The Hell That is Boris Johnson’s Broken, Brexit-Deluded, Covid-Ravaged England


Boris Johnson leaves a media briefing in Downing Street on December 24, 2020.

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For the last two months, my physical world has shrunk immensely. For nine years I cycled almost every day, capturing the changing face of London on bike rides that have taken me to the furthest postcodes of Europe’s largest city, and that, since the first Covid lockdown in March 2020, involved me cycling most days into central London — the City and the West End — to capture what began as apocalyptic emptiness, to which, by degrees, human activity eventually returned, but on nothing like the scale that it was before Covid hit. I post a photo a day from those bike rides — with accompanying essays — on my Facebook page ‘The State of London’, and also on Twitter.

Two months ago, however, I sprained my leg quite badly — crossing an unexpected line when what I thought was healthy activity turned out to be something that, instead, signified that my body’s resilience was finite, and that I was wearing it out.

Since then, I’ve barely left my immediate neighbourhood. For most of the last two months, I felt fortunate if I was able to hobble to the bottom of the street I live in in Brockley, in south east London. The worst of it is now over, as the muscle I sprained has finally healed, but in the process of compensating my knee itself is now bruised and painful, and although I can walk further — up to and and around my local park, Hilly Fields, and around the streets nearest to me, I haven’t been able to venture further afield, except on a few occasions when my wife has driven me somewhere.

Throughout this whole period, I’ve had only a handful of social interactions, beyond my immediate family, because we were in a version of lockdown in which social mingling wasn’t wildly encouraged. On the few occasions I have socialised, it has been sweeter than I remember when we all used to take it for granted — a gig with my band The Four Fathers at the end of May, a few dinners, drinks or brunches with friends.

I’ve grown accustomed to being largely housebound. I’ve been doing more writing, and, in any case, I have a book to work on, based on ‘The State of London’, for publication next year, that won’t write itself. In addition, the weather, over the last few months, has sometimes been unseasonably cold, and has frequently involved more rainfall than is usual, so I haven’t been generally missing out on those long sunny journeys when London shines. Mostly, however, I haven’t felt like I’ve been missing out because the world outside my shrunken radius of activity — and Boris Johnson’s England, in particular — doesn’t seem like a particularly welcoming place.

Brexit, Covid and the worst government ever

We are governed, at present, by the most corrupt, inept and self-serving government I’ve had the misfortune to endure in my 58 years on this earth. Led by the uniquely unqualified Boris Johnson, the very definition of an incoherent narcissist (especially now that Donald Trump has been pushed off the world stage), Johnson and his Cabinet have absolutely no meaningful substance, as they are all in their jobs because of their deluded belief in the benefits of Britain leaving the EU.

These are benefits that are patently non-existent to anyone actually paying attention, rather than extolling the illusory virtues of cutting ourselves off from our nearest neighbours, with whom half of all our business used to be conducted in a frictionless manner that was the envy of all those excluded from its benefits.

The ravages of Covid — and this wretched government’s appalling mismanagement of our response to it — has largely hidden the ongoing disaster of Brexit, and its crippling effect on our economy, as businesses that used to sell their products and services in the EU find themselves largely unable to do so because of “red tape” that is loftily dismissed as “teething problems” by lying ministers, when it is really much more fundamental and permanent, and as workers from the EU, who used to do all manner of jobs that British people were either unwilling or unable to do, have all returned to their home countries, never to return.

In March, it was reported that “UK exports of goods to the EU plunged by 40.7% in January”, which was “the biggest monthly decline in British trade for more than 20 years”, and in April Al-Jazeera reported that “[b]anks have moved or are moving more than 900 billion pounds ($1.2 trillion) in assets from Britain to the EU, while insurers and asset managers have transferred more than 100 billion pounds ($138bn) in assets and funds, reducing the UK tax base.” In terms of worker shortages, just yesterday the Guardian reported that “Britain’s employers are struggling with the worst staff shortages since the late 1990s, amid the rush to reopen from lockdown and a sharp drop in overseas workers due to Covid and Brexit.”

This alone ought to be enough to condemn this government to the most chronic unpopularity, but that is not the case. Buoyed by their own right-wing media, and by the spinelessness of most of what passes for the liberal media, they continue to hold a lead in the polls, appealing to the third of the population that voted Brexit, or that constitutes their fundamental base of support, and that, with our unfair “first past the post” system, and the apathy of the third of the registered electorate (between 28% and 38%) that never votes, keeps them in power.

Worse still, Johnson’s ministers are not just fantasists, believing in the illusory benefits of Brexit; some are crooks, benefitting from it (and from Covid) financially, while others are the very definition of the “nasty party” that the Tories used to be known as, and with good reason. Guarding the UK’s borders is Priti Patel, an immigrant who hates immigrants, and is determined to keep out everyone who isn’t British (except those with money, of course), and who also hates those who dare to protest against the government, or who dare to live a different lifestyle (the Gypsies and Travellers that the Tories have been hunting down since the 1980s).

In the giddy world of Brexit delusion, one fantasy the likes of Patel seek is the one that unmoors the UK from any EU-wide or international standards of behaviour regarding refugees, human rights, labour laws, and much, much more. Never in living memory has there been a government that even dreamt of tearing up all the rule books in such a giddy and irresponsible manner, and yet now, since Johnson’s rise to power, the bigots and bullies believe that they can literally do whatever they want, and with Johnson himself setting a supremely sleazy example of a leader who believes that he should be able to do whatever he wants, and that with power there should be no accountability whatsoever.

And now, as if all of the above wasn’t enough, Johnson and his ministers are hell-bent on dropping all Covid restrictions and forcing the return of “business as usual” — as it was before Covid hit. With Covid infections rising steeply — far more so than in mainland Europe — this is a hugely risky policy, but it is in line with right-wing Tories’ beliefs from the very beginning of the pandemic: that the economy is more important than people’s lives. The government is gambling that the huge NHS rollout of vaccines — at a rate far higher than our European neighbours — will keep deaths down to what they regard as an “acceptable” level — perhaps 20,000 deaths a year, or 400 deaths a week — but ministers actually have no way of knowing how many deaths will result from a countrywide policy of dropping as many restrictions as possible.

As well as appeasing the most hardline parts of the business community — who want all their workers to return to their offices, for example, rather than accepting a new balance of part-time office work and part-time remote work from home — the government’s drive also seems clearly designed to appeal to those who will keep it in power, as can be seen in the huge disparities between the treatment of the sporting industry and the treatment of those involved in culture.

Culture and sport

Brexit had already revealed that, in pursuit of Priti Patel’s dream of keeping as many foreigners as possible out of the UK, negotiations with the EU on behalf of the UK’s highly profitable music industry showed complete indifference to the requirement of artists to be able to freely tour European countries without incurring prohibitive costs in terms of visas and other obstacles.

Musicians’ most high-profile defender is Elton John, who told the Observer last month, “I’m livid about what the government did when Brexit happened. They made no provision for the entertainment business, and not just for musicians, actors and film directors, but for the crews, the dancers, the people who earn a living by going to Europe.” Angered by his unsuccessful attempts to lobby politicians, he responded to a question about why he had met such resistance, by stating, “The government are philistines. We’ve got used to governments – especially the British government – just telling us lies every day, and I don’t feel OK with that.”

He added, powerfully, “Look what they did with the NHS. After all that those people did during Covid, they give them a 1% increase. I find that extraordinary. It makes me so angry. I’m 74 years of age and I just don’t get this unfairness and this ridiculous ability to lie through your teeth every f*cking minute of the day.”

To add to this sacrificial slaughter of the arts, the government has also done nothing to support the UK’s summer music festivals — despite them being another huge generator of income — and their refusal to provide insurance means that most festivals have now been cancelled.

When it comes to sport, however, the government has done all it can to open up events, and it’s hard not to conclude that, at some level, the arts sector, easily dismissed as being left-wing, is regarded as a threat, whereas the sports sector — and its supporters — are not. Announcing the cancellation of the WOMAD world music festival just two weeks ago, organisers commented on “the irony that the Silverstone Grand Prix — a five-day camping event attended by 140,000 people — could take place, yet music festivals could not.”

Such is the government’s disdain for the arts that even Andrew Lloyd Webber, the theatre impresario whose shows have contributed so much to the economy, finds himself abandoned by a government that doesn’t really care if theatres can re-open or not. As Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, apparently explained to Lloyd Webber, the Cabinet views theatre as something that is “‘nice-to-have’ rather than essential.”

The Euro 2020 championships provide the starkest example of this disparity between sport and culture, as the government seeks to capitalise on allowing people the “freedom” to celebrate wildly, as though Covid no longer exists, in terms of popular support, and with Johnson seeking to seal his role as the saviour of sporting freedom by declaring a new national holiday if England manage to beat Italy in the final on Sunday.

In Britain’s new propaganda-soaked reality, it doesn’t matter that Boris Johnson doesn’t like football, and that his history of racism stands in complete contrast to the multi-racial, inclusive national team that Gareth Southgate has put together. In the government’s fake reality, it doesn’t matter either that, without free movement, most of England’s players would’t even be here at all.

None of it matters because this is the England of ‘Get Brexit Done’, where reality has no place, and where a minority of the population, soaked in their delusional notions of a proud and plucky nation standing alone against those who would do business with us, or who would like to come here to work hard and contribute to society and the economy, are pandered to by a government that is using these delusions solely to cling to power. Brexit is an irredeemable disaster, but the government doesn’t care. All they want is to stay in power, shutting down immigration, shutting down trade, grinding dissent under an iron boot, persecuting nomadic people as though this is Germany in the 1930s, and ignoring the most salient fact of all: that “business as usual”, pre-Covid, was helping to hurtle us towards irreversible environmental catastrophe, and that no amount of marketing spin can disguise that reality.

Covid and its lockdowns provided us with a moment to re-think our relationship with capitalism, the environment and the wider world, but to a government without vision, seeking to endear itself to those who seek only the gratification of their desires in an insanely materialistic world, it doesn’t matter that we’re running out of time. They have no vision beyond their own appetite for power, and that extraordinarily greedy emptiness can only be a disaster for us all.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer (of an ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London’), film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or here for the US, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55).

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

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13 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    As the wretched Tory government of Boris Johnson irresponsibly prepares to lift all Covid restrictions, I look at how the delusions of Brexit, which is crippling British businesses, have fed into a political climate in which the Tories’ irresponsible and sometimes criminal response to Covid gets overlooked, and how Johnson and his Cabinet prioritise whatever will keep them in power — opening up sports events, for example, and cynically capitalising on England’s success in the Euro 2020 championships, while almost entirely abandoning the country’s cultural sector.

    I also look at how, under Priti Patel, almost all immigration has been shut down (despite job shortages that are making many businesses unviable), as this particularly vile home secretary also seeks to stamp out all political dissent, as well as criminalising the way of life of Gypsies and Travellers.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Jane Ecer wrote:

    Theatre as “‘nice-to-have’ rather than essential.” Soon this will be the government’s view on older people … or those with disabilities …

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    I think their view of older people or those with disabilities – unless they’re rich – hasn’t been that generous since before Cameron and Osborne first got in in 2010 and started a war on the unemployed and the disabled, Jane. Eleven years of these clowns and their cruelty …

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Anna Giddings wrote:

    Totally agree with you Andy and it’s so depressing. I can’t think of anyone more despised than Patel, ever. Whenever Johnson is in public it’s like someone has to look after a child. I despise him.

    Thank you and I’m sorry you’ve had a bit of a miserable time lately.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for understanding my need to vent, Anna, and I’m glad to hear that it chimes with you. I can’t bear listening to any of them, or even watching them. It’s like the late ’80s, when Thatcher had won for a third time, and there seemed to be no escape, but back then we at least had varieties of hope that seem to be in exceedingly short supply right now.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Anna Giddings wrote:

    No I can’t watch them either. All corrupt and as bad as I can remember.

    Couldn’t care less about anyone but themselves either.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Absolutely, Anna. The way Johnson disposed of the rebels in autumn 2019 was absolutely disgraceful.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Jan Millington-Artist wrote:

    I could bloody weep.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    I would too if I could put my anger aside, Jan. I started this during a sleepless night last night, and finished it today. I haven’t vented about the shameful decline of our country for a while!

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Richard Munday wrote:

    Andy, I agree with you, but I am afraid that we are stuck with these criminals for at least 2 or 3 more terms. for years I have been been moaning about electoral boundary changes, not that many people understood what I was going on about or even cared, even worse when labour have been in power they did nothing to correct the situation, I am not going to explain it all again on this feed, but I am sure that you understand what I am talking about, remember that 2 terms of this evil cartel have been held up by the lib dems and the ulster unionists, they have read and understood the book Hitlers guide to total domination and they are putting it into operation with manic zeal, a man who leads the top office as goverment decrees about a vast number of his people as letter boxes and afflicted with water melon smiles?? well wasn’t hitler saying a similar sort of thing about the jews? prior to crystal night?? wasn’t the nazis life blood of existence to spread hatred and division? is not what this evil tory cartel is doing right at this very time spreading hatred and division?? under our very eyes??

    there was 1 winner in this europe cup fiasco and that was boris johnson, we win and there is a massive jingoistic rush of national patrotism and once again we get to slap the face of europe (remember the flag waving and repugnant actions of farage and co, at the last days of england sitting in the european parliament). we lose and the black players of the england team will be put up as sacrifical lambs, because johnson planted that seed with his watermellon smiles comment, and as this goes on a vast number of the population sit back and cheer, how does that football song go 1 world cup 2 world wars?? the violence and vandalisum win or lose, fascism is an illness the germans caught this fever back in the 30s and now the illness has started to spread amongst the population of this country and I do not see it abating any time soon, well they have read and carried out chapter 1 of the guide, grab power and hang onto it come hell or high water, I watch with trepitation as the other chapters play out, and mourn the thousands lost due to benefit reductions, poverty, and deliberate covid mismanagement and hang my head in sadness as the population en masse condone this madness and bury their heads in the sun and daily mail and stoke up their feelings of self and superiority, as for myself I have seen people I once knew become infected with this illness and change into unrecognisable angry, hateful people I hang my head in shame at my british birthright and await my chance to escape this dire situation before ultimate calamity befalls us all

    well I will close now and apologise for this long reply on your post but I too felt the need to explain my sadness, well I wish you success with the band and carry on with the London photography project it is a great pleasure to follow your endeavours🙂❤ p.s. I apologise for the errors in spelling but a lot does not work after the heart attack

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Richard, and sorry to hear about your health issues. I have to say that I share your rather gloomy prognosis, although the boundary changes don’t seem as profound as I’d initially feared:

    That said, the proposal for voter ID will be very damaging if it goes ahead – and is clearly driven by the kind of unprincipled desire for unaccountable power that you highlight in your comments. There is almost no voter fraud, and so it can be nothing more than a naked power grab – showing a worrying contempt for the importance of actual popularity. Why rig things further in a system that is already biased in your favour (the shamefully unrepresentative first past the post system) unless you have a fundamental contempt for the democratic process?

    As for the state of the nation, that’s where it gets most troubling for me, as Johnson and Patel and others are so clearly determined to continue to use racism, xenophobia and demonising anyone who dares to dissent to maintain power solely by tying all of this into their notion of a country “liberated” by Brexit, even though no evidence of that liberation – none at all – can be objectively provided.

    Perhaps it will all backfire on them via a collapse in support in the Tory heartlands, sacrificed for Brexit, as happened recently in Chesham and Amersham. Swings like that are clearly overdue, but I do fear that we are now in such a mess that the only way out is for the opposition parties to come together in grand coalition to oust the Tories, and that’s something that, sadly, they seem incapable of:

  12. Anna says...

    Hi Andy, I’m so sorry to read about your leg problem (or shall we call it ‘challenge’ in newspeak terminology?) !
    I do hope that both the muscle and your knee will return to normal and you will be able to resume your bicycle trips :-).
    I’m a bit out of things myself, three weeks without contact lense (-16 …) before final eye tests pre-cataract operation (carried out yesterday), so reading & writing very hard and probable still so for a while. In between I took advantage of relative Covid lull to fly & visit my ageing brother & sister-in-law before it is too late. Flew ‘reliable’ KLM, which suggests utmost covid-free flying. Well, first the stewardess tells you to wear your face mask during the whole flight, then she comes with the trolley with their soggy sandwiches & drinks … For the rest of the time the cabin crew is nowhere to be seen, so those who do not put their mask back on after the ‘refreshments’ are not reprimanded in any way. Same at Amsterdam airport, crowded and one day after their PM had to hurriedly revoke the barely one week old relaxations, as during that time the weekly average of new infections increased seven (!) fold. When I reminded some sports team (all without masks) of that obligation they defiantly answered : ‘we’re all vaccinated’, the latest ‘f*ck you, old hag’ answer. Airport staff do not intervene at all. So do come and visit, but with your own car …

    So it’s by chance that I had a look at your Britain post, as that subject is a bit forgotten in world news now. Indeed every reason to be furious when at the receiving end of it. Each time B.J. gloats about some magic ‘free trade deal’ with some distant place like India or Australia, I mentally add the countless eco-cidal miles those goods will have to travel and pollute as compared to the short distance to the European mainland. Never mind the UK’s climate change commitments …
    And then there’s the mud slinging by Cummings, who all of the sudden has discovered he has a civic responsibility ? Kept silent as long as it suited his stellar Rasputin career, now into the blame game.

    Even more reason to wish your leg a quick & total recovery, so that you’ll have less time to spend on these depressing subjects.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Anna, and thanks for sympathising with my “challenge.” I’m glad to say that it finally seems to be on the mend, although I won’t be out on the bike until I’m sure it’s completely mended.

    Your KLM story was quite dispiriting – one more reason not to take a plane trip anywhere in the near future! Amongst my immediate friends, I don’t know anyone who’s going on a foreign holiday this summer, and it continues to be enjoyable not hearing planes flying overhead all the time, as was the situation pre-Covid. That said, there are clearly large numbers of people who can’t wait for things to get “back to normal” – one aspect of which was to have the “right” to fly wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted.

    I’m rather sorry to hear that our self-inflicted isolation, under the bargain basement Trump that is Boris Johnson, has rather slipped off the international news radar, but for the EU in particular it must make sense, having had to put up with all the bluster and idiocy of the UK over the last five years. Sadly, whether I’m on a bike or not, there’s no real escape from the depressing state of the UK – or England in particular – and won’t be until Johnson is removed from power, and we get a government that will put rapprochement with the EU at the top of their agenda. Covid, and a useless media, ensure that the cost to UK businesses isn’t being properly covered in the news, but from what does make it out into the public sphere it’s clear that it’s an unmitigated disaster, and I do genuinely find it hard to believe that the costs in terms of companies going bust can be hidden forever – not to mention the glaring number of job vacancies that are unfilled because the EU workers who used to do them have all disappeared.

    What a mess – although it sounds like Poland too has some serious political issues that, as in Hungary, are testing the elasticity of EU membership. These are dark times, sadly.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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