The toxic legacy of lockdown is destroying our political system

I have never known a general election like this one. I cannot remember a national campaign in my lifetime in which the only question for voters was who they hated less.

There have certainly been moments in the past when a sitting government was so loathed that its defeat was clearly inevitable, but on those occasions there was at least some hope and optimism attaching to the rivals who would displace them.

Now, from both the evidence of opinion polling, which shows almost no enthusiasm for Sir Keir Starmer as prime minister in what is regarded as a presidential contest, and the anecdotal, word-of-mouth currency that is often more accurate, the conclusion is unavoidable.

Apart from vested interests in the public sector and the trade unions (some of which appear to be making their support conditional on promises of greater power), the electorate does not appear to much like the Labour Party or its leader – but will still vote for them.

They are unaffected by the fact that the party’s policy statements are evasive and its aims platitudinous, because they are not interested in them at all. Labour’s sole function is to act as a blunt instrument with which to beat the Tories. This applies equally to Reform, which might as well change its name to Revenge.

This fulminating rage must be acknowledged and will have to play itself out through the electoral process, but before we enter that dark place in which we are governed by people nobody wanted, it is important to examine this phenomenon, because it is the most serious threat to healthy democracy in the postwar era. What is happening in Britain is not unique.

Virtually all of the Western governments who presided over the pandemic years are being thrown out, sometimes with deeply disturbing consequences that could never have been anticipated a mere decade ago.

Politics in the most advanced countries of what was known as the Free World has become deranged. Populations once believed to have renounced febrile demagoguery and nativist hatred, having absorbed the terrible lessons of the 20th century, are once again infected by them.

What is going on here? In this country, the conditions of ordinary life for most people – even those groups who consider themselves unfairly disadvantaged – are surely not as bad as they were in, say, the 1970s, when the lights were going out on a regular rota, public transport was frequently shut down completely by national strikes, and my generation had to cope with devastating interest-rate rises and soaring inflation.

Of course there is genuine hardship and frustration – particularly over the possibility of home ownership, which is the key to independent adulthood – but this overwhelming fury is surely disproportionate to the conditions of everyday life.

The crucial complaint is that “nothing works”, which applies almost entirely to the public sector, and that no one in government seems to be able to fix this. The assumption is that the governing party is either utterly incompetent or indifferent to the needs of ordinary people.

This exasperation is exacerbated by the fact that neither the Conservatives, who have been in power, nor Labour, which has been in official opposition, can utter the truth. Government policies devised to deal with the pandemic and the energy crisis created by the war in Ukraine have tanked the economy.

Locking people up in their homes and paying them not to work destroyed the possibility of creating new wealth and saw governments print mountains of money that debased the currency. Energy bills were subsidised by even more money from the Treasury.

But the governing party was not alone in its responsibility for creating this disaster. Labour was not only complicit in these plans, it was positively exuberant about them. Indeed, Sir Keir wanted earlier lockdown, more lockdown and longer lockdown.

There was no respectable, mainstream political voice arguing that the economic and social damage done by this decision to shut down the country – and thus disable all the mechanisms of productive, wealth-creating activity – might be catastrophic.

And there is still no one from the governing class prepared to say that repairing this damage is going to require the kind of sacrifices to which modern electorates are not accustomed.

More money cannot be poured into public services without raising taxes. And raising taxes is a sure-fire way of killing any prospect of creating new wealth, which makes a nonsense of Labour’s commitment to increase growth.

Somebody is going to have to come clean about this if the democratic process is to regain credibility. The Government, egged on by the Opposition, was running on empty, spending funds that didn’t exist, for the best part of two years, and the day of reckoning has finally arrived.

Now, as it happens this truth that dare not speak its name coincides with a new era in public speech. Social media has opened channels for the dissemination of what can be completely irresponsible, often false and pathologically vicious content.

Troll armies, sometimes robotically generated, roam unchecked across a landscape whose boundaries are largely unmonitored. Unverifiable and untraceable sources fling out wholesale bile or blatant deception on a scale that is truly overwhelming.

The Centre for Policy Studies issued a report last week suggesting that this could be the first “deepfake election”, in which simulated video clips of politicians making damaging statements are being circulated online.

Whipping up hatred and distrust is the whole point of this nasty new game and there is only one way to stop its progress: some politician or other is going to have to tell the truth.

We need a Churchillian voice to deliver the blood, sweat and tears message, which would at least show respect for the intelligence of the populace: there are no easy solutions to our current problems.

We are going to ask you to make sacrifices and accept some disappointments. Remember that we have always survived as a nation by facing difficult times with courage and resourcefulness.

But maybe it is too late for that.

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