Following the release of an audio recording from an online seminar held by Gibson and Dunn last June, one of its partners have found itself in a spot of a PR disaster. The pandemic for lawyers, the partner in question declares, is “the gift that keeps on giving”. But who on earth, you may ask, could make a remark so ignorant in light of 100,000-and-counting deaths? None other than Lord Falconer, the shadow attorney general. Oops! Cue a grovelling statement of “I very much regret my choice of words”.
Whilst he may, and should, regret the “choice” of words, note that he didn’t appear to regret the meaning of them. You see, the issue is that, as heavy-handed as his phrasing was, and whether we like it or not, Lord Falconer was telling the truth. For lawyers, politicians, and businessmen alike the pandemic is a gift of gargantuan proportions. It has generated an unprecedented number of billable hours, advanced agendas and lined pockets.
And it’s an open secret. After all, Lord Falconer isn’t the only politician to make the faux-pas of promoting the pandemic’s upsides – shadow education secretary Kate Green also ventriloquised Churchill in speaking on under-resourced schools, with a call to arms of “don’t let a good crisis go to waste”. Rest assured, the government haven’t.
Addressing the House of Lords on 4th November, Lord Bethell, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Health and Social Care, detailed that the government had persistently “relied on a very large network of contacts and formal and informal arrangements.”. Indeed, a reported £1.5 billion worth of NHS contracts has been allocated to companies with links to the Conservative Party. Some say cronyism, others a nice little thank you to loyal donors – you decide.
Multi-national corporations with a history of minimal tax contributions have similarly revelled in their luck over the past year. Amazon, for example, saw a 35% rise in its 2019 pre-tax profits yet paid a mere 3% more tax. With those profits, Jeff Bezos could pay each of his nearly 900,000 Amazon employees a $100,000 bonus without making a dent in his pre-pandemic wealth. That would be nice of him.
But ‘niceness’ doesn’t come into any of it given the ethical implications of companies’ profits deriving from a context in which customers are forced to fund them by circumstance rather than by choice. Not forgetting that, in the worst recession for 300 years, the value of money itself now alters to an ever more extreme degree at the hands of its beholder.
Between January and November 2020, the number of unemployment-related benefits claimants increased by over double to 2.7 million. 9.9 million people were placed on furlough between the start of the scheme and the 13th of December, with most of them living on reduced wages whilst facing increased living costs. As Boris Johnson so eloquently stated in 2013, “the income gap between the top cornflakes and the bottom cornflakes is getting wider than ever”.
Such disparate experiences of the everyman and the elite are tremendously concerning. We are watching ourselves slip further into a societal format whereby the public are placated by press releases, patronised by politicians who will apologise for acknowledging that problems exist, but not for their failure to solve them.
The pandemic is the elite’s playground, a perfect storm that is enabling structural inequality and corruption to fester and thrive. Forgive me for asking, but at what point will this change?