The new Covid-19 vaccines: what we know so far

24 Nov

Just a month ago, it was hard to feel optimistic about the battle with Coronavirus. Many countries around the world were struggling to find a way out, and the UK’s main exit strategy – test and trace – was facing a myriad of operational challenges. You could be forgiven for thinking that we’d be stuck in lockdown forever.

But all that changed several weeks ago when Pfizer and BioNTech announced that they had created the first successful vaccine for protecting against the virus. Soon after, Moderna and Oxford University had breakthroughs too.

As ConservativeHome has written before, these are unprecedented scientific developments that deserve their own film one day. The Government also deserves huge credit for its belief in vaccines. Early on it secured 350 million doses from seven different vaccine candidates, in a gamble that seems – at this stage – to have paid off. Without further ado, we look at some of the details around the current ones, and when they can be expected to roll out.

Pfizer-BioNTech
  • Early analysis suggests the vaccine is 95 per cent effective in preventing Covid.
  • The Government has ordered 40 million doses, and expects to receive 10 million by the end of this year, which will protect five million people. The majority of doses are expected in the first half of 2021.
  • The Government is waiting for Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA; the independent regulator) to assess the vaccine. It could be approved as soon as this week, and the NHS has reportedly been told to prepare for mass vaccinations from December 1.
  • The vaccine has to be stored at minus 70 degrees celsius, and you need two doses of it. 
  • It costs £15 per dose.
Moderna
  • The Moderna vaccine is 94.5 per cent effective, and was tested in a trial that included many high risk and elderly people.
  • The Government has ordered five million doses, which means the NHS will be able to vaccinate 2.5 million people
  • If the vaccine is approved by regulators, then it could be delivered to the UK and Europe in spring 2021.
  • The vaccine can be stored for six months at -20C, the temperature of most freezers, and can stay for up to 30 days in a standard fridge. The dose is three times larger than Pfizer’s and you need two doses.
  • It costs £25 per dose.
Oxford University and AstraZeneca
  • Oxford University and AstraZeneca found in their study that when participants were given a half-sized dose and full-sized second dose, they were 90 per cent protected from Covid-19. 
  • The Government has ordered 100 million doses of the vaccine. There are currently four million doses ready to go, but the vaccine has to be approved, which is expected to happen in the coming weeks.
  • Although the Oxford vaccine has a lower efficacy than Pfizer/ BioNTech and Moderna’s, it is much easier to store – as it can be left at fridge temperature – meaning it can be distributed throughout the world. 
  • It costs £3 per dose.
Some other details:
  • The first people to get the vaccines will be care home residents and staff, as well as people over 80. The Government then plans to offer the vaccine to everyone else based on age, from oldest to youngest, by spring 2021. It has not been decided whether people with underlying health conditions and from ethnic minority backgrounds will be prioritised.
  • The NHS is recruiting 30,000 volunteers to help administer the jabs.
What we don’t know so far:
  • Whether the vaccines prevent disease transmission (i.e. can someone who has had the vaccine pass Covid-19 onto others). Some suspect that the vaccines will be able to reduce the duration and level of infectiousness, but it remains to be seen how this impacts on community transmission.
  • How many times someone will need to have a vaccine (other than the initial dose). It is not known how long immunity lasts. Perhaps we will move to a model similar to flu jabs, whereby vulnerable groups get a new one each year.
  • Whether we will need everyone vaccinated. Much of this depends on how vaccines affect transmission. If they stop or significantly reduces Covid-19 infection, then not as many people should need vaccinations.
Lastly, here is a list of the vaccines the Government has ordered so far:
  1. BioNTech/Pfizer for 40 million doses
  2. Oxford/AstraZeneca for 100 million doses
  3. Moderna for five million doses
  4. GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi Pasteur for 60 million doses
  5. Novavax for 60 million doses
  6. Janssen for 30 million doses
  7. Valneva for 60 million doses

The fullest account yet written of Sunak the rising star

14 Nov

Going For Broke: The Rise of Rishi Sunak by Michael Ashcroft

In February, Boris Johnson made him Chancellor of the Exchequer, and nine months later the first biography of him has appeared. Here is the fullest account yet written of Rishi Sunak the rising star.

Tories will read the story of his ascent to high office with enormous pleasure, for it amounts to a vindication of the United Kingdom, and of the Conservative Party.

Sunak, born in Southampton General Hospital on 12th May 1980, is descended on both sides from Hindu Punjabis who moved from India to East Africa and from there to Britain in search of a better life not so much for themselves as for their children.

Usually one member of the family would go on ahead, and the others would follow later. In 1966, Michael Ashcroft relates,

“The future Chancellor’s grandmother sold all her wedding jewellery to buy her a one-way ticket, leaving her husband and children behind in Tanzania in the hope – by no means certain – that they would be able to join her later.”

Sraksha Berry rented a room in Leicester, found a job as a bookkeeper and a year later was able to send for her husband, Raghubir, and their three children, including their daughter, Usha, who in 1972 graduated in pharmacology from Aston University.

Raghubir joined the Inland Revenue, where his many years of service were at length recognised by the award of the MBE.

Meanwhile Yashvir Sunak arrived from Kenya in 1966, joining his elder brother, who had got a place at Liverpool University to study electrical engineering.

The boys’ parents arrived in Britain a few years later. Yashvir read medicine at Liverpool, graduating in 1974, and was introduced by family friends to Usha.

They were married in Leicester in 1977 and settled in Southampton, where he worked as a family doctor and she ran a pharmacy. They are remembered with great affection by their neighbours in Spindlewood Close, the leafy suburban cul-de-sac where they bought a modern brick house with six bedrooms and a double garage.

The Sunaks attached enormous importance to the education of their children. The local state primary school would not do: as one of the neighbours says, it was “dire”.

They sent Rishi, their eldest boy, to a local fee-paying school, Oakmount, and after that had closed, to Stroud, a prep school which prepared its pupils for King Edward VI, an independent school in the middle of Southampton.

Olly Case, who went to Stroud and later taught there, said of Rishi:

“He was someone that was talked about; the teachers would say, ‘He’s going to be a Prime Minister.'”

Rishi was made Captain of Cricket and Head Boy. He was very bright, but would never have dreamed of using his intelligence to humiliate the less gifted. He got on well with everyone.

His parents decided to aim higher than King Edward VI. They wished to send him to Winchester College, one of the great schools of England.

Rishi sat the scholarship exam, and had he gone to a prep school such as Ashdown House, which specialised in preparing its most gifted pupils for that tough competition (in 1977 it won three awards – one to Winchester and two, including the present Prime Minister’s scholarship, to Eton), he too would probably have won an award.

He fell short, but his parents tightened their belts, his father took on an extra job, and they sent him to Winchester anyhow, where he thrived, and was made Senior Commoner Prefect, or head boy, though he was not a good enough cricketer to get into the First Eleven.

He talks with enormous enthusiasm about Winchester, as noted in the ConHome profile of him published in February

Sunak does not suffer from the compulsive desire of many members of the Establishment to conceal or at least downplay any privileges they may have enjoyed in early life.

He went on to Lincoln College, Oxford, took a First in PPE and became a leading light in the Oxford University Investment Society. He also worked at an Indian restaurant in Southampton, where the proprietor said of him:

“He was charming with every single person – it was not just customers but every other member of staff that liked him.”

Similar reports have been made at every stage of his career. From Oxford he joined Goldman Sachs, which took only four per cent of those who applied, and after three years as an analyst he decided to do an MBA at Stanford, funded by a Fulbright Scholarship.

He went on to work for various very successful hedge funds, before obtaining before the 2015 general election the safe seat of Richmond in North Yorkshire, which he took enormous trouble to get to know, informing himself about all sorts of matters, such as agriculture, about which previously he knew nothing.

At Westminster, his high ability was soon spotted by good judges such as Oliver Dowden and Sajid Javid. During the Conservative leadership contest of last summer, Dowden, Sunak and Robert Jenrick issued, at a well-chosen moment, a joint declaration of support for Johnson.

All three of them are now in the Cabinet. Javid, whom Johnson made Chancellor, requested and was given Sunak as Chief Secretary.

Sunak made such a good impression on the Tory high command that during the general election at the end of 2019, he was asked to stand in for Johnson during two of the television debates, and acquitted himself well.

In February of this year, when Javid refused, as a condition of remaining Chancellor, the loss of his team of advisers, Johnson replaced him with Sunak.

How has Sunak risen so swiftly and become so popular? The almost unbelievable speed with which he grasps things, the indefatigable industry with which he sets about the “flawless execution” of any given task, and the imperturbable resourcefulness with which since March he has doled out the vast sums needed to avert economic collapse, though all highly impressive, do not constitute a sufficient explanation.

There is something else. While studying at Stanford, he met, on the same course, Akshata Murthy, to whom he is now married. When she was one year old, her father, Narayana, founded a softwear company, Infosys, which in due course was to make him a billionaire.

Ashcroft recounts how Narayana and his wife Sudha, who served for 20 years as CEO of Infosys, handled the change in their circumstances:

“As the couple became richer, they went to great lengths to keep their children grounded. Narayana has said that his lifestyle ‘continues to be simple’ and that when he returns home from work every night, he still cleans his own lavatory.

“‘We have a caste system in India where the so-called lowest class…is a set of people who clean the toilets,’ he has explained. ‘My father believed that the caste system is a wrong one and therefore he made all of us clean our toilets…and that habit has continued, and I want my children to do that. And the best way to make them do it is if you did it yourself.'”

At the end of the book, Ashcroft lists some of the ways in which Sunak has been described by people who dealt with him:

“authentic, humble, approachable, gentle, modest, friendly, empathetic, thoughtful, respectful, sensitive, a listener. These are not the kind of words you hear about politicians every day, to put it at its most charitable. They help to explain not only his success but the lack of resentment it seems to have inspired in the ruthlessly competitive precincts of Westminster.”

Where does this behaviour come from? It must have been inculcated by Sunak’s parents, and before them by their parents. They arrived in England almost penniless, but with a rich store of moral capital.

And this must have something to do with their Hinduism. There are fleeting references to their faith:

“His grandmother’s funeral was a traditional Hindu affair, involving a colourful procession that blocked traffic in that part of Southampton. It was very well attended, on account of the role Suhag’s late husband had played setting up the Vedic Society Hindu temple in Southampton.”

The admirable rapidity with which this account has been produced meant there was no time to look into Sunak’s Hinduism. We learn that he does not drink alcohol, but he says this is because he does not like the taste or the effect of it.

During the pandemic, his advisers became worried that he was not eating:

“‘The day before he announced the furlough scheme, one of our economic advisers put a sandwich on his desk and said, “You must eat,” because he just wasn’t eating,’ says a Treasury source. ‘He was looking thin and faint.’ Another adviser says, ‘He has to be told almost every day to eat. Otherwise he’ll just work and work.’ An insider later revealed that Sunak sometimes goes without food deliberately, fasting on selected days from sunrise to sunset – not for religious reasons, but to ‘re-set after the weekend’.”

Sunak’s brilliant career shows a society whose institutions are open to talent: Winchester, Oxford, the City and the Conservative Party in Yorkshire and Westminster all welcomed him with open arms, perceiving what an asset he would be.

But another attraction of this country is its high regard for privacy. We do not seek to make windows into men’s souls. In the privacy of one’s own home or place of worship, one may practice whatever religion one may have brought with one to the UK.

I nevertheless hope that just as Max Weber wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, some scholar will in due course offer us The Hindu Ethic and the Spirit of Conservatism.

What next for Sunak? He will in a few months’ time have the opportunity radically to recast the tax system, so that we do not find we have been have been bankrupted by the pandemic.

He will need to raise more revenue while stimulating the entrepreneurship which he so admires, and doing so in the areas adjacent to Richmond which have been neglected for so long.

William Hague, his predecessor in that seat, is given the last words about Sunak in this book:

“From his house, or very nearby, you can see the Tees Valley. You can see the east coast and all that Teesside area that’s been so depressed and has in the last couple of elections gone Conservative. And I think he’s really got clearly in his head that that’s a big litmus test of what he’s doing. Is that area revived in a few years’ time or not? He can literally physically see what he appears to feel very passionately about. So I think that that levelling-up agenda might become whatever Sunakism is. But it’s probably too early to say, isn’t it?”

Neil O’Brien: The virus and the lockdown. Let’s keep calm and carry on – for there’s reason to believe that a vaccine is coming soon.

2 Nov

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Sarah Thomas is a lunatic. And amazing. About a year ago, she became the first person to swim the Channel four times in a row without stopping. It took 54 hours.

Between booking her slot, and getting in the water, she survived cancer. Setting off, she was immediately stung in the face by a jellyfish. On her fourth crossing, strong tides pushed her off course, turning 83 miles of swimming into 134, forcing her to sprint-swim to break free from the current.

She’s inspiring. And swimming the channel isn’t a bad metaphor for our fight against coronavirus. Metaphorically, we’re somewhere in the middle, when you can’t see Britain, but can’t quite see France either.

The national restrictions announced by the Prime Minister on Saturday underlined that we will still be slogging through this for a while yet. Polls suggest the public strongly back his decision: given the alarming data, it is definitely the right one.

Yet everyone’s tired of the restrictions and not seeing loved ones and friends, and the good things we look forward to once this is over remain a way off.

As we go through this marathon ordeal, what can we learn from Sarah Thomas?

First, most top athletes are taught to visualise success.

Regarding Coronavirus, the finishing line is becoming more visible, with progress on vaccines looking good. The New York Times runs a Vaccine Checker which lets you follow progress.

Eleven different vaccines are in final-stage “Phase 3” clinical trials, with half a dozen or so now seeing limited use outside trials.

There were always reasons to be optimistic about a vaccine: when the whole world wants something really badly, it’s likely to get produced. Producing a vaccine for coronavirus isn’t like inventing the atom bomb or putting a man on the moon, which required oodles of new technologies. A Covid-19 vaccine is a sideways-step from existing technologies. Several categories of vaccines look like they will be ready to roll in the coming months:

  • The Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine is basically a weakened version of a common cold type virus, modified to carry a protein which Covid-19 also shows, so that your body can learn to seek and destroy it without exposure to the real thing. Trials found it produces a good immune response including among older people, and doesn’t have side effects. The UK, US and EU have signed for hundreds of millions of doses.
  • Other vaccines based on a similar approach in final stage tests include China’s CanSino vaccine, Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute and Johnson & Johnson in the US.
  • Another promising approach is based on the use of messenger RNA: a blueprint for making proteins. The Pfizer / Biontech vaccine works like this and may well be the first to go into non-trial use in the US. There was some speculation last week that we could start using it here in the UK before Christmas, which seems a bit soon, but it isn’t far off. Another similar vaccine from the Gamaleya Research Institute is also final stage trials.
  • Finally, there’s a bunch of traditional vaccines based on inactivated versions of Covid-19 (like the Hepatitis B vaccine, which has been around since the 1960s). China’s Sinopharm and Sinovac both offer vaccines like this – the Sinovac one is already being used outside clinical trials and you can buy it in some cities for $60. The Indian Council of Medical Research is also in final stage trials of an equivalent.

So the shore’s not so far away.

The other lesson from Sarah Thomas is about listening to the right people. She says she nearly quit halfway, but her team egged her on.

Contrast that with the British commentariat, large parts of which are dishing out terrible advice. If they’d been in Sarah Thomas’s support boat they’d have been telling her to give up, harping on about how cold it was. They’ve been hopeless throughout.

First, they dismissed the problem. Richard Littlejohn wrote in the Daily Mail on March 2nd/

“My default position on all these health scares is weary scepticism. We’ve been here before. Sars, Mers, Ebola, Bird Flu, Swine Flu… All passed in Britain, at least without the catastrophic death toll the so-called ‘experts’ confidently predicted”.

Wrong.

Then they declared the problem over. In the Daily Telegraph, Allison Pearson wrote in May that that, by June: “a scientist friend assures me the coronavirus will have petered out.” Sunetra Gupta, one of the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, (and who the media fawns over), predicted in May that “the epidemic has largely come and is on its way out in this country”, which she said was “due to the build-up of immunity”.

Wrong.

The commentariat want to shout down wiser voices. In September, Sir Patrick Vallance faced a torrent of abuse for saying that there might be 200 deaths a day from Covid-19 by mid November. “Project fear,” thundered one Telegraph columnist. Piers Morgan blasted the Government’s “scaremongering.”

Wrong.

In fact we hit that grim milestone sooner, in late October, and hit 326 by the last day of October. We need to start listening to the right coaches – not hopeless people who get it wrong time and again, but face zero accountability.

Finally, top athletes learn from the best. In terms of Coronavirus, the best performers are Japan, Korea and New Zealand. France has had 19,800 cases per million people. The UK 14,800. Japan has had just 795, and Korea just 512 and New Zealand 325.

New Zealand is rural, but Japan and Korea are heavily urban. How did they do it?

Partly it’s about near-universal mask use. As the Lancet notes: “In Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea, the habit of mask wearing by people with respiratory conditions was already widespread before the pandemic”. Part of it is that all these countries also have tough virus border controls.

There are other factors. Japan locked down Tokyo at a very early stage. South Korea’s super-duper test and trace system uses records of credit card transactions, mobile phone and global positioning system data, to fill in gaps in what coronavirus patients can remember in interviews.

The most important lesson from Asia is that success breeds success. A low rate of cases makes it easier for test and trace staff to isolate and shut down chains of infection, and contain local outbreaks. Too many cases and such approaches are overwhelmed.

To use an analogy, it took us a long time to work out how to conquer inflation. The key discovery was that the only way to have stable inflation is to have very low inflation.

The same’s true of coronavirus. Either you are beating coronavirus, or it is beating you. It doesn’t want to go in a straight line or rise gently, but to streak exponentially upward. Korea, Japan and New Zealand have got it pinned to the floor, so can get on with their lives. Instead of surrendering, as let-it-rippers in the commentariat advocate, they’ve decided to win.

Unlike Sarah Thomas we don’t have to swim for 54 hours. But we’re all enduring hardships. To get to the other side of this we need to keep thinking straight. It’s easy to be seduced by the idea that there’s some easy way out. There isn’t.

When she was far out to sea, her team called to her: “Just keep swimming.” At first, I thought that sounded really dumb. But when you are out in the middle of the Channel, it’s not such bad advice.

Hunter DuBose: Why Sweden is leading the way out of the pandemic

29 Sep

Hunter DuBose is the Managing Partner of Spitfire Capital Advisors.  He also conceived and produced Brexit: The Movie.

In his ConservativeHome article yesterday, Bernard Jenkin derided Sweden’s light-touch strategy in response to Covid-19, and mounted a staunch defence of the Government’s ongoing policy of unprecedented and draconian restrictions on our daily lives in its effort to suppress the transmission of the disease.

He is wrong.

It is becoming increasingly evident that Sweden not only got it right, but that the human cost of the UK’s onerous Covid-19 policies will be significantly worse than Covid-19 ever would have been.

Covid-19 has now virtually disappeared in Sweden. The country had among the worst rates of Covid-19 fatalities in the world in April. Now, it’s among the lowest, having fallen over 99 per cent, and with an average of just one death per day over the past week.

What has Sweden done to achieve this? Almost nothing. And that’s the point.

The Swedish government never imposed any lockdowns. Nor has it required the wearing of face masks (and only two per cent of Swedes have worn masks voluntarily, according to a survey published in the New York Times). Offices, schools, restaurants, bars, shops, salons, gyms, and tourist attractions have remained open throughout. Contrary to enkin’s suggestion, Sweden did not bring Covid-19 under control using a track and trace system, having abandoned such plans in early March.

The Swedish government did require tables to be spaced farther apart in restaurants and bars, banned public gatherings in excess of 50 people (now relaxed to 500), restricted travel from areas outside of Europe, and shifted colleges and universities to distance learning. It also recommended – but never mandated – that Swedes observe social distancing and minimise domestic travel, and that over-70s should stay at home as much as possible.

Sweden, then, is the closest we have to a control group for light-touch mitigation rather than the UK’s draconian suppression of Covid-19.

And, as the extraordinary reduction in daily deaths there reveals, the virus has now all but burnt itself out naturally. The empirical evidence points exceptionally-strongly to the establishment of herd immunity there. While the UK frets about the potential for a second wave of Covid-19, all indications are that Sweden can now move on and get back to life as normal and business as usual.

But what has been the human cost to Sweden of letting Covid-19 run its course naturally and without significant intervention?

This year’s all-cause mortality rate in Sweden is on track to be the 13th worst of the past 40 years, according to Statistics Sweden (their version of the ONS). In other words, Sweden has experienced a worse death toll every three years, on average. Every individual death – from any cause – is excruciatingly sad. But Covid-19 has had an entirely-unexceptional effect on Sweden’s annual death rate.

Notably, Sweden does not appear to have experienced a significant increase in excess mortality for conditions entirely unrelated to Covid-19 such as cancer, stroke, heart disease and suicide. There have been an estimated 15,000 – 25,000 such deaths in the UK so far, with lockdowns and re-prioritisation of NHS resources cutting off access to urgent, life-saving treatment. A recently-leaked SAGE report predicts up to 75,000 such deaths over the next five years due to delayed treatments and diagnoses. That’s almost twice the current UK Covid-19 death toll.

But, “Aha!” Bernard Jenkin says: the Swedish population is much healthier and sparser than the UK’s and, therefore, the bar for achieving herd immunity is significantly lower there. Many hundreds of thousands of Britons would have to die in order to achieve the same outcome, he claims.

On this point, again, Jenkin is wrong. And gratuitously so.

The UK is a nation of fatties, he tells us, with 27 per cent of us obese compared to only 20 per cent in super-svelte Sweden, making us more susceptible to the ravages of Covid-19. However, according to ONS data, only 0.9 per cent of Covid-19 mortalities in England and Wales in March and April – when the vast majority of Covid-19 deaths occurred – cited obesity as the main pre-existing condition. Only 1.3 per cent cited obesity as a pre-existing condition at all.

He also claims the higher rate of smoking in the UK, makes us more susceptible to Covid-19. However, the available scientific evidence does not identify smoking as a significant risk factor for Covid-19 and, in fact, suggests that smokers may actually face a lower mortality risk from the disease.

Jenkin simplistically divides population by land mass to conclude, erroneously, that the UK is 11 times more crowded than Sweden, making it significantly easier for the virus to spread from person to person. However, the majority of Sweden is completely empty, with 85 per cent of its population living in dense urban areas. Sweden’s population-weighted density – which adjusts for this – is actually among the highest in Europe and 25 per cent higher than the UK’s, according to a 2015 EU Commission report, with urban areas 60 per cent more dense than the UK’s. (For this same reason, comparisons between Sweden and other, legitimately-sparse Nordic countries are inept).

Jenkin contends that, according to antibody testing by the ONS, fewer than eight per cent of Britons have contracted Covid-19, thus far, and that a further 50 per cent of the UK population would need to become infected in order to establish herd immunity here.

However, recent scientific research from Oxford University, Karolinska Institutet, Duke-NUS Medical School, and La Jolla Institute for Immunology, among others, demonstrates that the prevailing technology for SARS-CoV-2 serology tests provides a wholly incomplete and unreliable picture of the degree of immunity to the virus in the population at large.

This is because they don’t test at all for the presence of the IgA variant of antibodies or of the killer T-cells that, according to the research, play vital roles in the human body’s repertoire of weapons to eradicate the virus.

Indeed, several of these studies indicate that up to 50 per cent of the population already possessed SARS-CoV-2 cross-reactive T-cells – and presumed immunity to Covid-19 – prior to any exposure to the virus, most likely due to previous infection by other coronaviruses, such as those that cause SARS, MERS and variants of the common cold.

Tellingly, a recent analysis by Werlabs in Sweden found that only 14 per cent of a sample population there was positive for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. If Sweden has achieved herd immunity with only 14 per cent of its population testing positive for antibodies, can the UK really be that far behind?

By any reasonable standard, given the available evidence, the Swedish model has achieved vastly superior results and at a significantly lower cost in human lives. The British government should take heed.

Interview: Nigel Biggar says human rights are not enough and the British Empire was good as well as bad

16 Sep

If the BBC wishes to balance its coverage of the culture war, it should invite Nigel Biggar to deliver at least three series of talks on Radio 4.

The first would be about his new book, What’s Wrong With Rights?, in which the Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford takes issue with the excessive claims for the doctrine of human rights made by some human rights lawyers and other “rights fundamentalists”, and contends, as he puts it in this interview, that “We as a society cannot live on rights alone”.

This opening salvo would be succeeded by a tremendously popular series of talks in which Biggar would demonstrate that the British Empire was good as well as bad, so too was Cecil Rhodes, and would expose the shoddy history being peddled by those “on the Corbynite Left or among Scottish Nationalists” who assert that “Britain equals Empire equals Evil equals America equals the West”.

He observes here that they get away with this because “most people know bugger all about the British Empire”.

In Biggar’s view,

“Not allowing our imperial history to be rubbished is important, because if indeed our imperial history was all that they say it was, namely a litany of atrocity, then the moral authority of the West is eroded.”

Biggar, born in Scotland, is now at Christ Church, Oxford, has also worked in the United States and the Republic of Ireland, and regards himself as British rather than either English or Scottish.

His third series of talks could be devoted to his defence of the Union, and of the United Kingdom as a “highly successful” multinational state.

Any BBC producer who wishes to check what Biggar sounds like will find, by listening to a podcast he recorded on this theme, that he speaks in a calm, lucid, moderate, humorous tone.

Although he challenges received ideas, there is no hint of extremism in what he says. As he puts it here,

“I’m an Anglican. And a Burkean. I like incremental change rather than ruptures. Just for the record, I did vote Remain, but my heart is Brexity.”

Unlike some Conservatives, Biggar does not believe withdrawing from the European Court of Human Rights would necessarily discourage judges from taking decisions which properly belong to parliamentarians:

“If lots of [European] judges see themselves as champions of this gospel of human rights, then it’s possible that judges in our own courts may see themselves in the same way.”

ConHome: “One of the things which prompted you to write your book was a series of judgments by the European Court of Human Rights in cases about the conduct of British troops in Iraq.

“You observe in your introduction that

“the jurisprudence was alarmingly imprudent, partly because the court comprised a majority of judges whose countries had no living tradition of sending troops abroad, whose historical imaginations were accordingly limited.”

“Would it be fair to say that this limited historical imagination is at the root of a lot of the things you’re writing about?

“Many well-intentioned people go astray because they don’t even realise that history has much to teach us – not in the sense of straightforward lessons, but by informing one’s understanding of the world.

“They’re trapped in the present, and they’re therefore extremely susceptible to what you end up calling the moral arrogance of the rights fundamentalists.”

Biggar: “Yes. My first love, and my first degree, was in history, before I became a theologian cum philosopher cum ethicist. The philosophical side of me likes precision. I like clarity. I appreciate the force of logic.

“But the other side of me wants, as it were, ethical concepts to be able to hold their heads up before the messy realities. So that’s why I found myself thinking between philosophy and history a lot, to see if these concepts really can walk on the battlefield, as it were.

“On the point you raise, this had to do with the judgment in Al-Skeini and Others v. the United Kingdom in 2011. It had to do with six killings of Iraqis by British troops in Basra in 2003.

“The issue was whether or not the British should have conducted investigations of their deaths in accordance with Articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

“The crucial question was whether British occupying forces had authority and control, so that according to the court, what applies in Europe should apply in Basra.

“Now I noticed on reading through the judgment that the British judges were sensitive to the fact that formal control – jurisdiction – is one thing, but effective control is crucial.

“Because if, as one British judge put it, Basra was on the verge of anarchy, then you don’t have effective control, and therefore you need to allow the security forces greater leeway, because if the state collapses, no rights get any protection at all.

“The British judgments were that there was no effective control, therefore the European Convention should not be transferred from, let’s say, peaceful Hamburg to anarchical Basra.

“The European Court’s judgment quoted a lot of the British judges, and made clear that the criterion as far as they were concerned was effective control, but then having done that, proceeded to drop the qualification ‘effective’, and just decided that the British had authority and control.

“Why? It’s no coincidence that the judges of a British court belong to a country that has a long tradition of an active military. British judges, some of them at least, were aware of the military realities and the political fragility.

“None of this was apparent in any of the rest of the European Court’s judgment.

“At this point, there was a national difference. The British judges had a sensitivity to a factor that European judges with a different tradition just didn’t have.

“And that was crucial in the judgment. There is a general problem with international courts when they come to judge this kind of thing.

“The same applied to the French, of course. Should the British and the French be willing to submit to the judgment of a court that doesn’t really have the experience or the imagination to make prudent judgments?

“In this court judgment, reached unanimously, there were 17 judges. The European Court recognised that it was a serious issue.

“Giovanni Bonello, the Maltese judge, went way over the top in his political rhetoric. In his case it was clear that in addition to his political objections to the occupation of Iraq, his view was that the duty of the court is to uphold the sanctity of human rights.

“He exorted the court to

“stop fashioning doctrines which somehow seem to accommodate the facts, but ratherto appraise the facts against the immutable principles which underlie the fundamental functions of the Convention.”

“Not ‘to accommodate the facts’ because these principles are ‘immutable’, these principles are sacred.

“It is a hostage to fortune for a military power such as Britain to allow its military operations to be subject to the judgment of a court that does not share its assumptions.”

ConHome: “The Americans don’t do this.”

Biggar: “No they don’t. The Americans submit to no international court, and I suppose for the first time I began to appreciate why the Americans don’t.”

ConHome: “What’s your view on the proposed opt-outs from the European Court of Human Rights which the Government is reported to be considering? Or even that we might withdraw altogether?”

Biggar: “If you read Noel Malcolm’s Policy Exchange study [reviewed here on ConHome], that seemed to me to be a devastating critique of the quality of reasoning in the judgments of the European Court.

“So there are reasons to think about withdrawing.”

ConHome: “Noel Malcolm is pretty definitive about that. He thinks we should withdraw.”

Biggar: “Yes he is. I’m not as definitive…”

ConHome: “You’re an Anglican.”

Biggar: “I’m an Anglican. And a Burkean. I like incremental change rather than ruptures.

“Just for the record, I did vote Remain, but my heart is Brexity.

“I voted on a 55/45 per cent basis. When I woke up on the morning the result was announced I thought, ‘Oh.'”

ConHome: “You weren’t in mourning.”

Biggar: “I wasn’t in mourning. I thought this is a different set of challenges.

“But back to the European Court. The problem with the way in which human rights are deployed and developed has to do with the attitude of judges, how they see themselves.

“If lots of judges see themselves as champions of this gospel of human rights, then it’s possible that judges in our own courts may see themselves in the same way.

“In which case, getting rid of Europe’s not going to help.

“It seems to me the problem is not confined to the European Court.”

ConHome: “We’re quite capable of making our own problems. The threat to the Union with Scotland, although Europe plays into it, is essentially a British problem.

“And I was very struck by the podcast you did a couple of years ago for These Islands, in which you said you had ‘sleepless nights’ before the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence.

And that you very much think of yourself as British, not as English or Scottish. An Anglo-Scot, but really a Briton.”

Biggar: “Yes, very much so. The prospect of not being able to call myself British did cost me sleep. And it made me wonder, ‘Why? Would the world really cave in if Biggar had to call himself English? It’s not that bad. Many people do.’

“But I’ve always had a very fierce and deliberate sense of being British. I’m married to an American, I could have made my life and career in America. I was absolutely clear I wasn’t going to do that, I was coming back here.

“What is it I’m attached to? And I noticed how people speaking up for the Union in 2013, and during the campaign in 2014, the argument was almost entirely in terms of economics.

“And it still is to a large extent. And I thought to myself, that’s important, but it’s not what makes me emotionally attached to the idea of Britain.

“And so after the referendum, which went the right way as far as I’m concerned, I sat down and wrote an article for Standpoint to try to articulate what I think it is that Britain means.

“I said the difficulty is it’s like trying to describe the ground you stand on. You take it so for granted that you find it very hard to articulate.

“I came up with Britain is a multinational state, highly successful, to the point where, on the whole, we identify with each other enough that when wealthy London taxpayers find their tax pounds going north to Newcastle or Glasgow or Belfast or Swansea, they don’t complain, in the way that Germans would complain if their tax euros were to go to Greece.

“So we have achieved – and it was an achievement, it was built up over centuries of co-operation and experience – a level of unselfconscious identification with each other – and of course we josh, we joke, we tease.”

ConHome: “More than that. Dr Johnson was incredibly rude about the Scots, although Boswell gives us the best of Johnson.”

Biggar: “One of the main arguments against Scottish nationalism, with its default resentment of the English, and especially if separation comes onto the cards, and the Scots find the English are not going to give them everything they want, we will find a degree of international hostility between Scotland and England we have never experienced since the 1700s.

“And then there’s the larger issue of the role of Britain in the world. I’m a supporter of the West. Britain is a middle-ranking but an important pillar of the West.

“That’s partly a legacy of our imperial past. There’s a continuity between the British Empire and the American-led international order.

“There are some, on the Corbynite Left or among Scottish Nationalists, who say that Britain equals Empire equals Evil equals America equals the West.

“I know enough history to know that Britain equals Empire equals Evil, that’s not true.”

ConHome: “Did anyone reply to your defence of Cecil Rhodes in Standpoint in 2016? You demonstrated that there were good and bad things about Rhodes, but he wasn’t the Hitler of South Africa.”

Biggar: “Good question. Not a single reply.”

ConHome: “This is possibly quite astute of your opponents, not to reply, but still it’s disastrous if you’re not going to get a proper argument about it – if they just avoid the argument.”

Biggar: “My experience of that row, and then the subsequent row about my views on colonialism, is that a lot of the other side don’t know their history, and don’t particularly care to.

“The Rhodes Must Fall lobby, the decolonisers, they’re not interested in the truth about history. And when you say, ‘What you say is not true’, they kind of just move on.

“The agitation is about using history for political purposes. My view is the use of history is pretty unscrupulous. So long as it suits their purposes, they will call Rhodes a Hitler, or in the latest bout of Rhodes Must Fall agitation there was one African PhD student who was reported by The Guardian to have described Rhodes as ‘génocidaire’. 

“There’s no sensible historical ground for that at all.

“But the truth about the past is not going to be the main factor, I think [in whether Rhodes’s statue will be removed from the facade of Oriel College, Oxford].

“What will predominate are emotions about the present, and the felt need to make black minority ethnic agitators feel at home. I say agitators because not all black minority ethnic students or people support the agitators.

“To remove the statue [from Oriel] I think would be to yield to irrational forces, who don’t care very much about the truth about history, and do care about symbolic coups.

“And if Rhodes goes down, all manner of statuary all over the country is going to be in question.

“Rhodes’ record was certainly a mixed one. But there are very few people who are honoured by statues whose careers weren’t mixed.”

ConHome: “Many academics have remained silent on these questions. You express yourself in a temperate manner, but you do speak up.

“For many politicians, scholars and journalists, this is a difficult judgment: when should one jump in to this culture war, often waged in such a rancorous way?”

Biggar: “I didn’t jump in.”

ConHome: “What happened?”

Biggar: “Well I did jump in on Rhodes, it so happened, in 2015, when the Rhodes Must Fall campaign came onto the stage. I’ve spent much of the past ten years reading about imperial history.

“Not allowing our imperial history to be rubbished is important, because if indeed our imperial history was all that they say it was, namely a litany of atrocity, then the moral authority of the West is eroded.

“In late 2017 I published an article in The Times saying we should feel pride as well as shame in the past. A project I had launched in July of that year called Ethics and Empire came under attack by a group of students online.

“Then within a week there was a second and third online denunciation, from 50 Oxford academics and then 200 or so academics worldwide.

“And that took me completely by surprise. I wasn’t looking for a fight. But now, because I care about what’s at stake, I’m stuck into it, and right now I’m half-way through writing a book with the working title Colonialism: A Guide For The Perplexed.

“Though I’m wondering about changing it to something more irenic like Why The British Empire Was Pretty Good.

“How do we handle the cultural war? Well I think we have to inform it. Part of the problem is that most people know bugger all about the British Empire.

“But most people have picked up that right-thinking, progressive people don’t defend it.

“The majority will take the path of least resistance. One thing one has to do is tell the truth about the past. So that’ll be part of my contribution.”

At the end of the conversation, we reverted to What’s Wrong With Rights? and Biggar declared:

“We as a society cannot live on rights alone. Rights talk so dominates public discussion that necessary talk about duties or about virtues or about the common good tends to get pushed to the side.

“Here’s a concrete example of why it matters. You remember in 2015 the Charlie Hebdo murders took place, because Charlie Hebdo had published cartoons of Mohammed that Muslims found offensive.

“And of course in reaction to those murders everybody was affirming the right to free speech. Charlie Hebdo should have been free to do as they damn well pleased and if Muslims are annoyed, that’s just too bad.

“Now of course that was right, and the murderers had no justification.

“But I did think, ‘Yes, OK, we want to affirm the legal right to free speech. But the question of how we handle free speech within the legal parameters is a moral question.

“And in the case of Charlie Hebdo, I thought well, publishing these satirical cartoons of Mohammed in Charlie Hebdo – what exactly were you trying to achieve in doing this?

“Because the people who read Charlie Hebdo, they’ll be people on the Left who are probably secularists, who get a kick out of seeing Mohammed mocked.

“Well, you know, it’s a free world, I guess if people want to do that, and enjoy that, that’s fine.

“But what did it achieve constructively? Did it achieve anything positive in terms of relations between French Muslims and other citizens?

“I do think we’ve got a duty to tell the truth, and if it so happens some people are annoyed by that, well that’s just too bad. But we shouldn’t say things just to annoy other people – we shouldn’t spit on other people’s sacred cows just because it gives us kicks.

“Freedom of speech is one thing – having the right is one thing – having the qualities of character to restrain yourself when you should restrain yourself, and to be charitable, or to be just, these are questions of virtue, and if we don’t have ways of training citizens in the virtues of self-restraint, we won’t have a citizenry who are capable of respecting other people’s rights.

“So the legal right’s good, but it just isn’t enough. We need to be talking about the formation of virtue more. Who does it, and how is it done? Which virtues are we going to promulgate?

“Rights are not enough. That’s something I really would like to emphasise.”

Julian Brazier: The time is now for university reform. Here’s how we fix Britain’s broken institutions.

28 Jul

Sir Julian Brazier is a former Defence Minister, and was MP for Canterbury from 1987-2017.

The public debate about the future of universities has moved a long way in the last year or two. Michelle Donovan’s excellent recent speech was an important step: the first time a spokesman for any British government has acknowledged that university is poorly serving a substantial proportion of students.

It has since been underlined by a strong statement from Gavin Williamson. The concerns expressed by think tanks, individual writers and the House of Commons Education Committee, which concluded that only half of recent graduates were in graduate level jobs, have been brushed aside unanswered by the university lobby.

Instead, apologists for the universities repeatedly cite statistics about the value of degrees, based on averages which mix the highest performers with those struggling at the margin. Worse, they focus on high participation rates around the world, simply ignoring the two major ways in which the UK is out of line. First, in almost every other country, most students study from home, roughly halving the cost of a campus-based course, and, second, and more importantly, most students in those countries with high HE rates study vocational subjects.

These two factors make comparison with HE participation rates abroad misleading. It is interesting, however, to look at Switzerland and Germany because both are, in one important respect, like us and unlike the majority; they deliver the bulk of their vocational education outside universities, making their statistics more comparable to ours than say France, Italy, Spain or indeed America. Germany and Switzerland have much lower HE participation rates than the UK and both have low unemployment – and exceptionally high productivity.

The Government understands this. As it moves towards reform, a model is emerging based on a shift towards vocational courses at universities, combined with more FE and apprenticeships. More vocational courses are being floated by government as the gateway (along with cuts in vice chancellors’ salaries where appropriate) to assistance from a new bailout fund.

But that limited lever can only apply for the duration of the Covid crisis and only to those institutions seeking financial help. Yet, the crisis is driving record numbers of school leavers into applying for HE this year, despite the Government’s laudable efforts to sustain the sagging jobs market and build up positive alternatives like apprenticeships.

The tanker is drifting further off course. So, the urgent question is, how can the Government enforce its laudable aims without fatally compromising the independence of universities?

My suggestion is that they formally split courses into three categories: two academic, STEM and Arts/other, together with a third, vocational category. Then a set of minimum admission standards should be applied within each of the three categories for eligibility for student loans and other government support. This would leave universities free to control their admissions, but effectively block them offering places to those below the relevant national standard. There could be a limited system of exemptions based on foundation courses for mature students.

The setting of standards would be controversial, but the following broad approach would be a significant improvement on the existing “money for old rope” approach. STEM courses should require a good A level grade in mathematics – it is unrealistic to expect anyone to benefit from a degree in engineering or computer science without a sound mathematical base. In a few cases, like the biological sciences, a minimum overall A level combination might substitute for a maths result.

At a time when the economy desperately needs more STEM graduates, it is in nobody’s interests to allow youngsters to study subjects which they lack the mental capacity to master. We need better maths and science teaching in schools – and more more pupils, including more girls, studying STEM subjects – not to offer false hopes afterwards, as many universities are doing. Too many good universities are already spending the first year of physics and engineering degrees on remedial maths.

The hardest to set nationally would be the arts sector. The Government might wish to avoid the temptation of comparing classics with PPE or geography, to choose three subjects entirely at random, and just set a minimum standard across the board, say three Cs at A Level.

Finally, standards for vocational courses could be set in consultation with industry. Such consultation might suggest that FE or apprenticeships are more appropriate, except for those with the strongest academic base. Certainly, most students should study in their local city or town (other than those living in the most remote areas), to keep costs and debt down.

In her speech, Michelle raised concerns about universities recruiting school leavers for courses that do nothing to improve their life chances. These split into two categories – those on the wrong course and those who should not be at university. Introducing national standards would rescue the most vulnerable group, the latter category, and, incidentally, make permanent the laudable recent ban on unconditional offers. It would have a second important effect too – many of the non-vocational courses would wither because of the paucity of applicants likely to achieve the new standard.

None of this would interfere with universities’ independence, but the package would stop a minority of universities cynically exploiting those most unable to benefit, by shackling them with a lifetime of debt and lost aspirations. It would also save the taxpayer a great deal of money as most student loans are unlikely to ever be fully repaid.

The standards could also be applied to overseas students, so that our doors remain wide open to the brightest and the best – but not to low achievers who currently automatically qualify for a two-year additional stay.

The Government also has an opportunity to drive good leadership by vice chancellors in a quite different way. The honours system sends powerful messages, and two filters could be applied to applications for senior university staff, apart from the obvious main category of awards for academic and research achievement.

First there is an opportunity to highlight those VCs like Karen Cox at the University of Kent, who have acted unilaterally before the government guidelines were published. She announced a large personal pay cut – and imposed the same on her senior colleagues – while protecting low-paid staff. That is real leadership.

The second filter is highlighted by the contrast between Oxford University, on the one hand, where Louise Richardson has consistently resisted Chinese investment with compromising strings. She has also defended dons like Nigel Biggar against woke lynch mobs.

At Cambridge, on the other hand, Stephen Toope, the Vice Chancellor, has presided over the creeping takeover of critical parts of his empire by cheque-waving Chinese organisations and turned a blind eye to the impact on academic independence.

At the same time, he has taken a strong stand in favour of a BAME academic who published profoundly racist material, citing the importance of free speech, and yet allowed a don to be ejected for disagreeing with the woke mob and Jordan Peterson to be denied a visiting professorship, because he was once photographed with a student who was wearing an offensive tee-shirt.

Making Louise Richardson a Dame – and blocking any efforts by the HE Blob to get an honour for her Cambridge counterpart – would send a clear message that Conservatives believe in academic freedom.

We have a great deal to be proud of in our university sector, with the highest-ranking institutions in the world, alongside America, but – in the interests of the rising generation – elements of the system badly need reform. At last, we have a government willing to take action. Here are some ideas for a plan.

Daniel Hannan: ​Against all logic, we are more nervous about Covid-19 now than we were in March

22 Jul

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

The news that Oxford University might have a Coronavirus vaccine ready as early as Christmas is wonderful. British readers may be forgiven a dash of patriotic pride at the thought that this country, the country of Edward Jenner, the country that discovered vaccination (or at least, as Matt Ridley shows in his book on innovation, the country that developed and popularised the idea, innovation generally being incremental and collaborative) is once again leading the world. I suspect the chances of a mutually beneficial UK-EU deal have just improved.

The sad truth is that only a vaccine (or a cure) now offers the prospect of a return to normality. Lifting the lockdown has led, in the event, to a disappointingly small uptick in activity. Our city centres remain deserted, our workforce furloughed. I had allowed myself to hope that we were chafing against these restrictions, that we stood like greyhounds in the slips, straining upon the start. But most of us have responded to the reopening by putting our tails between our legs and whimpering.

It is worth dwelling, for a moment, on why this should be. There was far more social and economic activity on the eve of the lockdown than there is now. Yet, logically, nothing has happened during the intervening four months to make us more nervous than we were then. In late March, as we watched the horrific scenes from Lombardy, we were bracing for an epidemic that might overwhelm our healthcare system. In the event, it wasn’t just our Nightingale hospitals that stood empty; so did many ward beds.

We now know that healthy young people are extremely unlikely to experience severe symptoms, and that transmission through casual contact is rare. We have recently learned that our death rates are not as bad as they had seemed: incredibly, Public Health England was counting everyone who had died having had the coronavirus as a Covid fatality – even if they made a full recovery and then died of something else.

In the week which ended on July 10 (the last for which we have figures) total deaths were in fact six per cent below the average of the previous five years. Sweden, which imposed only light restrictions and trusted to people’s common sense, has not seen the apocalypse that was widely predicted in March. Yet we are bizarrely more reluctant to get back to work than we were at the start.

The explanation does not seem to be primarily medical. People normalise even unprecedented situations with astonishing rapidity. If their new routine is relatively painless – staying at home on something close to full pay, for example – they may be in little hurry to change it.

Staying at home is, like anything else, habit-forming. Clinical psychologists explain agoraphobia and related strains of anxiety partly as a negative feedback loop. Something frightening happens to you outside, so every time you go out afterwards you feel nervous, which means that you remember the sensation of being outside as intrinsically unpleasant, making you even more nervous the next time, and so on.

While it would be silly to suggest that millions of people are suffering from clinical anxiety, it may be that a mild form of the negative-feedback syndrome is tipping people against going back to commuting. Four months of being bombarded with the message “stay home, save lives” could hardly fail to have an impact.

The prospect of a vaccine makes it even less likely that we will try to work around the disease, Sweden-style. Employers who might have reopened their offices over the coming weeks are now more likely to hold out in the hope of a definitive solution.

That will prolong and deepen our recession. Life has not returned to London as it has to, say, Lisbon or Copenhagen. Our eventual recovery will come too late for those firms that have been forced into insolvency. For many, the “job retention scheme” (as the furlough is formally called) is a cruel name for what is, in fact, a form of deferred redundancy.

If, in a best-case scenario, a vaccine is found this year, our problems will still be just starting. Months of closures will be followed by years of joblessness and decades of debt. And if the vaccine turns out not to be effective, this week’s false hope could simply put off a modified return to work.

I don’t like playing Cassandra. As long-standing readers will know, I am generally an exuberant optimist in the Steven Pinker/Matt Ridley/Johan Norberg mould. But we need to understand that the decisions we have taken over the past 16 weeks will have consequences for many years.

I’m not sure everyone has yet made the connection. I hope I’m wrong, but I can imagine Piers Morgan and other commentators who demanded the longest and strictest lockdown pivoting to complain about high unemployment. Sadly, we are about to find out.

Daniel Hannan: ​Against all logic, we are more nervous about Covid-19 now than we were in March

22 Jul

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

The news that Oxford University might have a Coronavirus vaccine ready as early as Christmas is wonderful. British readers may be forgiven a dash of patriotic pride at the thought that this country, the country of Edward Jenner, the country that discovered vaccination (or at least, as Matt Ridley shows in his book on innovation, the country that developed and popularised the idea, innovation generally being incremental and collaborative) is once again leading the world. I suspect the chances of a mutually beneficial UK-EU deal have just improved.

The sad truth is that only a vaccine (or a cure) now offers the prospect of a return to normality. Lifting the lockdown has led, in the event, to a disappointingly small uptick in activity. Our city centres remain deserted, our workforce furloughed. I had allowed myself to hope that we were chafing against these restrictions, that we stood like greyhounds in the slips, straining upon the start. But most of us have responded to the reopening by putting our tails between our legs and whimpering.

It is worth dwelling, for a moment, on why this should be. There was far more social and economic activity on the eve of the lockdown than there is now. Yet, logically, nothing has happened during the intervening four months to make us more nervous than we were then. In late March, as we watched the horrific scenes from Lombardy, we were bracing for an epidemic that might overwhelm our healthcare system. In the event, it wasn’t just our Nightingale hospitals that stood empty; so did many ward beds.

We now know that healthy young people are extremely unlikely to experience severe symptoms, and that transmission through casual contact is rare. We have recently learned that our death rates are not as bad as they had seemed: incredibly, Public Health England was counting everyone who had died having had the coronavirus as a Covid fatality – even if they made a full recovery and then died of something else.

In the week which ended on July 10 (the last for which we have figures) total deaths were in fact six per cent below the average of the previous five years. Sweden, which imposed only light restrictions and trusted to people’s common sense, has not seen the apocalypse that was widely predicted in March. Yet we are bizarrely more reluctant to get back to work than we were at the start.

The explanation does not seem to be primarily medical. People normalise even unprecedented situations with astonishing rapidity. If their new routine is relatively painless – staying at home on something close to full pay, for example – they may be in little hurry to change it.

Staying at home is, like anything else, habit-forming. Clinical psychologists explain agoraphobia and related strains of anxiety partly as a negative feedback loop. Something frightening happens to you outside, so every time you go out afterwards you feel nervous, which means that you remember the sensation of being outside as intrinsically unpleasant, making you even more nervous the next time, and so on.

While it would be silly to suggest that millions of people are suffering from clinical anxiety, it may be that a mild form of the negative-feedback syndrome is tipping people against going back to commuting. Four months of being bombarded with the message “stay home, save lives” could hardly fail to have an impact.

The prospect of a vaccine makes it even less likely that we will try to work around the disease, Sweden-style. Employers who might have reopened their offices over the coming weeks are now more likely to hold out in the hope of a definitive solution.

That will prolong and deepen our recession. Life has not returned to London as it has to, say, Lisbon or Copenhagen. Our eventual recovery will come too late for those firms that have been forced into insolvency. For many, the “job retention scheme” (as the furlough is formally called) is a cruel name for what is, in fact, a form of deferred redundancy.

If, in a best-case scenario, a vaccine is found this year, our problems will still be just starting. Months of closures will be followed by years of joblessness and decades of debt. And if the vaccine turns out not to be effective, this week’s false hope could simply put off a modified return to work.

I don’t like playing Cassandra. As long-standing readers will know, I am generally an exuberant optimist in the Steven Pinker/Matt Ridley/Johan Norberg mould. But we need to understand that the decisions we have taken over the past 16 weeks will have consequences for many years.

I’m not sure everyone has yet made the connection. I hope I’m wrong, but I can imagine Piers Morgan and other commentators who demanded the longest and strictest lockdown pivoting to complain about high unemployment. Sadly, we are about to find out.

Neil O’Brien: The New Puritans want to tear down our liberal settlement. Here’s who they are, what they think – and why they must be resisted.

29 Jun

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Consider recent news.

JK Rowling criticised the expression “people who menstruate,” leading to accusations of “transphobia”, numerous authors quitting her literary agency, and staff at her publisher refusing to work on her new book.

Various controversies have followed the Black Lives Matter protests. Liverpool University will rename a building named after Gladstone.  UKTV deleted an episode of Fawlty Towers making fun of a racist character. The RFU is reviewing the singing of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”.

These stories illuminate a new division in our politics. It’s not left vs. right, but is uniting conservatives and liberals against something new, which we need to give a name to.

“Woke” is the most common term, and laughing at its excesses is part of the cure. But we also need to take it seriously. Paul Staines calls it “Neo-puritanism”, which captures the absolutist, quasi-religious nature of it – the urge to “police” others behaviour.

Like puritanism, it’s strongest in America, but powerful here.

So what is Neo-puritanism?

First, Neo-puritans want to change the balance between free speech and censoring offensive speech.

The embodiment of liberalism is the slogan: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Neo-puritans feel a duty to “call people out”, often pressing for people to be sacked or shunned.

Don’t debate JK Rowling – “cancel” her. They see debate not as a chance to test and exchange ideas, but as unwelcome, wearying, maybe impossible.

Neo-puritanism has tightened the boundaries of free speech. Like Amber Rudd being “no platformed” by Oxford students. The NUS trying to block Peter Tatchell from speaking. A school dropping plans to name a house after JK Rowling. A DJ sacked (now reinstated) for denying he has “white privilege.” An Oxford professor given security guards after threats from transgender activists. Sheffield University paying students to police “micro-aggressions”. Hundreds of Guardian employees attacking Suzanne Moore’s “transphobia” for writing: “Female is a biological classification.”

Second, Neo-puritans believe in “hard” quotas and targets.

Conservatives and liberals often support increasing numbers of women or ethnic minorities in certain roles. They favour outreach programmes, mentoring, open days, etc.

Neo-puritans want quotas and sex/racially defined scholarships which other groups can’t enter. For example, Reni Eddo-Lodge argues that “when there are no hard targets for programmes of positive discrimination, they will always run the risk of looking like they’re doing something without achieving much at all.”

Examples include Cambridge University’s scholarship scheme (worth £18,000 a year) solely for black British students and Oxford’s  Arlan Hamilton scholarships for Black undergraduates. UCL has scholarships for BME postgraduate students. The Bank of England has scholarships for African Caribbean students.

Third, Neo-puritans (i) think people are defined by their group, (ii) say people have “false consciousness” about our society and (iii) attack the liberal idea that people can be neutral.

A wave of bestselling books by Neo-puritan authors ramp up the importance of group differences Whether we’re talking about “White supremacy”, “White privilege”, or “White Fragility”, it’s not that some people are racist, but society.

For Neo-puritans, not only are people defined by their race, but race is defined by behaviour in an almost mystical way. The founder of “decolonise the curriculum,” Pran Patel, said: “Priti Patel is the perfect example of whiteness inhabiting a different coloured vessel”.

Dr Priyamvada Gopal, a Cambridge academic, tweeted: “White lives don’t matter. As white lives” and “Abolish whiteness.” This isn’t just divisive and unhelpful. The concept of “whiteness” – that there are certain ways of behaving that are “white” – is intrinsically racist.

This explains why Neo-puritans think it’s OK to attack Conservative MPs from ethnic minorities as “coconuts” or “bounty bars” Robin DiAngelo argues there is deep false consciousness in our society: “Our racial socializatition sets us up to repeat racist behaviour regardless of our intentions.”

Neo-puritans see the “colour-blind” ideals of liberals as part of this false consciousness.

Reni Eddo-Lodge argues: “Colour-blindness is used to silence talk about structural racism while we continue to fool ourselves with the lie of meritocracy.”

A headteacher in Sheffield agrees, writing to parents: “Our society is built upon white supremacy… the world’s systems and structures are built on this bias, and this therefore creates White Privilege.”

Finally, Neo-puritans have a particular take on history, with the emphasis on criticism.

The self-styled “leader” of the BLM protests says Churchill’s statue is offensive and should be taken down.  A university lecturer argues: “Churchill must fall”, because he was an “imperialist racist,” “hated” by the working class. Maya Goodfellow argues: “The way Churchill is remembered in the UK has always been tied up with ideas of white superiority.”

Nor is it just Churchill.

Take the student union leader who vowed to paint over a First World War memorial: “Mark my words – we’re taking down the mural of white men in the uni Senate room, even if I have to paint over it myself.”

Or the Oxford lecturer who hopes Oxford researchers don’t invent a coronavirus vaccine first because: “it will be used as it has been in the past, to fulfil its political, patriotic function as proof of British excellence.”

So what’s the problem with Neo-puritanism?

First, I worry hard quotas lead to resentment; undermine those who succeed (am I only here because of my race or gender?); and lead to unfair, arbitrary decisions: can a scholarship for black students be awarded to a mixed-race person?

Second, there’s an abuse of language here. Apartheid South Africa and the Confederacy were states with an ideology of “White Supremacy”. Britain isn’t.

Third, relentless emphasis on group membership plus tighter boundaries on speech will lead to a society not at ease with itself. Instead of the colour-blind world liberals hope for, we’ll end up in a world walking on eggshells, where more and more we’ll see each other primarily as members of groups.

Fourth, I worry about the counter-productive effects of this conversation. If the “core function” of the police is racism, why should anyone non-white join up?

A 13 year old boy recently pleaded guilty to kicking a police officer on the head as he lay on the ground because of protests he’d seen on TV. Ideas have consequences.

If you claim our society is built on “white supremacy”, this will be heard by some people with fragile mental health. I know of a case of a young person who feels oppressed by all around her, seeing offers of friendship and help from white people as disguised attempts to hurt her.

Compared to a world in which you tell kids – ‘you’re all just the same, you just have different coloured skin’ it makes it more difficult to have natural relationships, and friendships without hangups.

Overemphasis of group differences is disempowering. Katharine Birbalsingh, head of one of the country’s top performing state schools says it: “undermines much of the work we do at school in trying to empower our children to take personal responsibility and grab life by the horns.”

Finally, healthy countries need a balance of self-criticism and self-confidence. Self-loathing is unattractive, but might also have bad practical consequences. People are often called on to do things for the greater good of the nation, from paying tax to fighting for their country.  If Britain is basically shameful, why bother?

Neo-puritans sometimes highlight important problems. But though there is more to do, the big picture is one of progress. Sexism is down, racist attitudes are declining and ethnic minorities are steadily getting better off. Neo-puritanism won’t accelerate that, but instead risk a whole set of new divisions.