Chancellor Sunak’s Enemy is not just Covid-19

Chancellor Sunak’s Enemy is not just Covid-19

by Tom Gallagher
article from Wednesday 18, March, 2020

RISHI SUNAK could be trampled underfoot by the wild ferocity of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Chancellor of the Exchequer’s bold measures to throw one-third of current spending behind workers and employers in order to keep the British economy upright may, or may not, take the country through a historic challenge. Yet he is widely seen as the man of the hour. Unheard of by most people a month ago, his unexpected elevation to the Chancellorship due to Sajid Javid walking out essentially over a house-keeping issue, has brought him to the forefront of national politics. A bold and imaginative budget won him plaudits. But it was his bravura performance after days of British equities depreciating sharply which enabled him to stand out.

At a press conference in the early evening of 17 March along with the Prime Minister and the Chief Scientific Officer Sir Patrick Vallance, he delivered a statement with calm assurance as millions of people harboured bleak thoughts about the road ahead. He was confident, fluent and unflappable in the face of political correspondents with little grasp of economics but an inexhaustible wish to ambush top government figures with any rhetorical weapon that came to hand. As @tomhgill on my twitter feed put it:

“Crises are where exceptional performers come to the fore. Johnston’s good. His greatest asset is as a communicator – only he could have dismantled the Red Wall. But Sunak there was like watching Federer on Centre Court. He dealt with a difficult bunch of egos and strolled through it.”

Historically, it has been unusual for financial experts to transfer into successful political operators who manage to remain at the national helm for long periods. This is true under both authoritarian and competitive systems of politics.

Ludwig Erhard rescued the West German economy after 1945 (as well as being a famed sceptic about the nascent European Union) but he only lasted three years as Federal Chancellor. Denis Healey, an authoritative Chancellor of the Exchequer for most of the 1970s, never even reached the top post because of fierce enmity from some Labour Party colleagues.

In this context, my thoughts turned to the man whose biography I recently completed, Dr Oliveira Salazar, Portugal’s authoritarian leader for nearly forty years. David Eccles, a British businessman and later Conservative cabinet minister, who knew him well from being in charge of British economic warfare in the Iberian Peninsula from 1940 to 1944, regretted his decline after nearly forty years in power. He wrote: “by any reckoning Salazar was a great man even though later he allowed his secret police to do things that we all regretted.”

In inter-war Europe no financial expert came to wield his degree of power. Springing from a modest rural background, he dissolved a military dictatorship, edging aside the generals and placing himself at the helm of a ‘New State.’ After a century of often disorderly liberalism, he balanced the budget and stabilised the escudo, hitherto one of Europe’s most despised currencies. His financial wizardry enabled Portugal to avoid seeking a foreign loan which could have quite likely resulted in the forfeiture of its colonies. 

The parallel occurred to me upon watching Sunak’s sure-footed, fluent and seemingly nerveless performance on Tuesday. Salazar seemed to have an emulator in terms of combining an aptitude for politics and finance. In his heyday, the Portuguese autocrat had the energy and tenacity, the clarity of expression, the necessary calm in moments of crisis, and the ability to tackle complex problems on a long-term basis that made it hard to keep him out of the premiership.

But decades in charge of his poor country as it faced recurring peril from many sides deepened his ruthlessness and implacability. Whoever is destined to lead Britain in the next few decades is likely to have his or her heart similarly hardened by the multiplicity of challenges to be confronted. A society rendered naive and self-indulgent by liberalism and globalisation will be required to make sharp readjustments that involve a lowering of expectations and a revival of some degree of self-restraint.

Salazar relied on censorship and a clever propaganda machine to endow his regime with soft power internationally.  Its lifespan was probably extended by several decades as a result. But it is hardly an option which the Conservatives would contemplate or most British people would tolerate. Nevertheless, as shown at the event where Sunak, made his impact as an economic fireman, a different approach by the state to the media may well be overdue.

For months now, the government has refused to send ministers to appear on the main interview programmes, BBC Radio 4 Today and BBC 2 Newsnight. Accepting invitations seemed to be a pointless exercise given the undisguised hostility of interviewers.  A radical left perspective drives an agenda of hectoring questioning which has turned viewers away from these programmes in massive numbers.

Faced with the serious possibility that the government will decriminalise non-payment of the BBC licence fee, the corporation seems only to have dug in. Instead of substituting aggressive and partisan questioning with a more independent and balanced approach that seeks information and dialogue rather than humiliation and entrapment, the BBC has intensified its old ways.

Johnson had indicated before the presentation of the crisis measures that he was prepared to wipe the slate clean and strive for a more harmonious relationship with the broadcasting media. But on the 17th, the BBC was outpaced by SKY News, ITN  whose journalists made personalised points (about the PM’s 79-year-old father unwilling to abide by a lockdown) or else showed any disinclination to explore the scientific or medical aspects the crisis, never mind handle the economic dimensions, in a rigorous manner.

Obviously, muzzling the broadcasters in ways that even democratic states on the continent have had recourse to do in peacetime, is not possible or desirable.  But there is a case for the government pushing back against an agenda-driven media in which journalists substitute a weak political opposition and constantly harry the government purely for the sake of it.  For as long as this public health emergency lasts, it can insist on experts with a grasp not just of economics but also of medical issues, being given prominence in press briefings. It is also reasonable to name and shame those who seek to mislead and alarm the public with scary and tendentious information in the kinds of times we are living through.

Unless the authorities make the case for saying that the media too has to make adjustments in this time of national emergency and behave in a less nihilistic and aggressive way, then there is a danger that too much precious time will be used up by the Johnson administration in containing the attacks  of media folk who see him and his party as the permanent ‘enemy.’

The information community, from academia and the media, to the third sector and policy institutes, remains systematically hostile to the government and all its works irrespective of the condition of the country. However bad things get I don’t expect to see a change anytime soon.  A Salazar-style crackdown would be a disaster but steps have to be taken to enable people more representative of the moderate positions clearly preferred by the British electorate, to make their mark in public communications.    

The government has to devote some time to trying to encourage an atmosphere that is less toxic to the measures it pursues in very different fields. Otherwise, there is a real chance that a hostile and immature media will deplete its energy and resolve, damaging the fight against covid-19 and its ancillary effects in our economy and society.

Not even someone with the intellectual firepower of Rishi Sunak will avoid being worn down by a media dominated by angry, self-righteous and negative media personalities. In a way, it is both heartening and astonishing that someone with Sunak’s earning power has decided to make a career in politics. It is well-known that many others with similar abilities have shunned public service simply due to the enormous hostile atmosphere and the impact on their private life and mental well-being.

This crisis may do some good if it produces unassailable pressure on the pillars of British broadcasting to clean its own house and restore practices that will strengthen their professionalism and bring back viewers they have lost through years of mediocrity and excess.

Tom Gallagher is a retired political scientist who divided his time between Cumbria and Scotland. He has written fifteen single authored books on Britain and Modern Europe. His next one, Salazar, the Dictator Who Refused to Die will be published by Christopher Hurst in July. His twitter account is @cultfree54

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