From the Blitz to COVID-19, Our Rulers Have Got Us Wrong

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Yves here. Funny how people know what is good for their safety and give it top priority when they can, or even when it’s costly in economic terms. Witness the many strikes and protests by front-line workers over deficient Covid-19 protections at their jobs.

By Peter McColl, head of policy for Nesta in Scotland. Originally published at openDemocracy

They didn’t want to let people shelter in the Underground, for fear they’d never return to work. They don’t want to extend the lockdown because they think we want to work.

It’s the VE Day long weekend. There’s been lots of talk about ‘Blitz Spirit’ and the UK government is sending signals that the lockdown might be coming to an end. There’s an interesting lesson from this about the assumptions we make about human behaviour.

During the London Blitz the Anderson Shelters provided by the government (a sheet of corrugated iron to be placed in a garden) and the brick street shelters proved inadequate. I have vivid memories from school of reading accounts of the York Street brick shelter in Belfast which was hit and many of those inside killed.

There was an obvious solution to this in London: the Underground was deep enough to allow people to shelter in the stations. And that is eventually what happened. But only after a major campaign by working class communities to be allowed to use the Underground. The patrician government of the day feared that people, once underground, would never come back up. They would abandon their jobs and live subterranean lives, with Sir John Anderson, after whom the shelters were named, complaining that it would be impossible for people to “maintain the productive capacity in a troglodyte existence deep underground”.

It turned out that the patricians were wrong. The working class wanted to stop fascism enough to keep working, and when the bombers passed, they returned to ground level.

Interestingly this assumption that normal people would prioritise safety over work and spending is exactly the opposite of the assumption about people’s behaviour ahead of the Covid-19 lockdown.

There has been much discussion of the role of ‘behavioural economics’ and nudge theory in delaying the lockdown. I’m not as much a sceptic as many are of nudge theory. It is a tool that can be used for good or ill. But the perceived impact of decisions on behaviour is what interests me.

Every day the Daily Telegraph makes ever more shrill demands that lockdown end and people’s lives be sacrificed. But it has emerged that the assumptions that delayed the lockdown were wrong: most people think their health is their wealth. Polling consistently shows that people want the lockdown to last longer.

In the 1940s the population were thought to prefer safety. In the 2020s the population were thought to prefer work. The patricians of the 1940s were wrong. The behavioural economists of the 2020s are wrong.

And that should make us all think very carefully before we base decisions on what we think people will do in any given circumstance. Right-wing newspapers project an unbreakable confidence that they know what people think. That confidence is often misplaced.

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  1. Geo

    “The working class wanted to stop fascism enough to keep working, and when the bombers passed, they returned”

    Now, they want us to work even though the bombs are still falling. Imagine in WW2 saying “only 15,000 civilians died this week in the bombings so get back out there!” That’s basically what they’re telling workers to do now. And there’s not even an “enemy” to defeat as a motivator. Well, no enemy to defeat other than a system that would sacrifice its citizens to protect the profits of a privileged few they’ve already siphoned trillions of dollars to in recent years.

    1. WheresOurTeddy

      “Die for our profits!” was a lot more appealing to Americans when it was foreigners doing the dying

  2. John A

    Yes, the right wing media are already attacking unions that oppose a return to work until it is safe to do. No doubt, soon, the unions will be accused of ‘holding the country to ransom’ etc., and with more demands to further weaken them in future.

    1. Ignacio

      The President of the Comunidad de Madrid, Mrs. Ayuso represents very much the far right wing of the conservative PP party (very much in line with Aznar) and is constantly pressing for reopening in Madrid. Her argument goes like this: “I defend the freedom of the people”. Her push for “freedom” has pushed the Commissioner for Public Health in the region to resign as she was against the reopening with known epidemiological data. What I think is interesting is that this might result very much counterproductive for Ayuso’s electoral interests and could lead to break her current coalition with Ciudadanos.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        I think its become a very clear division across Europe between what I might call the ‘small business right’ and the rest of the community. So far as I’m aware, in nearly all countries there is strong public support for keeping the lockdowns in place until the disease is cleared, while in every country there is a small, vocal ‘freedom’ movement led by one element of the right. I emphasise ‘one element’, because I think there is a substantial part of the centre right who are well aware of the dangers of opening up too quickly (you might call them ‘the FT reading’ right).

        Here in Ireland the centre right government is leading the lockdown, but its become an open secret that there is a vocal minority within the main government party calling for an early release. The usual right wing newspapers are also slowly starting the same, but they are trying not to be too obviously influenced by the UK right wing papers, as that’s a sure way to lose public sympathy here.

        1. Dianne Shatin

          What are we to do? Is there a coalition of movements to stand our ground health= wealth and send them to a Dickensian time warp where they can jerk themselves off?
          This is where and when to heed Jefferson’s pen as stated in The Declaration of Independence…in the U.S. standing shoulder to shoulder, intertwined with the people of the world in heart and intellect, wisdom and knowledge, once and for all to dispose of the tyrants and their tyranic authoritarianism, engulfing most continenrs of the world todayto start anew.

          Its the only way I can see to transcend the evil choking us all if the COVID19 does not.

        2. mle detroit

          Here in Michigan, and in every other state that I am aware of, there is no reporting on who the individual protesters are IRL. All we see are pictures of guns and cameo clothes, and the right-wing slogans on signs.

          Where do these folks live? What is their source of income? What’s the family they feel responsible for? What’s their experience of government attempts at assistance? Which is to ask “Is ‘the small business right’ an adequate descriptor?” It may well be, but I’d really like to know.

          1. MichaelSF

            pictures of guns and cameo clothes

            The idea of “cameo” clothes seems good, as they get dressed up in their camo for their cameo appearance on the news.

          2. Sue inSoCal

            I too, have those questions. Are these Trump flash mobs that are called up from Craig’s list? If I were in Michigan, or Wisconsin or even CA where these people seemed bussed in, I’d want to know exactly where these people came from and who they are. And then send them back. (I understand you meant camo.)

  3. Brooklin Bridge

    What are the author’s sources for these assertions about our beloved patricians and what they might imagine the unwashed public wants?

    I strongly suspect people were basically the same back then, in WWII as they are now. That is, in the same situation, you would have the same or largely the same response. No one likes to stay down in a hole except as a last resort for the duration of bombing and no one wants to go back to work if the work place is lethally more dangerous than home (where ever that may be). Then or now for both situations. And there are solid rational reasons for both.

    What the patritians think of all this is interesting in how much it diverges from reality (not to mention common sense) and toward their interests, but whether they imagine this is what the rubes actually want or perhaps more likely what they think they can make the rubes think they want are two different things. For instance, I suspect the powers that be didn’t give a hoot about what the average Joe or Jane wanted to avoid a pandemic but were concerned only with what they, the PTB, wanted, and looking for that lever to manipulate what people think they want has been human nature for ever. That they think they can get away with it in life and death situations like the COVID0-19 pandemic is what takes ones breath away. Take the Texan pol who explained before the camera and God that the geezers of this country wanted nothing more than to sacrifice themselves (allez oop, pull that trigger all together now, you old human waste) so the great American economy could flourish to make this country great again (or something to that effect). Assumptions about what the rubes actually wanted, such as being out of harms way from a deadly virus, were the last thing on that idiot’s mind.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I suggest you try using the Web before dismissing the author’s claims based on personal prejudice. I found support in a mere minute, here in a 2015 article:

      The government was initially wary of using the stations as shelters, concerned that the thousands congregating underground below the ferocious bombing would refuse to return to the surface and take up the work necessary to keep the country running. As more and more people lost their homes, the government relented and allowed people to shelter in the stations, even outfitting some with bunk beds.

      And a politer version on page 25 of this book, which you can find in Google Books. I’d copy and paste but Google Books is images. The key point is the government not only opposed use of subways but actually locked them in the evening, believing their use would create “passivity and defeatism’.

      The Postwar Moment: Progressive Forces in Britain, France, and the United States

      And I have not seen polls in the UK, but the ones in the US show overwhelming support for continuing the lockdowns. Lowest % I saw was in the low 60s, and that with biased wording. Others are 70s to even 90s.

      1. Synoia

        Interesting. That specific action was not presented in the history I recall. White washing by Whitehall? No never /s.

        That’s similar to WW 1 Pilots not having parachutes, because the PTB believed they’d bail out too soon.

      2. xkeyscored

        In a ‘snap poll’, whatever that means (I suspect it means not very rigorous, randomised, corrected for whatever, etc) of 6,564 GB adults, YouGov found on 10 May:

        “The government have made some modifications to the coronavirus lockdown rules, saying that people who can’t work from home are now encouraged to go into work, and that people can now take unlimited exercise outside their homes.
        Do you support or oppose these changes?”
        Support 44%
        Oppose 43%

        “The changes go too far in relaxing the rules” 46%
        “The changes don’t go far enough in relaxing the rules” 10%
        “The balance is about right” 35%

      3. Brooklin Bridge

        I was not trying to say the author was wrong on either count. I was questioning the lack of sources just as I also feel its fair to question the sources of the article you link to re. WWII. None are listed.

        It’s not so hard to figure out what the government wants. Nor is it all that difficult to find out what the public wants. But figuring out what the government or big business, etc. thinks the public wants, or believes, strikes me as considerably more difficult to fathom, and I would have found sources for such assertions more plausible and reasonable to ask for. As to my “assumptions,” I prefaced them with a conditional, “I strongly suspect” to indicate just that – without sources – they were indeed assumptions.

        Just on the face of it, it does seem somewhat plausible that the English government during WWII believed that people would refuse to come back up from the safety of the underground, though it still seems fair to question. But the second assertion, believing people want to get back to very dangerous life threatening work conditions, strikes me as harder to believe. And I don’t question the polls that re. COVID-19 the public itself wants to remain out of harms way (continue the lock downs). Rather, I question whether or not the powers that be are really convinced that people want to return to work or whether instead they simply want people to return to work utterly regardless of what the people themselves actually want. I seriously doubt any politicians truly believe people want to go back to such dangerous working conditions but my larger point is that even if that is what the politicians believe, it is very difficult to determine that as fact and would thus merit a source.

        Possibly my distinction seems pointless, but to me it is the difference between propaganda (what the gov. wants us to want) and delusion (non rational beliefs) and is important. The former is today easy to see everywhere. The latter, I think, is more subtle and therefore needs support.

        1. Brooklin Bridge

          I read the part of The Postware Moment by Isser Woloch, that you suggested and since, as you pointed out, it couldn’t be cut and pasted, I typed it into an editor. Here it is, what I think is the relevant section (I couldn’t see page numbers), or what my bumbling fingers have managed to make of it. Indeed very authoritative and with plenty of sources (though I was not able to read those due to the constraints of Google’s Preview policy (quite generous, really) :

          Government policy in 1939 had emphasized surface shelters or basements in public buildings where people could take cover for short periods when the sirens went off. For nighttime air raids, the government advised sheltering at home and promoted a simple bakyard shelter consitisting of a shallow excavation topped by corrugated metal. Known as “Anderson shelters,” their downside included susceptibility to water seepage. Initially the government opposed “deep sheltering” in underground facilities, which would (in this view ) engerder pasivity and defeatism in the population. Accordingly, Anderson placed underground tube tunnels and stations off limits for civil defense and ordered the stations locked after hours. But when certain London neighborhoods came under bobmbardment, citizens ignored this prohibition, In numbers soon approaching 200,000 they either decended to the sations during the day and refused to leave or forced their way in en masse as evening came. Once underground they were left on their own in overcrowded spaces lacking provision for sleeping and sanitary facilities. Being shut out of the subways may have seemed insupportable, but sheltering in such disorderly and unhealthy conditions was itself demoralizing. Morrison reversed government policy on deep sheltering. He convinced the cabinet to begin construction of reinforced underground shelters in London and elsewhere, permitted sheltering in the subay system, and brought the government into its management . By Christmass 200,000 bunks had been provided along with sanitary facilities, canteen services, and official supervision of access by ticketing. Since an estimated 84 percent of Londoners still remained in or near their homes sduring air raids, however, Morrison also sought an alternative to the outdoor “Anderson shelters.” His staff soon devised a table like constyruction with a steel top and wire mesh sides that could accommodate a family of four and double as a dining table. These indoor “morrison shelters,” inexpensive and easy to fabricate were useless against a direct hit and provided no respite from then frightful noise of the bombing raids but they deflected falling debris and offered a new option to famlies sheltering at home.
          To head his shelter policy committee, Morrison appointed one of his parliamentary secretaries, Ellen Wilkinson, a Labor MP famous for leading the Jarrow hunger march of 1936 by her unemployed rust-belt constituents. After visits to tube shelters and bomb damaged neighborhoods the two helped restore basic services to bombed-out areas and offered the reassurance that sympathetic people were actually in charge. Their experience in London then helped Morrison and Wilkinson deal with the devastation from german bombing campaigns in the provinces that began in earnest that November. Concentrated raids on ports and cities like Coventry, Plymouth, and Portsmouth produced proportionaately vaster dewvastation0human, materiual, and psychological=- with far scantier reources than Loundon had had for repsonding….

          What this suggests to me, is not so much the government’s delusional thinking that the public would not come back up from the subways to work, as much as the fairly rapid turn around of the government’s position. From the above:

          Morrison reversed government policy on deep sheltering. He convinced the cabinet to begin construction of reinforced underground shelters in London and elsewhere, permitted sheltering in the subay system, and brought the government into its management . By Christmass 200,000 bunks had been provided along with sanitary facilities, canteen services, and official supervision of access by ticketing.


          If only our politicians were so inclined to reverse position on what they want the public to want (more money for the already more money for the already more…) and bring an equally serious attempt to deal with the Pandemic as Morrison did with providing shelter to the public via the Undergrounds.

          By the way, I would never have found this on my own and I question it being the readers responsibility to do their own sourcing of everything they read.

          1. Tom Bradford

            I recall my grandparents still having their Anderson shelter ready for use in their back garden in the ’50s, against the possibility of a Russian nuclear attack. The floor was about 4′ below ground surface, the floor and walls were timber-lined over tarpaulin and the excavated earth was sloped against the corrugated iron ‘roof’ to deflect blast. Of course my grandfather had been through the trenches of WW1 and knew all about living like a mole.

          2. rtah100

            For readers not raised on a diet of midcentury British politics (the only time it approached wholesome), it may be instructive to note that the Herbert Morrison in question was a former errand boy who became a great Labour politician, as an MP and also as leader of London County Council, the city’s government in the 1930’s, where he pursued public improvements, knitted London Transport together from private industry, created the Green Belt and pursued public works against unemployment. He was home secretary in the wartime coalition and foreign secretary in the post-War Labour government. He was a founding father of the welfare state (but weirdly opposed parts of the NHS). His stance on using the public works of the Underground (his creation) for the good of the public (his electorate) may have been a question of the right man in the right place.

            As an example of history’s irony, his grandson is Peter Mandelson, the New Labour spinmeister and prince of darkness, who thought mushy peas were guacamole.

          3. deplorado

            “By the way, I would never have found this on my own and I question it being the readers responsibility to do their own sourcing of everything they read.”


  4. dbk

    And this haranguing, and demonstrating, and suing of governors who are seen as “too strict” – what will opening up get us, apart from anemic proceeds and likely-to-certain hotspots popping up everywhere throughout the country? And when the predicted “second wave” arrives, and full shelter-at-home once more becomes unavoidable, what will have been gained?

    Is every community, every state, to continue this open-up/shut-down cycle until we have cheap, effective treatment and/or a widely-available vaccine?

    If Laurie Garrett’s prediction is correct (I think it is, but YMMV), and it will be at least 36 months until a vaccine is widely available, it’s hard to imagine how some sectors would be left standing.

  5. a

    Polling consistently shows that people want the lockdown to last longer.

    Not the young ones (under 30s). They are very low risk of a bad outcome from Covid. Set them free. If older generation thinks that’s unfair, consider how lucky they have been in the past: free education, cheap housing and endless opportunities.

    1. Local to Oakland

      A lot of young people live in multigenerational households or work with at risk people. Set them free relies on them to not infect others.

      A utilitarian argument could be made for preemptively infecting volunteers from the least risk category. (If there is meaningful immunity from getting Covid19) However, at minimum, we would need quarantine centers where those volunteers were confined and medical monitoring and treatment provided. If a vaccine is ten or twenty years away I could see the argument. It is horrific though. Some of the low risk people infected will die.

      1. xkeyscored

        That utilitarian argument has been made in the context of testing proposed vaccines.

        “Momentum is building to speed the development of coronavirus vaccines by intentionally infecting healthy, young volunteers with the virus. A grass-roots effort has attracted nearly 1,500 potential volunteers [as of 22 April] for the controversial approach, known as a human-challenge trial. The idea is also gaining traction with US politicians.”

        If we don’t do something like this, we’ll have to wait longer for a vaccine, and more people will die. Horrific either way?

    2. orlbucfan

      I hope the under-30 crowd realizes that coronaviruses aren’t picky about age. They’ve killed quite a few young folks, too. It’s a very nasty form of death.

      1. Sue inSoCal

        Agree. I don’t agree that anyone is safe to, as Fauci put it, go out and “let it rip.” There’s still not a full understanding of how this virus affects (or causes possible spreading) in young children.

    3. MillenialSocialist

      “Polling consistently shows that people want the lockdown to last longer.

      Not the young ones (under 30s).”

      citation needed.
      i’m not risking my life so someone else can get marginally richer.

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        Isn’t it a matter for what we call Science to ask.

        Buy … Who can question ‘logic’? and we have a most slimy list of would-be -woo-ers.

  6. shinola

    It’s not the “work” that people want – it’s the paycheck (i.e. the means of sustenance).

  7. L

    Insightful post but I disagree on one point. I think that it is incorrect to say that “our leaders” whether in the US or the UK think that we want to work in the face of danger for fear that we will lose our jobs. Our leaders want us to think that think that that is the only option. Because the last thing they ever want is for us to be protected and fed.

    Or to use your analogy. They could be building effective bomb shelters. They don’t want to, and they don’t want us to demand them.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      Agreed, if I’ve understood you correctly; there is a difference between what the government wants us to think we want vs. what they actually think we want. As far as COVID-19 and returning to work goes, The former is evil, the latter delusional, though I confess to being surprised by the percentages Xkeyscored reports in comment timestamped 10:23 am.

  8. JTMcPhee

    It would be clarifying, maybe, if the Dems touting their “Rooseveltian next pandemic response bill” were to write legislation, and then do the necessary politicking to bring It about, that paid people who are locked down a living stipend. And included obligations on corporations and small businesses to provide safe working environments, with no “blanket immunity from liability.” And also went all in on national health care.

    People pressing for “reopening” among the working class are desperate — 20 percent of children not getting enough food, probably 30 percent reported unemployment coming up, over 50% of working age people unemployed, not paying rent or the cost of health UNsurance or enough for necessities. All while there is more than enough in the “full faith and credit” pot to pay that stipend, fund health care for all, and ensure that people could do what is needed to reduce the death toll and debilitation by sheltering in place.

    And yes, some people will have to work to keep the necessities flowing, but they should be paid commensurate with the risk they take, and that risk should be minimized by providing safe work environments. Our Imperial Troops get hazard pay for putting their lives in harm’s way, even though they are under enforceable orders to do so. “Safety” for the elites is presumed and provided for the investor/rentier class’s wealth and they can more than afford to protect their health by sequestering themselves. Hardly fair that the people that deliver their fricking bespoke chocolate ice cream to keep their $24,000 freezers full should have to risk it all for the pittance the wealthy pay them to have their luxuries delivered to their estates.

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