The coronavirus is taking its toll on our leaders. Boris Johnson looks to have aged a decade in just a few weeks, as his trademark boosterism has come up against an implacable enemy. This virus will not bend to glib assertion, nor even to the fiercest of personal political ambitions. Super Boris has met his kryptonite.
Nicola Sturgeon looks knackered, and her voice has started to go. At First Minister’s Questions on Thursday (19 March), her adenoidal performance caused me to tweet blithely that “Sturgeon sounds ill”. It is perhaps a sign of the times’ sensitivity that a senior Scottish government source was in touch quickly to dispute this: “She’s NOT ill (not that we’re at all defensive!!) – her voice is a bit croaky, but it’s entirely down to lack of sleep and too much talking.”
No politician in peacetime has faced a challenge on this scale for a century. And the urgency and insistent demands of 24-hour news and social media today add extra layers of pressure and accountability. We saw the physical toll ruling took on healthy young specimens such as Tony Blair and Barack Obama, who emerged from the other side of power greyed and grooved. Both had a rough time of it, but nothing like this.
High office relies on both the reality and the illusion of control. We have justifiable expectations that the policies and management skills of our leaders can deliver improvements to public services and the economy, and trust that their elevation is at least in part due to an unusually acute gift for judgement. In toxic moments such as the current one, we look to them to steer us through and to provide reassurance, to lift the monkey off our backs, even though we know the scale and nature of this crisis outstrips any one person’s reach and abilities.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown – which of us would willingly bear that crushing weight at the moment? Normal service is suspended, grand visions are curtailed, manifestos are unceremoniously shuttered. The limitations of state power, as well as its possibilities, are brutally exposed. The job is basic, but verging on satire – to keep people alive, and to keep the country afloat. People will die, perhaps in great number, whatever choices you make. Sleep is something ordinary folks do. Your legacy as a leader is to some extent and quite suddenly out of your hands.
It’s enlightening to watch Johnson and Sturgeon apply their distinctive styles to navigating coronavirus. The Prime Minister’s high-spirited optimism keeps pushing its wet nose through the fence, however much he tries to restrain it. His crumpled informality works for some and enrages others. He is liable, as his “12 weeks” moment showed, to go off script in an attempt to bring some comfort, yet the science and the numbers persistently restate their grim case, regardless. There lingers a sense that the PM believes even coronavirus cannot remain immune to his ruffled charms indefinitely. If I don’t stand with his cheerleaders, neither am I in critics’ corner. Time will tell.
Sturgeon is going about things differently. The First Minister hasn’t cracked a smile in public for weeks. She is being methodical, honest and genuinely empathetic. A source close to her says: “She’s just trying to get on with all the stuff that needs done and decided, and not allow herself to dwell too much on the sheer enormity of it all. She knows there are no two ways about it, this is big and profound, and we’re going to be living with the legacy of it all for a long time to come.”
I remember a conversation with Sturgeon a few years ago, when she bemoaned the requirement that modern political leaders be omnipotent, that they have an answer for every question. How much healthier it would be, she mused, if she could admit on occasion that she simply didn’t know. In this crisis, where the normal rules of engagement don’t apply, she is acting on that feminine impulse towards candour, and it is as refreshing as it is, potentially, revolutionary.
The laying down of arms across the political spectrum helps, of course. At no time in my adult life has the issue of Scotland’s constitutional future not loomed large. Any coming together in our politics has quickly fallen foul of that greatest of divides. But even arguments about independence have been placed to one side, as unity and perspective have been brought to the table against a true enemy. It is rather like someone has opened a window and let in some fresh air.
I’m too old and cynical to believe that this peace settlement will outlast the plague. I have found it genuinely uplifting to see the Scottish and Westminster governments, as well as the political parties, working together – despite the tragic circumstances, it feels somewhat like what devolution was supposed to be. But it is surely only a matter of time before one side or the other breaks the pact and we return to hostility-as-normal. I trust we can enjoy a few more weeks of harmony before that point arrives.
Still, one would hope that we emerge from all this having learned some lessons beyond the purely scientific. The brutal divisions of Brexit, of Scottish independence, of hard left and far right, have been a blight on our society for too long, hardening and coarsening the public discourse. Johnson is doing his best to keep our spirits up; Sturgeon is being frank about what she does and doesn’t know; we are all trying to look after each other. Our basic and shared humanity is nakedly on show. It seems to me to be a better way of being than what we have grown used to.