Late last year, the New York Times christened the United Kingdom “plague island.” In recent months, that epithet has lost some of its edge. The country’s COVID-19 vaccination program has been hugely effective. Just over 28 million Brits—almost half the country’s population—have been fully dosed against the virus; death and hospitalization rates have plummeted. Prime Minister Boris Johnson promises spring and summer will be “seasons of hope,” with social distancing rules relaxed and economic restrictions lifted. 

But in a devastating, blow-by-blow account, investigative reporters Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott argue that nothing the Tory leader says about COVID-19 can or should be taken at face value. Despite the striking turnaround exhibited by the vaccine rollout, Calvert and Arbuthnott contend in their recent book, Failures of State, that policies implemented throughout the pandemic failed to prevent Britain’s grim absolute mortality figures (the highest in Europe, in absolute numbers) and the severity of its recession (the deepest in the G7). 

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It’s amazing how quickly history repeats itself in the realm of economics. In the immediate aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, in both London and Washington, there was a clear political consensus in favour of stimulus policies aimed at rescuing the global economy from collapse. But that consensus disintegrated quickly. 

After a period of sustained stimulus spending under Gordon Brown, Britain embraced austerity in 2010, with the election of the Cameron / Clegg coalition government. The US followed suit three years later, in 2013, when Barack Obama – whose initial fiscal response to the Great Recession was already weak – signed off on $1.2 trillion worth of cuts as part of a bipartisan budget deal with the Republicans. 

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A week before he was replaced by Keir Starmer as leader of the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn gave an interview to the BBC. The coronavirus pandemic has discredited a decade of Conservative Party-imposed austerity, Corbyn claimed, and vindicated the case for the kind of expansive public spending he had called for during the 2019 U.K. general election. In an article for the Guardian published on May 2, less than a month after suspending his campaign for the presidency, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, writing with U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, echoed Corbyn’s sentiments.

Corbyn’s crushing defeat at the hands of Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the general election on Dec. 12, and Sanders’ subsequent inability to consolidate control of the U.S. Democratic Party primary race, might have marked the end of the democratic socialist movements that have emerged in Britain and the United States over the past five years. Instead, as the coronavirus crisis has deepened, forcing more and more people out of work and onto the benefits system, leftists on both sides of the Atlantic see radical political space opening up in front of them.

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Six weeks ago, Boris Johnson dismissed the idea of using spending cuts to pay off Britain’s rapidly-inflating coronavirus debts. “I’ve never particularly liked the term that you just used to describe government economic policy and it will certainly not be part of our approach,” the prime minister told a reporter during a Downing Street press conference on 30 April. “Austerity, by the way, was the term you just used.”

At first glance, the explosion of state expenditure triggered by COVID-19 seems to have been embraced by the Conservative Party. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, the UK’s deficit will hit 15 per cent of GDP by the end of 2020 and public debt will top 115 per cent by the middle of 2021. These are staggering figures — at the height of the 2008 financial crisis, Britain’s deficit didn’t exceed 11 per cent of GDP.

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Nicola Sturgeon is having a good crisis — on paper, at least.

According to an Ipsos MORI poll published on May 26, 82 percent of Scots think the Scottish National Party (SNP) leader — who heads up Scotland’s semi-autonomous government in Edinburgh — is handling the coronavirus outbreak well and a further 78 percent believe her administration at Holyrood has made the right decisions over the course of the pandemic.

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