There is a very powerful argument that when we as a Nation face a challenge like Covid-19, we must pull together as one. That is pretty much what happened under the Government of National Unity during the War. We have a common enemy - this dreadful disease which has claimed so many lives - and we must unite in defeating it; and to a pretty good degree that is exactly what we have been doing. Most of us are obeying the Social Distancing rules; most of us accept that everything the Government has done, and will now do (watch out for the PM’s Broadcast to the Nation on Sunday) is done for the best possible reasons - to save lives, look after our NHS and preserve as best we can the economy and businesses. That is the delicate tightrope which the Government, and especially the Prime Minster, are walking gingerly along; and most people would accept that they have done a reasonable job of it. We must all hang together or we’ll all hang separately.
Against that background, I am disturbed by a few emails and letters I have received, and the comments of a few observers in the media, which seem to me to be seeking party political advantage from this crisis. The SNP, for example, come close to confusing their foolish determination to secure independence for Scotland with what is actually best for their people. Other political parties here in North Wiltshire have risked being a tad party political in their comments and questions, (which, in actual fact, Keir Starmer has largely avoided in PMQs so far.) Some people have used the crisis to advance their business interests, or very often their long held ideas or prejudices. Some, for example, have allowed racist xenophobia to show through in their comments to me. Others are increasing subscribers to a variety of conspiracy theories – especially aimed at the Chinese Government. There has been an outbreak of arson attacks, for example, (not here but elsewhere in England) against mobile telephone masts, in the mistaken belief that they may have Huawei technology in them and that somehow or another destroying the masts may protect us all from the Covid Virus. Some people really are very odd.
Despite all of that, there is of course a real and important place for scrutiny of the Government. Of course it is right that MPs and the media and people alike should question the difficult decisions which the Government are having to make. That happened, in fact, throughout the Second World War. Questioning and Parliamentary debates about a whole raft of actions and decisions were robustly argued out on the floor of the House of Commons. That is perfectly healthy. And it is why I feel very uneasy about the continuing absence of proper political debate and scrutiny in Parliament. I salute the efforts of the authorities to put some kind of virtual Parliament in place. But the harsh reality is that it does not really hold Ministers to account. It’s a sort of TV quiz show, which pretty much lets them off the hook. So I look forward to the time (which may well not be until after the Summer ) when Parliament once again sits as a whole House and does its job - of giving government ministers a hard time and holding their feet properly to the fire.
We want Unity in the face of the enemy; but that must not prevent proper scrutiny.