The worst possible people are in charge at the worst possible time. In the UK, the US and Australia, the politics of the governing parties have been built on the dismissal and denial of risk. Just as these politics have delayed the necessary responses to climate breakdown, ecological collapse, air and water pollution, obesity and consumer debt, so they appear to have delayed the effective containment of Covid-19.
I believe it is no coincidence that these three governments have responded later than comparable nations have, and with measures that seemed woefully unmatched to the scale of the crisis. The UK’s remarkable slowness to mobilise, followed by its potentially catastrophic strategy – fiercely criticised by independent experts and now abandoned – to create herd immunity, and its continued failure to test and track effectively or to provide protective equipment for health workers, could help to cause large numbers of unnecessary deaths. But to have responded promptly and sufficiently would have meant jettisoning an entire structure of political thought developed in these countries over the past half century.
Politics is best understood as public relations for particular interests
Politics is best understood as public relations for particular interests. The interests come first; politics is the means by which they are justified and promoted. On the left, the dominant interest groups can be very large – everyone who uses public services, for instance. On the right they tend to be much smaller. In the US, the UK and Australia, they are very small indeed: mostly multimillionaires and a very particular group of companies: those whose profits depend on the cavalier treatment of people and planet.
Over the past 20 years, I have researched the remarkably powerful but mostly hidden role of tobacco and oil companies in shaping public policy in these three nations. I’ve seen how the tobacco companies covertly funded an infrastructure of persuasion to deny the impacts of smoking. This infrastructure was then used, often by the same professional lobbyists, to pour doubt on climate science and attack researchers and environmental campaigners.
I showed how these companies funded rightwing thinktanks and university professors to launch attacks on public health policy in general and create a new narrative of risk, tested on focus groups and honed in the media. They reframed responsible government as the “nanny state”, the “health police” and “elf ’n’ safety zealots”. They dismissed scientific findings and predictions as “unfounded fears”, “risk aversion” and “scaremongering”. Public protections were recast as “red tape”, “interference” and “state control”. Government itself was presented as a mortal threat to our freedom.
Their purpose was to render governments less willing and able to respond to public health and environmental crises. The groups these corporations helped to fund – thinktanks and policy units, lobbyists and political action committees – were then used by other interests: private health companies hoping to break up the NHS, pesticide manufacturers seeking to strike down regulatory controls, junk food manufacturers resisting advertising restrictions, billionaires seeking to avoid tax. Between them, these groups refined the justifying ideology for fragmenting and privatising public services, shrinking the state and crippling its ability to govern.
Now, in these three nations, this infrastructure is the government. No 10 Downing Street has been filled with people from groups strongly associated with attacks on regulation and state intervention – such as Munira Mirza, who co-founded the Manifesto Club; Chloe Westley from the TaxPayers’ Alliance; and of course Dominic Cummings, who was hired by Matthew Elliott, the founder of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, to run Vote Leave.
When Boris Johnson formed his first government, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), which has been funded by the tobacco industry, boasted that 14 of its frontbenchers, including the home secretary, the foreign secretary and the chancellor, were “alumni of IEA initiatives”. The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, has published one book and launched another through the IEA, which he has thanked for helping him “in waging the war of ideas”. The health secretary, Matt Hancock, in a previous role, sought to turn an IEA document into government policy. He has accepted significant donations from the organisation’s chairman, Neil Record. The home secretary, Priti Patel, was formerly a tobacco lobbyist. One in five new Conservative MPs have worked in lobbying or public relations for corporate interests.
Modern politics is impossible to understand without grasping the pollution paradox. The greater the risk to public health and wellbeing a company presents, the more money it must spend on politics – to ensure it isn’t regulated out of existence. Political spending comes to be dominated by the dirtiest companies, ensuring that they wield the greatest influence, crowding out their cleaner rivals. While nobody has a commercial interest in the spread of coronavirus, the nature and tenor of the governments these interests have built impedes state attempts to respond quickly and appropriately.
Brexit (remember that?) could be interpreted as an effort to bridge the great split within the Conservatives, caused by the rising power of dirty money. The party became divided between an older, conservative base, with a strong aversion to novelty and change, and its polar opposite: the risk-taking radical right. Leaving the European Union permits a reconciliation of these very different interests, simultaneously threatening food standards and environmental protections, as well as price controls on medicines and other crucial regulations, while raising barriers to immigration and integration with other nations. It invokes ancient myths of empire, destiny and exceptionalism while potentially exposing us to the harshest of international trade conditions. It is likely further to weaken the state’s capacity to respond to the many crises we face.
The theory on which this form of government is founded can seem plausible and logically consistent. Then reality hits, and we find ourselves in the worst place from which to respond to crisis, with governments that have an ingrained disregard for public safety and a reflexive resort to denial. When disasters arrive, its exponents find themselves wandering nonplussed through the wastelands, unable to reconcile what they see with what they believe. Witness Scott Morrison’s response to the Australian fires and Boris Johnson’s belated engagement with the British floods. It is what we see today, as the Trump, Johnson and Morrison governments flounder in the face of this pandemic. They are called upon to govern, but they know only that government is the enemy.
• George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist