UK Politics

Why I’m rooting for Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon as they confront this crisis

BY Douglas Alexander   /  16 March 2020

I am not exactly reticent in expressing my political beliefs. To put it mildly, I’m not known as a supporter of either the Conservatives or the Scottish Nationalists.

But at this moment, I’m rooting for Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon in the decisions they face and for the brave, dedicated NHS teams they oversee.

As a son, a husband, a father and as a citizen, I am rooting for our governments to get this right.

Like so many others across the country, I have vulnerable elderly relatives in homes stretching from Scotland to Southampton. I have children at school. I use public transport to get to my work.

Like every one of us, I have a lot – everything – riding on the right choices being made in response to this public health emergency.

So, whatever I think about the politics of conservatism or nationalism really doesn’t, and shouldn’t, matter right now. We really don’t need to take sides. As the Coronavirus advances, it doesn’t care about borders or ideology. Neither should we.

Of course, that’s hard in a political culture fuelled by anger and the daily questioning of opponents’ motives: It’s counterintuitive to give any politician the benefit of the doubt, particularly ones that we’ve never supported.

So why am I rooting for my political opponents as they make these difficult decisions?

It’s not just that they’re the only governments we’ve got at this time of real crisis and that their failure would have profound consequences for us all.

It’s also because I believe we are fortunate to live in a country where politicians on every side have not succumbed to the anti-science thinking that has taken hold across the Atlantic.

There are many, many unknowns about where we find ourselves, and how we can best move forward. I, for one, want to live in a country where the difficult judgements have been, and will continue to be, informed by the epidemiological expertise of the Chief Scientific Officer and the Chief Medical Officers of the four nations of the U.K.

If there were ulterior motives at play in the decisions being taken, you’d need to believe it was a conspiracy involving not just politicians but also our best scientists, doctors and civil servants. I don’t believe that nonsense – and I urge you not to either.

Even if you’re hardwired to presume every politician only ever acts in a self-interested way then ask yourself this: What would be the self-interested way for politicians to respond to this crisis?

Let me tell you: it would be to do exactly what the scientific and medical experts say – not least as Freedom of Information requests and a surely inevitable public inquiry will rightly crawl over every decision being taken by ministers.

There’s a further reason why I’m rooting for government to get this right. The last time planes stopped flying across the Atlantic – the 2006 Liquid Bomb Plot – I was Secretary of State for Transport and, with the Home Secretary, led the British government’s response.

Those Cobra meetings, and all the work around them, confirmed to me that we have dedicated and brilliant civil servants who offer honest advice in a crisis and who work tirelessly to find the solutions on which we all rely.

In 2009, in the weeks ahead of the London G20 Meeting, I travelled with Prime Minister Gordon Brown as far as South America working to build consensus for global action against a global economic threat.

Do I wish we had the same coordinated global leadership today? Of course, but it’s clear we don’t have leaders across the world today with the same will to deliver an internationally coordinated response. What we still have here in the United Kingdom, however, are experts, trust, and each other. Every one of those is a precious national asset for what lies ahead.

Reflecting back on our response to the economic threat in 2008 and 2009, I’m conscious that even those of us in the cabinet didn’t realise fully at the time just how much the crisis would change everything that followed our immediate response.

My growing sense is that, just like the Global Financial Crisis, the effects of Coronavirus will churn and change our economy, our society and our politics in ways we can’t yet comprehend. So there will be plenty of time, and need, for party politics in the years ahead as we figure out how to move forward in a different world.

Of course, in a democracy government should and must be scrutinised. It should communicate regularly, clearly, publish the scientific and medical advice informing crucial decisions, and be as transparent as possible to build and not imperil that vital public trust. But in the difficult weeks ahead let’s focus our scrutiny on their judgements rather than their motives.

At the best of times tribalism is the poor relative of community, and at the worst of times tribalism really is no use at all.

Here in the United Kingdom, there is one tribe that we should definitely all be grateful for right now: the quiet heroes of our NHS and care services.

They are on the frontlines of this crisis and with services already stretched, they face a profoundly difficult and demanding time in the months ahead. Many will themselves have families and vulnerable elderly relatives, but they will show up day in day out to provide the care that the country needs. They are the best of us and we are going to need them more than ever in the dark days ahead.

But they’re also going to need us. This crisis is very serious. It’s time to put away childish things. In previous times of crisis our country and our people have shown that there is nothing we can’t endure and overcome together. So yes, it is a time for concern, but it is also a time for calm. It is time to step up, follow the advice of our best experts, and take care of each other.

Douglas Alexander is a former cabinet minister. He is now a Senior Fellow at Harvard University.


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