Richard North, 05/01/2021  

It would seem that many of the quotes of great men, locked in my mental repository, weren't actually said (or written) by them. Such is the fate, apparently, of the quote "Give me lucky generals", often attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte.

According to this site, though, there is no evidence to suggest he ever said the words. If he did, then as an avid amateur historian he probably based them on something said by Cardinal Mazarin, chief minister of France in the 17th century. He noted that one must not ask of a general: "Est-il habile?" (Is he skilful?), but rather "Est-il heureux?" (Is he lucky?).

Well, whatever the origin of the sentiment, it could be said in a recognisable Napoleonic sense, that prime minister Johnson is a lucky general. Given his botched attempt at a post-Brexit trade agreement with the EU, about now is the time what the legacy media would be trotting out tales of woe, to illustrate quite what a mess he had made.

For sure, there is the VAT story doing the rounds, a few low-key stories about the problems Scottish traders in fisheries products have in exporting their wares to EU Member States, some shortages in Northern Ireland supermarkets and one report about share trading. But largely, the legacy media has been stripped bare of Brexit-related stories.

Instead, as one might expect, it has been swamped with news of Johnson's latest U-turn on Covid-19, and his imposition of "lockdown three", to take effect formally on Wednesday - the announcement timed yesterday so as to get maximum exposure on today's front pages.

However, the term "lucky" may be relative. Confidence in government handling of the epidemic has plummeted from a hight of 72 percent in late March to a dismal 36 percent recorded just before Christmas. And there is no reason to believe that the mood has improved.

Oddly enough, from The Sun, we're seeing the same rhetoric that we were seeing in the latter stages of the TransEnd negotiations, with its front page bearing the legend "One last push", as we are told that Johnson has "shut Britain again".

For a more downbeat view, the Mirror offers us the view that, "After the shameful bungling, indecision and weakness of our government, it's time for the strength, self-sacrifice and kindness of the people. Once again, it's down to us…". The Star is even less complimentary.

Much, of course, rests on the success or otherwise of the forthcoming vaccination programme, only there are probably many who are not entirely confident in the government's ability to deliver. A botched programme would have the lockdown extending from the planned mid-February to an indeterminate period, which may have interesting repercussions.

For the moment, the big losers are the MPs. After their exertions over the TCA "approval", they had been awarded an extra week off as a reward, only now they are to be recalled on Wednesday to offer a view on Johnson's Covid legislation. They are not required to approve it, but getting the dears back at least gives a patina of democracy, even if it is all for show.

To the surprise of no-one, John Crace in the Guardian is not impressed, but at least he's marginally more entertaining than Johnson.

"It's now becoming easier and easier to predict government policy", he writes. "Just listen to what the prime minister said in the morning and the opposite is likely to be true come the middle of the afternoon. It's almost like clockwork – the government does what most reasonable people would have done several weeks earlier".

There is, however, the other view, from the so-called "Covid deniers". They are now convinced that Johnson is in the grip of "big pharm" (aka the Devil), and evil, grasping scientists (probably true), and is conspiring to impose a totalitarian state upon us. This will probably have us all locked away in little pods of the type pioneered in the film Matrix. Thinking about it, that might be the only way we get to lift the lockdown.

Certainly, Crace is not entirely convinced we're going to see the end of lockdown in February. In fact, he writes, "not even The Great Dick Faker, the master of self-deception, sounded convinced by this". As usual, though, "he didn’t have the balls to level with the country and tell us what we all deep down know. That it's going to take at least three months before there’s even a hint of a return to normality. And that's if we're lucky".

Yet, for Johnson, to have the excuse to prolong the lockdown would be a lucky break. Keeping the bulk of the population indoors would supress economic activity, obscuring the effects of the downturn driven by his botched attempts at Brexit, and it will keep some of the traffic off the road, possibly reducing the size of any lorry queues.

Most of all, though, it will keep the media firmly focused on Covid, and away from the vexed subject of Brexit-related issues, as well as providing an alibi for the economic bad news which does emerge.

Should the government be so inclined, the lockdown will provide cover to support failing businesses, without having to identify the cause of the damage, and disguise the cause of increasing unemployment, attributing most if not all to the epidemic.

From my personal point of view, though – assuming that Covid is a problem that is eventually going to be resolved – the greater long-term political damage is that the focus on the epidemic is leaving the Brexit debate unresolved.

As yesterday's post illustrated, there are still major areas of dispute between rival camps, and no shortage of "muddled thinking". No sooner are the issues raised and there will always by those running the "peace in Europe" meme up the "ring of stars" flagpole.

Having just put the new edition of The Great Deception to bed, that had me looking at the new text, from which I've extracted this edited passage:
When Monnet devised his theory of controlling the production of coal and steel as a means of preventing war – and before him Loucheur and Mayrisch – in the aftermath of the 1914-18 war, the type of warfare that the world had witnessed was one which relied on massed guns and expenditure of millions of shells, typified by the slaughter at Verdun and on the Somme. Then, the idea of limiting the capability of adversaries to make war on the same scale, made absolute sense.

But, in 1945, the world had changed beyond all recognition. Germany was an occupied country, split between two nuclear superpowers which, in time, would acquire enough weapons of sufficient power to destroy the planet. The idea that controlling the production of coal and steel in France and Germany, and four other countries, would prevent Germany once more from invading France, or vice versa, in a continent on the brink of nuclear Armageddon was and is beyond absurd.

That the French and Germans (particularly) needed a formal reconciliation was indisputable. But then to argue that the creation of a supranational organisation (and only a supranational organisation) to limit the capability to embark on the obsolete form of warfare which so marked Verdun was essential to lay the foundations of peace in Europe is not intellectually sustainable.
Covid or not – and with or without the legacy media – the debate will continue here, although there can be less tolerance with the decades of dogma (from both sides), which have led us to an intellectual impasse. When Johnson's "luck" runs out – which indeed it must – we need to have better answers and more clarity about the issues which have brought us to this point in our history.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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