oh! what a lovely war

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Politicians of all persuasion have spent the last month ramping up the rhetoric on our ‘war’ with COVID-19. If you haven’t been party to it, were you on the ‘frontline’ with our ‘brave health working heroes’, doing your bit ‘for queen and country’, or were you simply ‘stockpiling’ roll and rice for the sunny day when we can all ‘meet again’?

Needless to say, I sincerely applaud the actions of the ordinary who are undertaking the exceptional to keep the country on its feet. However, that said, this warlike bombast is neither accidental nor without very real long-term implications. Speech writers are having an absolute field day. Their generals (yes, I am jumping on the bandwagon and yes, it is to labour the point), have given them the freedom to open up their war chests, dig deep and deploy every weapon in their arsenal to unite the people of Britain.

As previously stated, all of this is completely intentional. Jingoistic nationalism, a creation of an ‘enemy’ has been the fall-back of emperors, governments and monarchies since their conception. High food prices? Start a war. Unpopular tax hike? Start a war. Internal rivals you can’t silence? Start a war. Brexit promises not going your way? Start a war. 100,000 NHS vacancies after a decade of austerity? Start a war. From Roosevelt and his desire for a ‘splendid little war’, to modern day strongmen such as Duterte & Putin, these tactics have long been used to get what they want: to justify actions and silence criticism.

A war makes things simple: there’s an us and there’s a them, the good and the bad, the right and the wrong. Obviously, everyone sat obediently at home or working on the frontline, they’re the good guys. And the politicians responsible for policy, preparation, prevention and keeping tabs on the ever-moving and elusive Robert Jenrick? Yes comrade, we’re all one team fighting the common enemy — the silent killer. The government is here to help and not to blame. We’re on the same side after all and we’ve given you our three bits of advice. You might have heard us mention it once or twice actually…the rest is up to you.

When you’re at war, it is expected that one rises above the trivial and focuses on the job at hand; hold your tongue with those complaints sonny Jim, don’t you know there’s a war on? We must all nod along with our sage-like cabinet colonels, dismissing any memory of their recent voting record against nurse wage increases as unpatriotic and against the common-good.

Whilst some marshalling of the nation has undoubtedly been necessary, political figures are now playing a dangerous game. The problem with starting a war is that in order to retain the confidence and good behaviour of the public, you have to be able to end it. Conflict can give you a bounce in the polls, provide a level of legitimacy to sweep away civil liberties and encourage the great unwashed to accept hardships they normally wouldn’t tolerate. The catch is, this only lasts as long as you’re believed to be winning the good fight. Think Vietnam. Think Afghanistan. Think Syria.

Although no one really knows how all this is going to pan out; it seems safe to say that the unspoken dream of a nationwide VE Day-style street party is an unlikely conclusion. Instead, with continued concerns over infection high-points, potential reinfection, no obvious contender for an antigen test and, presumably a great deal of people yet to be infected, a more probable scenario is one of longer term unlocks and lockdowns, of infection peaks and troughs, until testing becomes universal and a vaccine available.

At a point in the near future the government are going to have to bite the bullet and admit that this isn’t a war with a conclusive victory. At best we’re managing a retreat to the beaches and we’d better pray the little ships have arrived when we run out of sand.