Watching the new intake of MPs file into the House of Commons in 1918, Stanley Baldwin is said to have remarked that they were “a lot of hard-faced men who look as if they had done very well out of the war”.
Who were they? During the Great War Britain could not trade with the Central Powers; nor could sprawling imperial supply chains be relied on. The shortages, and the need to fill them, had created a new class of seamy and unscrupulous businessmen – mostly drawn from the lower ranks of pre-war industry.
Stanley Baldwin was dismayed at this. But he wasn’t surprised. It wasn’t hard to imagine that total war might lead to a coarsening of national life. The willed collapse of international trade, the controls on commerce, the controls on information – these were hothouse conditions for the spiv and the sneak. It had even produced a political analogue: David Lloyd George, who sold slap-up honours at marked up prices. National emergency; national oligarchy. The two were more or less inextricable. Baldwin could grasp that this was the unavoidable side-effect of a war that he had supported.
This is an insight too far for the Britain of 2023. One feature of a politically immature society is that it blames national problems on the ill will or incompetence of individuals, rather than the systems they inhabit. Remove these individuals, they think, and the system will work. So it is with Britain’s Covid Inquiry which turns on the doings and undoings of a handful of people. Who knew what and when? Who was acting under what advice? Who approved certain contracts – and why?
Fundamentally, these are people who refuse to accept the inevitable side-effects of their own project. Faced with the terrible consequences of the policy of lockdown, they cast about for individuals to blame, for “wreckers”.