On 24 March 2020 Paul Bullen, formerly leader of the UKIP group on Cambridgeshire County Council, put out a jaw-dropping tweet where he said:
“Isn’t it about time we stopped this nonsense. The majority don’t care about Covid-19, don’t care if they catch it and know that it won’t have any adverse effects. Do we really want to kill our economy? Let’s get back to work, open our pubs and restaurants and get back to normal.” (click to view tweet)
After the Brexit party chose not to stand candidates against sitting Tories, Bullen became an independent candidate in Huntingdon Constituency in the General Election, where I stood for the Liberal Democrats. He took a position that was strongly in favour of Brexit. In hustings he repeatedly claimed that climate change, though real, is not the result of human activity, and that, if elected, he’d not be beholden to any party line, but would speak for his constituents.
I don’t know Bullen well enough to speculate on what he actually thinks, and note that this twitter account seems to have been deleted.
What this does crack open an interesting question about a set of attitudes on Brexit, Covid-19 and climate change more widely.
Nigel Farage is on record as denying climage change, and attacking the EU for acting on this.
We’ve seen Brexit-supporting Donald Trump be very dismissive of Covid-19, and then pivot to calling it the “Chinese Virus”, claiming that the US can deal with it and claim to have the cure (without medical evidence to justify that — resulting in the deaths of people in Nigeria and Arizona).
In the UK, there’s been a claim (reported in The Times and denied by No. 10 that Dominic Cummings was behind the initial “herd immunity” strategy on Covid-19, which seemed to be happy to accept the deaths of significant numbers of older people. There has clearly been a re-thinking of the British government’s response, not least in response to modelling from Imperial College, but this begs the question of why the UK assumed that it was wise to go against the policy other nations are adopting.
One answer to that could easily be a sort of “English exceptionalism”. I’m saying “English exceptionalism” because views on Brexit are clearly different in other parts of the UK, and the tendency to assume “English” means “British” which (justifiably) causes offence elsewhere could be part of a wider pattern of a wilful not-seeing.
We’re still seeing Brexit getting in the way of the UK’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. We’ve withdrawn from the EU’s pandemic warning system (set up for this sort of situation) and have chosen to be outside EU procurement arrangements to get resources to where they are needed, as if an ideological conviction that we are better off on our own is sufficient to justify needless suffering and death.
An early (and probably extended) Easter recess of parliament also means much less scrutiny of the government’s handling both of Brexit and of the Covid-19 saga. Up to a point, the latter should be a place where the government bows to experts (and abandons the silly claim that “people have had enough of experts”), but there is still a need for things that need to be done by government around economic policy in extreme times, and mitigating the real financial suffering that many now face. Far from being “divisive”, scrutiny of these things is absolutely vital if we’re not to see more ideologically-driven suffering.
Where Brexit, Covid-19 and climate change join up is that it is possible to assume that the consequences will happen to “someone else”. In each case it is possible to for people to say “Not to worry, I’ll probably be fine”. The word “probably” in that sentence has nothing to do with probability, but everything to do with how people are perceiving risk. No-one would buy a lottery ticket if they did a realistic calculation of the probability of winning.
In contrast with lottery tickets — where people over-estimate their chances — the situation with Brexit, Covid-19 and climate change, is that people play down the very real risks (as Leave campaigners did by dismissing economic predictions over Brexit as “project fear”).
This sends me back to Bullen’s claim in election hustings that, as an independent, he was not bound by party loyalty and would instead listen to his constituents (if elected). Superficially that sounds great. But it conflicts with reality. At the level of parliamentary reality, political parties are needed to get things done. A fully-independent MP might listen to their constituents, but that’s no use if they can’t do things for their constituents because of not having access to the levers of parliamentary influence through parties.
But I think I hear a bigger sub-text, which is that parties, Westminster, and “them in charge” are dangerous, so “we” must go our own way. That Independent pitch is about appealing to people who want the world to go away (not unlike Trump and his wall). But the reality of Covid-19 is that it has spread so quickly because of global interconnectedness, and routes to treatment options are also international — whether that is about ventilators, medication or vaccination.
Ignoring the consequences of Brexit, of Covid-19 and of climate change are all about ignoring reality. It’s worth recognising that people are tempted to do this, and that that path is as foolish as someone not wearing a seat belt because they don’t want to think about having a road accident.