Why am I so irritated?

In his very self-confident article on British conservatism and the so-called “entrancing” political mutability of Boris Johnson, John Gray writes in this week’s New Statesman

“In reality the EU is now a neoliberal project. Immune to the meddlesome interventions of democratically accountable national governments, a continent-wide single market in labour and goods is hardwired to preclude socialism and undermine social democracy. If Thatcherites wanted to entrench and extend the free market they would have been better off backing Remain.” 

It might seem odd that something as dry as this would incite me to come back and post, having written nothing for three and a half years. (I last wrote on this blog in May 2018). Well, these three sentences really, really irritated me. Particularly the sententiousness of this one:  “In reality the EU is now a neoliberal project.”

Where, on earth, I thought, is he getting this from? And then I remembered the B word and the likelihood that the columnist has absolutely no idea of any political reality beyond that of his native island, or indeed any interest in one; that since Brexit, this particular kind of ignorance seems to have become, not only acceptable in the UK press but commonplace.

France – a country whose health service I consider to have saved my life, having lavished treatment on me for stage 4 metastatic cancer – spends an average of £3,737 per person per year on health while the UK spends an average of £2,989. The UK’s public health spending represents around 9.6% of GDP. In France it represents around 11.3% and Germany around 11.2%. UK tax revenues are equivalent to about 33% of GDP while the average for the EU 14 is around 39.5%. So what, exactly, is this neoliberal project of the EU’s?

I had thought, as I began reading Gray’s piece, that I was going to love it. I knew it would be slanted against Johnson and broadly anti-Tory but as I read on, I felt a growing sense of irritation as I realised that the onslaught of names being dropped on me from the dizzying heights of an Oxbridge PPE reading list – François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Hayek, Burke, Lucretius – was designed to dazzle me into believing that I was learning something new. 

Inspired by a book called Liquid Modernity (which I’m afraid I haven’t read) by the Polish neo-Marxian social theorist, Zygmunt Bauman, Gray writes, “A solvent of traditional values, neoliberal capitalism liquefies the structures of society until they seem to be melting away.” He uses this image as the key to understanding Johnson’s supposedly masterful versatility:

“The enigma of Johnson becomes less puzzling if you think of him this way. A liberal by temperament, he has stumbled on a paradox of freedom. The more their choices expand, the more human beings demand a stable space in which to make them. When this is threatened security eclipses liberty, for if order in society can no longer be relied on freedom has little value.”

Again, this really, really irritated me. Behind the grandiose pronouncements about human beings and their needs, I could see only the simple observation that people, including Boris Johnson, like a bit of a balance between freedom and security. It also reminded me of the fact that the fundamental principle of the EU – more than that of the internal market – is, for all its glaring imperfections, to be above all, an area of freedom, security and justice. 

I realised that it was not so much the article’s lecturing tone that was getting to me, as the anti-European message and the terrifying insularity of the vision. Of course the feeling was more serious than irritation. It was sadness. Half my family is European and I am often upset, reading the British press or listening to British radio, to see and hear how quickly the collective consciousness of my native land seems to have forgotten that not so far away lives a weird but sometimes very cool relative we used to be close enough to learn things from.

Of course our insularity has been exacerbated by the pandemic and the UK government’s travel policies surrounding Covid haven’t helped. It has cynically (and with no scientific justification) imposed a stealth tax on travel to and from Europe through the growth industry that is PCR testing, obligatory even for those of us who are fully vaccinated. If fully vaccinated British citizens are allowed to enter the UK without having to show a negative Covid test result, then why are we obliged to take a test costing £75 two days later, after we’ve had plenty of time to go to a rave and catch Covid? It makes no sense.

Since we left the EU, a Lethean fog seems to have cut us off, not just from Europe but from the benefits of comparison and our self-knowledge has suffered as a result. Thanks to the effectiveness of political spin, the majority of Brits appears to have swallowed the myth of the UK’s superiority when it comes to her Covid vaccination programme. It is true that at the beginning of the summer, the UK had the fifth-highest vaccination rate across 37 OECD countries, but by the end of October 2021, Britain was ranking 17th of those 37, overtaken by France in 15th place, Italy in 11th and Spain in 3rd place for percentage of the population fully vaccinated.

British children between the ages of 12 and 17 cannot travel to France or Spain or Italy for language trips that would bring their GCSE courses to life because the UK government has decided not to fully vaccinate them. This decision would be justified if the remaining doses were being sent to developing countries but they are not. The UK, despite Boris Johnson’s frequent trumpeting on the subject, has only donated 6.20 million doses to Covax whereas France has donated more than twice that with 13.50 million doses.

And how many Brits know that at the time of writing this 160,041 people have died in the UK from Covid, compared with 132,000 in Italy; 125,767 in France; 121,607 in Germany and 98,462 in Spain? Yet still we trumpet on. 

That is why I am often irritated. And sometimes sad.