I had to watch a relative’s funeral via livestream this week. The mass was nicely done but the image quality was about the same as a surfcam. The family made the best of it.
Millions of people are enduring the coronavirus pandemic like this, through small acts of patience, compromise and toleration. The apologetic flower-stall man, down to his last few blooms because of the freight shutdown. The sign outside the pub saying “it’s not quite the Christmas we expected but we’ll be back next year”.
In a crisis, people will tolerate a lot. All they ask is that the government meets the challenge with competence and compassion. Unfortunately, in the case of Boris Johnson, both are absent.
Christmas was severely and suddenly disrupted for 18 million people because, from mid-September onwards, Johnson ignored scientific advice. Faced with a second wave of the virus, the government designed a tier system that did not work, ignored calls for a “circuit-breaker”, imposed a national lockdown that did not work, eased it to prepare for Christmas – ridiculing suggestions that this might be disastrous – and then ordered this shutdown, triggering panic buying and foreign travel bans.
Confronted by the lorry snarl-up across Kent, Johnson simply lied, claiming there were only 174 lorries affected (the true number was 900). Faced with a distraught, bereaved questioner at the Saturday press conference, who asked why she was being forced to work while shielding from the disease, Johnson produced excuses but no sympathy.
There is a term for narcissists who can’t show empathy, who lie compulsively and exploit people without regret: I hesitate to use the term about an individual, but as a description of the government it is valid. The Tories are running a sociopathic state.
They are flaunting their indifference. As the virus devastated Britain’s black and minority ethnic communities, and as people from those communities stood on the front line – in hospitals, testing centres and care homes – the Equalities Minister, Liz Truss, made a speech that redefined inequality as “geographic”. The focus on “protected characteristics”, she said, “has led to a narrowing of the equality debate”, meaning some issues, such as those of “white working-class children”, have been “neglected”.
As with sociopaths, the government has become adept at making others take the blame for the chaos and disruption it has caused. Donald Trump once boasted that he could “shoot somebody” on Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters. The Conservative Party has done better than that: we don’t know how many of the UK’s 68,307 Covid deaths were avoidable, but with a death rate three times as high as Germany’s there is clear political culpability. Yet Tory support remains stubborn at around 40 per cent.
In fact, support for Johnson has begun to correlate tightly with the refusal to blame the government for this string of disasters. A YouGov poll showed that while 51 per cent of Brits think “the public” is to blame for the second wave, that rises to 72 per cent among Conservative voters. Just one in ten of them believes the government is in any way responsible for making our country an object of ridicule.
The government may have failed on every measure of competence, from test and trace to PPE, but it has succeeded spectacularly on its most important metric: dividing the country with a culture war and allocating blame to the victims.
That’s why the Truss speech wasn’t simply some badly timed aberration, so off-piste that civil servants reportedly had to delete large parts of it from the gov.uk website. It appears that the Truss speech is the Tory agenda from here on in. Those who thought they might turn to culture war once the pandemic was over, to distract from their obvious culpability, were wrong. They dialed up the anti-woke rhetoric at the pandemic’s darkest moment, and will seek to “blame the public” through all the subsequent inquiries and recriminations.
Those blamed will be migrants, Black Lives Matter protesters, young people desperate for a night out and that perennial racist euphemism “communities with large households”. Also in the firing line will be the institutions this new conservatism despises: local councils, city mayors, the care home sector, NHS bureaucracy and the scientific establishment.
The Tories are not fighting the virus – they’re fighting a class war under the pretext of a pandemic. You could write off the bungling during the first wave as the product of inexperience, hubris and the failure of an over-marketised system. But the failures of the second wave are entirely the result of political choices.
And they are choices consciously empowered by a segment of the electorate that – as in the US under Trump – enjoys sociopathic government because its victims are always other people. Many of the Tory voters who blame “the public” for the second wave are the same kind of people who bought the Sun’s lies about Liverpool fans at Hillsborough, or marched through London’s docklands in 1968 in support of Enoch Powell. Working-class Toryism has long had racist tendencies – it’s just never been as big, prevalent and empowered as it is under Johnson.
I sense, among liberal and progressive people, dismay and astonishment at the scale and resilience of the reactionary sentiment that delivered Brexit, brought Johnson to power, purged the Tory party of liberal conservatives and now celebrates our isolation as a plague island.
There was an assumption, shared I fear by some in Keir Starmer’s team, that if you just avoid progressive causes hated by elderly white voters in former industrial towns, the anger and the bitterness will fade away. Indeed, the polls show that many of the short-term and tactically discontented voters in the so-called “Red Wall” are coming back, with Labour’s poll rating rising above 40 per cent for in today’s YouGov poll.
But that solid wedge of reactionary voters, their prejudices now backfilled with conspiracy theory and tabloid spite, is not going away anytime soon. Because the things that drive it – migration, gay rights, feminism and deep, localised poverty – are not going away either.
Progressive America got lucky at the presidential election, not only winning but receiving a clear and early glimpse of the danger: Trump added 11 million votes to his 2016 total of nearly 63 million despite four years of sociopathic government. The danger in the UK, as we head towards a double-dip recession with public sector net debt at 99.5 per cent of GDP, is that the right-wing discontent intensifies rather than fades.
Brexit will happen – either through no deal or a thin deal – but it will not matter to its most ardent supporters. They can now look forward to years of enmity with France over fishing and travel restrictions, and with Brussels, many of whose rules we may yet end up following.
What the US left has learned, and the British left must too, is that a mass reactionary movement has to be defeated, not persuaded or cajoled or mollified into behaving decently.
But it needs a confident liberalism and a confident left – and while Scotland has both, the rest of the UK does not. Defeating Johnson needs, above all, a Labour Party with a clear and inspiring vision for society, not just a critique of public health strategy. And it needs canny electoral combinations. With progressive politics frozen for much of 2020, that has to be the agenda for 2021.