Imagine it is dateline: July 1940. The German Luftwaffe is pounding away at the British Air Force. The Germans are clearly winning. We are running out of pilots. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill denies that this is a crisis. Eventually, as the crisis develops, he announces that the shortage of pilots is to be solved by offering temporary visas to a handful of overseas based pilots. And, those temporary visas are to last precisely 3 months. But, those pilots in Poland, New Zealand, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Australia, France and Belgium had been sent home only months earlier as the British people decided that they did not want any ‘foreigners’ in their “green and pleasant land”?
As the Prime Minister huffs and puffs, the Luftwaffe are systematically destroying the RAF. Meanwhile, the nation’s newspapers continue to deny there is any crisis, telling the public that the RAF is winning. By October as even the most sycophantic journalists working for the state sponsored broadcasting organisation, the BBC, realise that things are actually ‘quite serious’, the Prime Minister has a decision to make. Does he face up to the crisis in front of him and allow foreign pilots to help. Or, does he continue to play to what he thinks is public opinion, and continue to pretend that all is well, knowing full well that it is not?
The current crisis
Fast forward to August 2021. Following the decision of the UK to leave Europe, widely predicted issues with visas and supplies began to take hold. Throughout July and into August consumers were reporting shortages on supermarket shelves. In August Shane Brennan, CEO of Cold Chain Federation, reported: “Everywhere you look in a supply chain there are problems.” At the same time the Road Haulage Association reported that there was a shortage of around 100,000 lorry drivers. Rod McKenzie, RHA Managing Director of Policy and Public Affairs, told the Huffington Post that there was a “very serious threat” to the supply chain.
The hashtag ‘food shortages’ has been trending on Twitter for the past couple of months. Newspapers and the media have looked for the reasons why this is occurring. Prime candidates are the pandemic and Brexit. The Daily Express, however, found as they usually do that it was none of these but, in a headline on September 27th, declared: “The EU to blame! Majority of Britons pin HGV driver chaos on bitter Brussels bloc – new poll”. Now I won’t give you a link to this because I’ve read it so you don’t need to.
EU to blame
The poll was carried out by Opinium. The Express reports: “According to statistics, 48 percent of those asked believed that the EU was to blame.” Far be it from me to accuse the fine journalists at the Daily Express (yes, that is sarcasm) of being innumerate, but a majority would be 50%+1. And, not to be picky, but, as their own story reveals, the people who took part in the survey were asked who they thought was to blame. 76% blamed the pandemic, 70% blamed the government, and 68% blamed Brexit. Should any Daily Express fabricators (I hesitate to describe them as journalists) happen across this, any one of those three could have been claimed as a majority because (I’m typing this slowly as that is how they will read it) more people believed those things than didn’t.
But, the attempt to shift blame for our hapless government onto the EU is consistent with the anti-EU stance taken by most of the tabloid papers since, well, forever really. Anti-EU very often ends up as anti-EU citizens. And yet, it is those very citizens that the UK is now trying to tempt back to help us out of the fix we are in. Let’s see how that’s going shall we?
Alone again naturally
Faced with the obvious, Prime Minister Boris Johnson usually likes to waffle and avoid making anything that resembles a decision. Unlike his hero Winston Churchill (also a hater of Johnny foreigner by the way which made him a perfect war PM), Johnson will never make a decision that can be delayed. Imagine the Battle Of Britain. If Johnson had been ‘leading’ the country those 595 non-British pilots would still have been waiting for a visa as the German Wehrmacht marched through Dover and on to London. Nevertheless, faced with a 100,000 shortage of drivers, Johnson eventually decided that we should issue 5,000 ‘temporary’ visas to overseas lorry drivers. Even the Daily Express could work out that this will still leave 95% of the shortage unfilled. Well perhaps not, but that is the case.
Edwin Atema, of the Dutch FNV Union, told the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme that temporary visas were unlikely to tempt European drivers. “In the short term I think that will be a dead end,” he said. “I think the EU workers we speak to will not go to the UK for a short-term visa to help the UK out of the shit they created themselves.” Oh dear. So not even the 5% are likely to be filled. Meanwhile, according to Brian Madderson of the Petrol Retailers Association, there are “as many as 40,000 HGV driver applications sitting on the desks in Swansea [at the DVLA] waiting to be processed.” In May members of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) staged a 4 day strike after repeatedly facing bullying and harassment from DVLA management. This came after 352 workers tested positive for Covid-19, but workers were refused permission to work from home. Well, no wonder there’s a backlog!
So what is to blame
So, what (or who) is to blame? There’s no doubt that the pandemic has played a role. There is also no doubt that Brexit has played an even bigger role. There’s also little denying that our incompetent Government has exacerbated a bad situation and made it considerably worse. But are any of these the underlying cause of the problem? With all things political we should never forget the old adage: it’s the economy, stupid. In this case it is the adherence to an economic system which is, at its heart, good at creating crises, but very bad at managing them.
According to free market advocates, supply and demand is somehow magically taken into an ‘equilibrium’ where consumers’ demand is met by suppliers’ supply. It’s all done by what Adam Smith, in one of his most celebrated quotes, called “the invisible hand”. Smith was guided by one fundamental belief: That people are motivated by self-interest. The problem with self-interest is that it leaves out of the equation the extent to which societies need to be planned. No serious economist believes that markets should be entirely free. They accept that regulation is necessary to prevent, for example, monopolies. It’s unclear whether anybody advising Boris Johnson has a grasp of economics, but the fact is that an adherence to supply and demand might be useful for setting prices while it is very poor at ensuring that food and fuel get to where they are actually needed.
Capitalism has failed
By continuing to believe in a free market dominated by private companies whose first interest is profits, successive governments have ensured that many people have nothing like a fair share of society’s resources. The unemployed, the under employed, people with a disability, the elderly and other groups need intervention to help them. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a society helping its weakest members. But, the free market does not allow for this. Indeed, in a crisis such as we are facing now, the workings of the so-called free market, far from being a help, become a hindrance.
Let’s return to 1940. Winston Churchill, faced with the challenge of an expansionist German empire, did not rely on the free market to feed the populace. Indeed, he nationalised vast swathes of the economy to ensure that nobody was going to go hungry and that people were doing the type of war work that was necessary to save the nation. Churchill may have been the most socialist Prime Minister this country has ever had, not that he would want that accolade, and not that most socialists would want to claim him as one of their own.
Looking back to go forward?
As we watch the shortages develop and the latest news suggests that they are unlikely to be over until Christmas at the earliest, we should remember this. A nation should pull together in a crisis. We should realise that we have so much in common, not least our humanity, and be seeking to find community answers to problems. But the UK is not a nation in anything but a formal sense. We are, because we have been encouraged to become, a collection of self-interested individuals, being badly led and badly let down.
Critical Mass does not generally engage in appeals to a mythical past, but perhaps there is something in our past that we should hold on to. No Prime Minister, and especially no modern Tory PM, has ever acted out of anything but spite for ordinary people as they line the pockets of the wealthy. Ordinary people, for all their faults, are the ones who create the surplus value that is the basis of the profits the companies they work for give to shareholders. Most competent capitalist governments at least have the ability to plan ahead. Clearly, this current UK government is incapable of planning a child’s tea party. This crisis can only end when the people of the country put aside the petty rivalries that have divided us and take the reins into their own hands. We can no longer rely on politicians, bosses or bureaucrats to look after us, it is time we began the process of looking after ourselves.
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Socialist of many years. Former Labour member. Currently presenter of The Socialist Hour.