In the face of an unprecedented crisis, it’s easy for the Left to say ‘we told you so.’ But compassion must come first.
Recently, as I sat chatting with my mum over coffee, the conversation inevitably turned to the current COVID-19 pandemic. More specifically, we discussed the response of our government to the crisis. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, we are an ardent anti-Tory family. As a student in the 1980s, my mum protested against the Conservative government of the day. My grandma would only tolerate profanity in her house when Margaret Thatcher appeared on the TV. One of my clearest childhood memories is of my father coming into my bedroom the morning following Tony Blair’s 1997 election victory and gleefully informing my bemused 6 year old self that ‘we’ve smashed the Tories into the ground!’ During my own time as a student, I voted for the first time in the 2010 election; like many of my peers I was (naively) seduced by Nick Clegg’s promises of free tuition and a brave new liberal Britain. It was a brutal lesson in the duplicitous nature of politicians and I can still remember, nearly a decade on, the sinking feelings of fury and betrayal as I watched Clegg shake the hand of David Cameron the day the formation of the coalition was announced. As an autistic single mother reliant on benefits, I have suffered personally as a result of that same government callously slashing the public sector, and have shed tears for the millions of my compatriots who have faced far greater hardships than I. And I will always despise the selfish hubris of Cameron, a man who tore the country apart attempting to consolidate his power by appeasing the radical Eurosceptics in his party with the 2016 EU refurendum. In case it wasn’t entirely clear, I’d rather shag a cactus than vote Tory.
Yet, as I sat with my mum watching my beloved 4 year old son play on the floor, we could not bring ourselves to partake in the cheering pastime of bashing the government. We agreed that it is hard to imagine how Boris Johnson could have handled the situation much better. I have no doubt that the response to coronavirus is imperfect, but given the unprecedented suddeness and seriousness of the crisis, I do not believe anyone else would have done much better. We also both expressed our belief that now is not the time to become embroiled in politics. As families struggle to survive and many are mourning their loved ones, the thought of using this titanic tragedy for political capital feels distasteful to the point of obscenity.
And make no mistake, it would be easy to score points, and a few of my fellow lefties are doing just that. Don’t get me wrong, the arguments are perfectly valid. The economy is being kept afloat by massive government spending, and many of us have said for the past 10 years that yo cannot cut your way to economic growth. We have argued that the economy is best served by investment. It also proves that despite protests to the contrary, the Exchequer can fund public services, house the homeless and provide the unemployed with sufficient resources to live above the poverty line. Many members of the middle class have, for the first time, been exposed to the harsh realities of attempting to navigate a punitive and cruel benefits system and the crippling anxiety of desperately trying to feed their children when food is scarce. The NHS is under enormous strain, made far worse by ten years of spending cuts. Ironically, after a decade of politics edging ever further towards the right, it is the rapid implementation of socialist policies that is preventing the UK from collapsing.
All of this is true, and when we emerge from this bizarre, apocalyptic world into calmer times, the people will remember it. I firmly believe there will be clamour for change and a fairer, kinder society in which the vulnerable are protected and public services receive the respect and funding they so richly deserve. But this is not the conversation we can, or should, be attempting to start now. Now is the time for asking each other ‘what can I do for you?’ and ‘how can I help?’ We rarely convert people to our way of thinking by telling them ‘I told you so’ and the anxious and grieving deserve compassion and kindness. The time for reckoning will come, but that time is not now. Let us be gracious, and value our shared humanity over our political convictions.