This week I’ve been trying to make sense of the supposed Tory party backbench revolt on the new three-tier system introduced in England after lockdown two. Reports tell us that 55 Tory MPs voted against the government and a further 16 either failed to vote or abstain. The legislation still passed, but only amidst much chattering of the political classes that this represented a substantial challenge to the government’s 80 seat majority.
I watched all of this unfold, acutely aware that we are squabbling about the evidence required to legitimise different levels of restraint for a healthy majority of the population. These are the differing levels of social and economic restriction in light of the 75,000 COVID linked deaths in the UK since mid-March 2020 (this figure is taken from Chris Giles in the Financial Times). These are 75,000 deaths which the government could have significantly reduced, had they taken other public health and economic decisions. I do not want to get into the why’s, and the wherefore’s here. Instead, I want to think through how we’ve got to the point where we can ignore these deaths – for them to not even to figure as ‘evidence’ in debates about how to limit future casualties.
Various MP’s went on the record stating that they needed more evidence about the efficacy of the proposed tiered measures. One Conservative MP said they “might” support the government in last week’s vote on the tiered measures if “more evidence” was laid out. I suppose my question is what more evidence than 75,000 excess deaths do you need?
The insistence on the need for more evidence, in the face of this stark number, functions to background these deaths. It removes them from the debate and erases those people who have died by prioritising the needs the living. My point here would be that this is a false binary – we cannot reduce excess mortality if we do not learn from the numbers who have died. If we avoid considering these 75,000 people and what that could tell us about what might and might notwork, then where does this leave us? By ignoring the 75,000 dead people, we miss an opportunity for formulating and implementing evidence-based policy – policies that might even mean fewer dead people in the long run. Instead we seem to drift ever more towards policy-based evidence, whereby policymakers use available evidence selectively in a way that supports an a priori ideological position.
Another thing that struck me about the supposed revolt was the pantomime nature of it all, (very much in keeping with the time of year). I couldn’t shake the feeling that the supposed rebels were going through the motions, being seen to be demanding assurances of government when, in actuality, there was never any danger that the government would lose the vote. The rebellion is perhaps more accurately characterised as an act of appeasement for recalcitrant constituents, a luxury afforded Tory MP’s because of the 80 seat majority they enjoy. Within this space it becomes possible to perform a process of rebellion, without having to go through with the actual act of rebellion. This characterisation says something quite pessimistic about the state of parliamentary politics in the UK and the inability of the population at large to hold the political class to account.
Where does this leave us? For me, it leaves me wondering how are we at the point that we can ignore all of these deaths. Is it simply too big and horrific for us to take in? What can the sociology of death and dying tell us about this willful turning away from the evidence? It appears to confirm a process of the active sequestration of the dead, whereby the social organisation and experience of death is seen very much as a private practice, very much separated from the workings of mainstream society. This practice of sequestration does not help when we need to face up to the social, political and economic processes that are contributing to these numbers, now is not the time for us to sequester that dead.
The thinking about the sequestration of death takes the lead from Peter Berger, who argued that death is an essential feature of the human condition that requires people to develop means of coping with it. He continues that to then neglect talking or thinking about death is to ignore one of the few universal parameters in which social and individual life are constructed. Is this where we are?
If so, then how can we apply Berger’s argument to understand the actions of the Tory rebels? To neglect to discuss the 75,000 dead people as evidence about the efficacy of the tiered measures is to ignore one of the universals of social life – death. In ignoring this, it makes us wonder which things are not forgotten – perhaps here we see the ways in which priority has been put on economic concerns over all others. But it is hard to publicly declare support for the right to profit over the right to life. This is perhaps the utility of questioning (or ignoring) the evidence. Whichever way it is, it appears we are left operating the response against a global pandemic amidst the tiers of a clown.