
have responded promptly and sufficiently would have meant jettisoning an entire
structure of political thought, developed in these countries over the past half
is best understood as public relations for particular interests. The interests
come first; politics are the means by which they are justified and promoted. On
the left, the dominant interest groups can be very large – everyone who uses
public services, for example. On the right they tend to be much smaller. In the
US, UK and Australia, they are very small indeed: mostly multi-millionaires and
a very particular group of companies: those whose profits depend on the
cavalier treatment of people and planet.
past 20 years, I’ve researched the remarkably powerful but mostly hidden role
of tobacco and oil companies in shaping public policy in these three nations.
I’ve seen how the tobacco companies covertly funded an infrastructure of
persuasion, to deny the impacts of smoking. This infrastructure was then used, often by
the same professional lobbyists, to pour doubt on climate science and attack
researchers and environmental campaigners.
how these companies funded right-wing thinktanks and university professors to launch attacks on public
health policy in general, and create a new narrative of risk, tested on focus
groups and honed in the media. They reframed responsible government as the
“nanny state”, the “health police” and “elf ‘n’ safety zealots”. They dismissed
scientific findings and predictions as “unfounded fears”, “risk aversion” and
“scaremongering”. Public protections were recast as “red tape”, “interference” and “state
control”. Government itself was presented as a mortal threat to our freedom.
Their purpose was to render governments less willing and able to respond to
public health and environmental crises.
these corporations helped to fund – thinktanks and policy units, lobbyists and
political action committees – were then used by other interests: private health
companies hoping to break up the NHS, pesticide manufacturers seeking to strike
down regulatory controls, junk food manufacturers resisting advertising
restrictions, billionaires seeking to avoid tax. Between them, these groups
honed the justifying ideology for
fragmenting and privatising public services, shrinking the state and crippling
its ability to govern.
these three nations, this infrastructure is the government. Number 10 Downing
Street has been filled with people from groups strongly associated with attacks
on regulation and state intervention, such as Munira Mirza, who
co-founded the Manifesto Club; Chloe Westley from the TaxPayers’ Alliance; and of course,
Dominic Cummings, who was hired by Matthew Elliott, the founder of the TaxPayers’
Alliance, to run Vote Leave. When Boris Johnson formed his first government,
the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), that has been funded by the tobacco industry since 1963, boasted
that 14 of its front benchers,
including the Home Secretary, the Foreign Secretary and the Chancellor of the
Exchequer, were “alumni of IEA
Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, has published one book and launched another
through the IEA, which he has thanked for
helping him “in waging the war of ideas.” The Health Secretary, Matthew
Hancock, in a previous role, sought to turn an IEA document
into government policy. He has accepted significant donations
from the organisation’s chairman, Neil Record. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, was formerly a tobacco lobbyist. One in five new Conservative MPs have worked
in lobbying or public relations for
politics is impossible to understand without grasping the Pollution Paradox. The
greater the risk to public health and wellbeing a company presents, the more
money it must spend on politics, to ensure it isn’t regulated out of existence.
Political spending comes to be dominated by the dirtiest companies, ensuring
that they wield the greatest influence, crowding out their cleaner rivals.
While no one has a commercial interest in the spread of coronavirus, the nature
and tenor of the governments these interests have built impedes state attempts
to respond quickly and appropriately.
(remember that?) could be interpreted as an effort to bridge the great split within
the Conservative Party, caused by the rising power of dirty money. The party
became divided between an older, conservative base, with a strong aversion to
novelty and change, and its polar opposite: the risk-taking radical right.
Leaving the European Union permits a reconciliation of these very different
interests, simultaneously threatening food standards, environmental
protections, price controls on medicines and other crucial regulations, while
raising barriers to immigration and integration with other nations. It invokes
ancient myths of empire, destiny and exceptionalism while, potentially,
exposing us to the harshest of international trade conditions. It is likely
further to weaken the state’s capacity to respond to the many crises we face.
The theory on which this form of government is founded can seem plausible and logically consistent. Then reality hits, and we find ourselves in the worst place from which to respond: governed by people with an ingrained disregard for public safety and a reflexive resort to denial. When disasters arrive, its exponents find themselves wandering nonplussed through the wastelands, unable to reconcile what they see with what they believe. Witness Scott Morrison’s response to the Australian fires and Boris Johnson’s belated engagement with the British floods. It is what we see today, as the Trump, Johnson and Morrison governments flounder in the face of this pandemic. They are called upon to govern, but they know only that government is the enemy.