24 April 2020

Heard it at a ThinkIn

‘Women became as important as bins’

Jon Ronson, Jess Phillips, Tony Blair, Ruth Davidson. It’s been a busy week of ThinkIns at Tortoise. Here’s what we learnt

By Tom Goulding

Some of the biggest names in UK politics – and one of the biggest names in global journalism – joined us this week. Here’s a summary of what they said.


Staying centred as the world burns

Despite the terrible global sweep of the pandemic, we are all living lives more local, more confined under lockdown. To talk about how this affects our personalities, our sense of self, we invited Jon Ronson, the decorated journalist and documentary film-maker, to a ThinkIn on Monday.

It’s a crisis in which anxiety has become nationalised. But, as an anxious person, Ronson has spent his life catastrophising. “I asked online, has anyone with an anxiety disorder found themselves handling this very well?” he said. Anxious people can spend their lives pre-planning catastrophic eventualities. “I got 1,000 replies saying yes.”

Emily LeQuesne added from the audience that her recent anxiety over getting old and missing out on adventures in normal times has now evaporated, because at home she’s not missing out on anything. And could the rest of the public’s heightened sense of dread and cabin fever have an beneficial side effect of greater empathy? Ronson added:

“Maybe people will understand introversion and anxiety more after the lockdown.”

For many, the lockdown means realising that they do not need to choose the rat race of a commuting, high-stress life, if you wish. Tortoise member Miranda Berry thought she could never sit still. She described a list of wholesome activities she now does at home under lockdown that any digital native might find truly chilling: watching the birds, sitting, thinking. “Just being really.”

“I’m asking myself what do I want to keep from this experience?” she said. “What of my old life do I want to let go, and what do I want to bring along?”

Tortoise Member Ed Gillespie has worked in sustainability for twenty years and hopes that, post-pandemic, “an incredible moment of pause and radical reset” could come. We will hopefully realise we don’t need excess stuff but simply “voluntary simplicity”.

“We’re about to be gaslit in a way we’ve never been before, by people telling us ‘buying all this stuff will make you feel great again, people!’” said Ed. Indeed, Ronson reminded us that the aftermath of the black death saw a more egalitarian society, as serfs moved into landowners’ homes.


Jess Phillips on the dangers of domestic lockdown

On Tuesday, we sat down with Jess Phillips, whose no-nonsense style of politics has earned her a place in Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet.

Her new role as shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding comes after years of persistent campaigning. A major win came last year when pressure on the Conservatives government saw them make the provision of refuges for women a statutory duty for local authorities. This means councils have to provide them by law, a power reserved previously only for their duties to provide children’s services, adult care services, and bin services.

“So women became as important as bins,” said Phillips. “That felt good.”

But now, in the pandemic, the fact that staying at home isn’t safe for lots of people has often been overlooked in the public health conversation. “Taking a chance with the virus outside the home is better for some people than risking a murder at home,” she said. “And there has been a spike in domestic murders [since the lockdown],” she said.

“We should talk about the dangers of domestic violence like we rightly talk about the lack of PPE.”

Phillips has led a team fighting for dedicated funding and targeted messaging – for victims of domestic violence – within the public health response to Covid-19. “The government hasn’t picked up our strategy,” said Jess. “They said they’d do a campaign, but I haven’t seen anything of this yet. You certainly can’t see it on the streets where I live.”

Recommendations for how people can help were to donate to your local women’s refuge, or write to your MP about how important funding these services is, Phillips said.

Wanted: a care revolution

Audience member Albie Cohen asked Phillips a question based on his experience volunteering in A&E and seeing older people being abandoned by their carers. How do we make sure older people are not left behind both during and after this pandemic?

A few months ago, the immigration debate centred around the government’s suggestion that people earning below £30,000 per year were “unskilled”. “This essentially meant no-one in my constituency had any skills, [which] was a charming way for the government to talk about them,” said Phillips.

Now, mid-pandemic, who is defined as a key worker has suddenly come sharply into view. “People have woken up to the fact that older people need looking after, and that carers do a huge amount of difficult, skilled work, they’re not just making cups of tea for people.”

The new-look Labour Party will now be galvanised around care work, she said.

How Phillips’ mum inspired her with an Erin Brockovich-style lawsuit

Phillips’ inspiration for her political career comes not only from sibling rivalry with three older brothers, but from her mother. Jess’ Mum sued the drug company ICI in 1976 for faulty drug treatment that her mother (Phillips’ grandmother) took for angina and heart problems. One problem: her grandmother didn’t have these conditions, “because they didn’t properly test things for women”. The drugs had the strange side-effect of drying Phillips’ grandmother’s tears. “It was the most poetic story, my Nan lost her tears by not having a broken heart.”

“If you grow up thinking you should fight back, this isn’t something genetic, it’s learned behaviour.”

Phillips’ Mum, with two children at the time, age 26 and living in a terraced house in the Black Country, won an £8 million settlement and gave the money to all women she knew who had taken the drug. BBC Panorama made a program about her, for which she got her hair done in a classic Seventies style: a perm. “My Mum was like Erin Brockovich, but with a bad perm and dungarees!” Phillips said.


Two global tensions to define post-COVID politics

On Wednesday night, Tony Blair joined us for a ThinkIn on crisis leadership. He cited two fights that could come to define the years after coronavirus: nationalism versus globalisation, and social justice versus economic urgency.

Responding with a “narrow nationalism” would be tragic, Blair argued; “better forms of global cooperation are more important than ever,” whether for sharing medical data, sharing technological innovation, or economic measures.

On the second tension, Blair returned to a familiar label. “At the risk of holding myself up to parody, which is never a good look for a politician, I’m still a Third Way-er,” he said. “You want to look at how you create a different sense of what capitalism means, corporate responsibility, how we do much more for those who are left behind by market forces. But do it in a way that doesn’t impede economic growth, but actually helps it.”

The state must be innovative and empowering, not a clunky behemoth that sits on everyone, he argued.

Blair’s constructive criticism for the UK government

Blair’s ten years as prime minister encompassed a number of crises – including 9/11 and foot and mouth disease – and inform his advice for today’s decision-makers. “You have to organise the government completely differently in a crisis,” he said, and “set aside the normal bureaucracy”.

“Most people I speak to in government admit they have been behind the curve somewhat so far; they’ve got to get ahead of the curve for the revival,” he said. Each component of the fightback, whether it’s testing, contact tracing or the community volunteer force, requires a mini government department, led by a dedicated minister who focuses solely on that challenge.

“Take your ten best ministers, or people who have been in government before, and put them in charge of every aspect.”

Jeremy Hunt was one example he cited. “He’s not my politics, but he was health secretary for six years. So probably he’s got quite a lot of knowledge and expertise,” said Blair.

This is not easy with an interim prime minister in Dominic Raab, while Boris Johnson recovers. “He may be worried about throwing his weight around,” said Blair, “but you have got to have someone to take these decisions of reorganising government.”

This extends to cross-party cooperation, too. “I’d want to involve the opposition if I was in power as much as possible,” he said. “This is not an ideological matter, you either deal with it well or deal with it badly.”

But not all the expertise needed will be found in government. Testing, for example, is about logistics and procurement, and CEOs or other private sector experts can help with this. The exceptional times we are in mean no-one in the country, Blair said, is going to say no if they get the call from government to help.

US vs China, and Africa’s COVID battle

That the US-China relationship would be “the defining geopolitical tension for this century” was crystal clear, Blair argued. The G20 summit in Riyadh in 2020 was a crucial platform for this to be channelled towards cooperation, not confrontation. Not only is the summit important for Trump and Xi, but for Africa too, where the beginnings of a pandemic presents an altogether different threat than it has elsewhere.

“If African economies freeze, food supply chains will stop,” he said. “They will lose more people to hunger than to Covid-19 if economies lock down.” Blair’s organisation, The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, works with 17 African countries, and the issue of debt is at the forefront of their mind. Around $40 billion will come out of Africa this year to service their debt alone.

Debt relief, orchestrated through the G20, will be “the single biggest help” the West can give to the continent as it battles Covid-19, he argued.


What does a global pandemic response look like?

Can the UK lead a global pandemic alliance, when we’re struggling to tread water in our domestic response?

That was the question we dissected on Thursday night with Ruth Davidson, who led the Scottish Conservative party for eight years, and James Cowan, former British army officer and CEO of the HALO Trust, which works in mine removal in conflict zones.

The resounding answer from both of them was that the UK can and must lead the global response, echoing Tony Blair’s call for cooperation the night before. “Covid-19 didn’t come from the UK and won’t be finished in the UK,” said Ruth, who’s been looking at the figures for British government financial contribution to the international fight.

Of the £744 million donated through international institutions, £22 million goes to non-governmental organisations, which is less than 3 per cent of the total. These charities are often the only access point for the Global North into countries like Yemen, Libya or Cambodia, where Western state representatives won’t be welcome in some areas.

James Cowan illuminated how his organisation can pivot from their usual role of mine removal to pandemic response in these hard-to-reach communities. In Sirt, one of the last Al Qaeda strongholds in Libya, “we [the HALO Trust] collect data, conduct on the ground surveys, and find mines by talking to communities directly,” said James. This is crucial infrastructure for enabling social distancing and managing a lockdown. The apps they use can be repurposed for contact tracing.

“The military asking for help from NGOs has always been a heresy. But that age is finally coming to an end.”

Or, in Cambodia, HALO’s system of mine removal is partially executed through educating people living without internet access. These education systems can also pivot; HALO have put up posters about the pandemic, about social distancing and about hygiene precautions.

But such NGOs need funding and empowerment from governments like the UK’s.

The small NGO vs the behemoth

Most government funding goes to large-scale institutions such as the UN, Nato and the IMF. How powerful can these convening institutions be in fighting a pandemic? Audience member Sir Richard Shirreff, former deputy supreme allied commander of Europe, argued that Nato has a command structure that can unite nations to a common cause, and must not be overlooked.


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