Opinion

John Bird: Extraordinary Tories for a new kind of crisis

Underneath all of the contempt for this government, and its ET-ing ways is this memory of their burning thirst for profit before humanity

Rishi Sunak James Veysey/Shutterstock

We are not living in Ordinary Tory times. In Ordinary Tory (OT) times, when faced with a financial crisis, OTs pull up the drawbridge of governmental support and hope against hope that the minions survive.

But these Extraordinary Tory (ET) times involve a full embrace. A throwing of arms around as many people as possible. Perhaps not the full rescue job, but going further down that road than Tories, Labourites and Liberalites have ever been.

ETs seem unprecedented in their attempts at maintaining the social glue. Though still living in a vastly uneven social terrain, a flat playing field for some, a rocky road for others, the ETs have astonished us all. In short: expecting OTs, we are dazed and confused by the ETs.

No, that’s a lie. The ETs have not fooled any of those who are supposedly politically astute and disdainful of all Tories, irrespective of how they dress themselves up. I know some of these people, as they mouth their continuing disdain and pour vitriol over the whole of the current regime.

I am so glad I am not among the politically astute. I am one of those who just want to get as many people out of the cold winds thrown up by Covid-19-induced poverty. I am glad I don’t have to spend my time finding as many faults as I can with whatever is offered out. It is not my job, nor has it ever been, to point out the motes in the eye of government.

We have had our pandemics and we have had our plagues. But not one that screwed up a highly complex world of seven billion people

It’s a hard burden having always to deliver critiques of OTs, day in day out, even if, under threat of complete and total societal meltdown, they ‘ET’ themselves.

The division between what used to be called left and right, though, has a very honourable past. You might say that right was Profit and left was Outrage. Outrage at what was done by the right to make Profit; if it meant satanic mills, or slave ships, or sweat shops in distant climes, or in the North of England, then so be it: for Profit ruled over all things.

Profit was made and crumbs would fall from the profit-seeker’s table; and the worker would benefit, though possibly dying in the cause of their need to be profitable.

So underneath all of the contempt for this government, and its ET-ing ways – throwing their arms around the most surprising of people, even the homeless – is this memory of their burning thirst for profit before humanity. A Tory is a Tory is a Tory.

Alas, such demarcations are redundant in our unprecedented days. No one, anywhere in history, has been this way before. We have had our pandemics and we have had our plagues. But not one that screwed up a highly complex world of seven billion people, many of them completely dependent on each other. There has never been a world of this dimension. And there has never been such an enormous interpenetration of business and society as we are now in the middle of. It is this interconnectedness that puts the fear of God into the government and causes them to become ETs.

If you were to believe the papers, though, you might think that the satanic mills of mid 19th-century Great Britain were still in operation. Boohoo, a very large and profitable brand, has been implicated in a Sunday Times sting that put a young reporter into a Leicester textile factory.

The results of the undercover operation seem to expose criminal disregard of social distancing. And a pay packet that is circa £5 an hour less than the legal minimum of £8.40. This is bad news for Boohoo, who buy from some Leicester textile mills and will struggle to recover as all the big distributors, including Amazon, turn their backs on the company and their products.

The company’s buying practices have been questioned. The factory owners exposed. And the workforce, largely drawn from the local Asian community, will now find themselves unable to earn anything, not even £3-4 an hour.

Harm done all round. Unfortunately the sting did not include the biggest culprit in the whole of the sorry saga: and that is the marketplace.

The consumer only wants to pay around £8 for the dress that, if made with human rights intact, might well cost twice that. The consumer will go elsewhere, driving companies desperate for profit to go where the consumer leads them: alas, towards the alluring profits thrown up by the sweat shop in the interests of keeping the cost down.

Boohoo and its Nasty Gal sub-brand have done incredibly well throughout the Covid-19 crisis. The week before, the financial pages of the papers were applauding their daring and brilliant stratagem to remain profitable as the high street tanked. A bright star in a dull sky.

The ETs might be the only thing separating us from descending to the satanic mills of old. A world of bitter and twisted struggles to make ends meet, in an ocean of poverty.

Of course once we return to normalcy, I’m sure the gloves of compassion will be ripped off and we can have our old Ordinary Tories back again. And we can slag them off to our hearts’ content. Till then: let’s unite behind those that have fallen down through Covid-19.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. @johnbirdswords 

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