No, it can’t have escaped your attention that broadcasters, broadsheets and tabloids are desperately clinging to the yardstick of the Second World War as the sole means of measuring the current ‘unprecedented’ crisis; today’s issue of the Sun featured Churchill as its page one boy, no less. Perhaps the climate that fosters the flourishing of such constant comparisons reflects a lack of personal reference points on the part of those falling back on the most bleedin’ obvious scenario; it also maybe helps that only those in their mid-80s (at the youngest) now have any clear first-hand memories of WWII, so there are few in a position of influence to contradict the narrative. Moreover, it could be further evidence of the so-called ‘metropolitan’ perspective of those running the media that great swathes of the country’s population experienced disruption on a similar scale less than 20 years ago – only, they happened to mostly be ‘country folk’.
The 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak was devastating to the country’s rural communities. From the first reported case in February to the end of the crisis in October, over 2,000 cases affected farms across the whole of the UK (893 in Cumbria alone), leading to the slaughter of more than 6 million cows and sheep, cutting off the countryside – including beauty spots like the Lake District – as a destination for visitors, and resulting in heavy damage to the agricultural economy; the overall cost to the country was £8bn by the end of the outbreak. Scotland estimated it lost between £200-250m in gross revenue to tourism, whilst the Scottish agricultural industry as a whole lost around £230m. With 80,000-93,000 animals being slaughtered per week at the height of the crisis, it’s not hard to surmise the deep psychological impact on those directly affected, let alone the personal financial one.
I could just be looking in the wrong place, but I can’t say I’ve so far heard anyone during the latest apocalypse evoke the ghost of the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak amidst the wartime references; 2001 is certainly a good deal closer to us than 1940, but maybe the safe distance of the Blitz is an easier option. I also suppose the predominantly urban outlook that the majority share in the UK plays its part in neglecting the rural foot-and-mouth outbreak as a valid example of what can happen when individual liberties, livelihoods and lives are impacted upon by outside forces.
It’s possible collective amnesia, perhaps a by-product of the fast-food age in which we live, is partially to blame too. Who even remembers that the 2001 General Election was delayed a month due to foot-and-mouth now, the first such delay to have occurred since, yes, the Second World War? I only have to flick back through posts on here from two or three years ago to realise subjects that got people frothing at the mouth when they were written are sometimes ones I’m even struggling to remember now. Maybe that’s because they just seemed important at the time on account of ‘everyone’ talking about them – and they weren’t that important after all. The daily bombardment of information and outrage most of us are exposed to today has a habit of altering one’s perception as to what matters and what doesn’t; it also reduces everything contemporary to the same transitory here today-gone tomorrow status, giving further solidity and permanence to the legend of the war years.
We could select another underused comparison, and though this one isn’t as distant as WWII, it’s still almost 50 years ago. It began in what was one of those rather eventful months – January 1972. In the space of ten days at the end of it, unemployment rose to a million for the first time since the Great Depression; PM Ted Heath signed the EEC’s Treaty of Brussels (doused in ink by a protestor for his troubles); and Bloody Sunday took place. Yes, it was quite a month. Yet, whilst all this was happening, the nation was also in the middle of the first official downing of tools by miners since the 1926 General Strike. Whereas a decade earlier, miners had been in one of the best-paid blue collar professions – earning 7.4% more than the average wage for workers in manufacturing – comparisons had swiftly declined throughout the 1960s (in line with a huge pit-closure programme), and by 1970, a miner was making 3.1% less than his equivalent in manufacturing. Something had to give.
Unlike the more celebrated Miners’ Strike of 1984/5, when only those employed by (and communities sustained by) the mining industry suffered, the strike that was called on 9 January 1972 affected everybody. A polarisation of opinion bordering on near-Brexit proportions was the main impact of 1984/5 beyond pit villages and towns; but in 1972 the success of the miners in preventing the distribution of fuel stocks in and out of power stations – aided by train-drivers and dockers, and culminating in the notorious Battle of Saltley Gate in Birmingham – forced Ted Heath into declaring a state of emergency a month to the day after the strike began.
Schools and businesses closed as they were unable to heat their premises when February was hit by a characteristically biting cold spell; power stations across the country were working well below capacity, and 12 of them shut down altogether. The Government had no choice but to implement electricity blackouts. Industry was forced into working an effective three-day week and householders were advised to heat just the one room. The power-cuts began on 16 February, totalling nine hours on the first day; by the time the strike ended after seven weeks, the public had endured 20 days of living by candlelight. This period is often retrospectively muddled-up with the Three-Day Week of early 1974 that provoked the first of that year’s two General Elections; and while it can be seen as the opening act of the drama that did for Heath, it was still the closest throwback to collective wartime hardship the British people had experienced since the war itself. That’s when these things become actual crises – when they hit Joe Public.
Brexit, for all its powerful potency as the divisive director of discourse over the last three and-a-half years, remained a largely speculative threat to the smooth continuation of life as we know it. Debate in 2018 and 2019 was littered with prophesy and promise rather than evidence of actual damage; we were constantly told (by one side, of course) what was going to happen as opposed to what had happened; it was all restricted to prediction, which allowed the more wilder warnings of the Remainer soothsayers to escalate as it became apparent to them they were losing the argument. We still don’t really know what impact withdrawal from the EU will have on our day-to-day lives, but it hasn’t so far caused the Government to draft emergency legislation that could restrict them in the way events in both 1972 and 2001 did.
With the coronavirus, there’s still plenty of guesswork in abundance, particularly by media outlets; but there is also the death toll, closed schools, cancelled sporting events, abandoned city centres – and the empty supermarket shelves that we were warned Brexit would provoke have instead come about from a different source altogether. This once again demonstrates the dangers of predictions; over-fixating on one specific future often enables another to sneak in unnoticed.
© The Editor
2 thoughts on “PUBLIC HEALTH AND PRIVATE LIVES”
Whether Harold Macmillan really did say “Events, dear boy, events” when asked what was the greatest problem in his job, there is no doubt that Coronavirus is an ‘event’, one which may make or break Boris Johnson’s political legacy.
As you rightly observe, the various miners’ strikes of the 1970s provoked government action which impacted on everyday life to an extreme degree, although even those did not have the scale of effect which this latest event will have, not only on Britons’ daily lives but also on the economy for many years to come.
As one old enough to have been an adult in those days, I remember them well, but I also remember the atmosphere – it created an almost Brexit-like division between those on the side of the miners and those on the side of the government. The virus is different because there is one common ‘enemy’, albeit one you can’t see, touch, smell or identify – but it’s also an enemy that can’t be defeated politically, it can only be defeated by time, its inevitable impact only being capable of some moderation by the actions, however dramatic, of government and people.
This event will go the way of the others, it will pass, most of us will emerge, perhaps slightly scathed, but alive at least and the world will move on. T’was ever thus.
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I suppose one becomes more aware of the average age of journalists and news reporters when something on this scale happens and WWII tends to be referenced as a dependable historical stand-by. I’m old enough to remember the power-cuts in ’72 and ’74, though as I was between 4-6, they constitute formative memories. You’d need to be over 50 to remember them, and it’s a narrow cut-off point, for I have friends in their late 40s who don’t recall them at all.
Even what feels like a relatively recent crisis in the shape of the foot-and-mouth outbreak requires someone to be at least 25 to have any memory of the disruption it caused. I guess possession of a little perspective helps, even though this crisis certainly is different and has the potential to do more long-lasting damage. But I’d surmise most currently broadcasting their opinions to the masses via mainstream media outlets probably have little or no first-hand experience of anything remotely comparable, which might explain their approach to it.
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