J R Seeley infamously claimed in the late 19th century that the British seemed, “as it were, to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind”. In this less heroic age of Britishness, Boris Johnson’s government may, according to Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, have managed to kill about 20,000 of its own people in a fit of absent-mindedness. It seems grotesquely apt that the image that will linger from this terrible episode of fatal incompetence, is that of the literal flight from the seat of power by the governing mind behind the new ruling class, Dominic Cummings – the state’s official brain going absent without leave.
Absence of mind is a condition experienced by those who are prone to distraction and prey to lazy assumptions. The tragedy of the disastrous response that has cost the lives of so many vulnerable citizens, is that for the four years preceding the pandemic, the UK had become inured to both. The state diverted itself with, and into, Brexit, a project that sucked up its energies and crowded out its capacity to think clearly and act promptly. (The National Audit Office calculated that by March 2020, when the crucial decisions on the pandemic had to be made, there were 27,500 civil servants working on Brexit.) And in the pursuit of that project, the government developed a habit of making sweeping assumptions before weighing up evidence or thinking about consequences.
In retrospect, it is telling that Johnson first mentioned the virus in public as an aside in a grandiose speech celebrating Brexit. He was speaking in Greenwich, London, on 3 February. The venue was chosen for its historic resonances: his theme was that the maritime greatness that enabled the creation of a mercantilist empire in the 18th century was about to be reborn. This was the vision of what Johnson had previously called the new Golden Age, the Global Britain that will replace half a century of EU membership.
That speech was, all too typically, pure assertion. Its message was that global reality is going to bend itself to Britain’s will. The Commonwealth nations can’t wait to rejoin the motherland and “to turn that great family of nations into a free trade zone”. The benign leadership of Donald Trump will smooth Britain’s path: “We will get going with our friends in America, and I share the optimism of Donald Trump and I say to all the naive and juvenile anti-Americans in this country if there are any – there seem to be some – I say grow up, and get a grip.” The genius who is now guiding British trade policy, Liz Truss, will play “multi-dimensional chess” by concluding multiple deals simultaneously.
The virus, when he came to mention it, was merely a nasty little bluebottle on the face of this exuberant tapestry of fantasies. Johnson acknowledged it, not as a threat to the health of UK citizens, but as a menace to his grand vision of ultra-free trade: “When there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational, to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government, somewhere, that is willing, at least, to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange. Some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth, and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion of the right of the populations of the Earth to buy and sell freely among each other.”
What is striking here is that Brexit is not a distraction from the emerging pandemic. It is the other way around: Johnson was worried that the coronavirus might take attention away from the thrilling prospect of a liberated Britain, shrugging off its boring, bespectacled Euro-normality, reassuming its native-born superpowers and saving the world. (Johnson’s Superman analogy does work in one respect: the coronavirus would be the Kryptonite of this triumphal moment, the mysterious, other-worldly substance that would render the Brexit state impotent.)
This was mindless stuff, but it exposed the state of mind of Johnson and the Vote Leave hegemony. What matters is not objective truth. It is the power of positive thinking. It is not necessary to take into account the actual willingness of India or Canada or Australia to enter a British-led free trade zone. It is not necessary to think about what Trump means when he says America First. For Johnson, and for the wider nexus of Brexiteers, attitude alone shapes outcomes. Everything comes down to belief. The X Factor in this mentality is not ability – as in the TV talent contest – it is the undaunted determination to follow the dream.
Apply this to coronavirus and the key thing was not to be afraid of it. Faced with a threat of this magnitude, fear was both the proper, and the necessary, response. Not panic, of course, but the kind of rational dread that provokes urgency. To fall into Johnson’s own infantile language, the need was not for gloomsters but certainly for doomsters. Real, literal doom was in the air for hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people.
The government needed a shot of the adrenaline that flows when danger is apprehended. It got Johnson’s verbal Valium: nothing to be alarmed about, excellent state of readiness, fully equipped. Don’t worry, be happy.
In the kind of nationalist discourse that is now the primary language in which Britain is governed, willpower is always a matter of national character. And precisely because it is national, that character is innately exceptional. The exceptionalism at the heart of Brexit – Britain is humiliated by being merely one European country among others – is what shaped the official responses to the unfolding coronavirus disaster.
The very concept of “herd immunity” – which, although it was not the official Sage-determined strategy, became part of a narrative that led British officialdom into a deadly swamp of complacency – implies the existence of one’s very own, very special herd. It is a correlative of genetic distinction, except that it is acquired rather than inherited. The people have absorbed the virus and their collective antibodies have melded into one triumphant, mystical body that is, like the island itself has always been, impregnable.
Why would any scientist fall for this nonsense? You didn’t have to be a specialist in infectious diseases to know that it was based on two entirely untested assumptions: that coronavirus would behave like flu and that it would confer long-term immunity on those who did not die from it. Scientists – let alone highly distinguished and respected ones – are not supposed to jump to such evidence-free conclusions. The only explanation for what happened is that, far from the government being “led by the science”, official scientific thinking was contaminated by its exposure to a political culture in which positive assumptions are compulsory, and British difference is taken as read.
The other sovereign government on these islands, the one in Dublin, took its lead from the World Health Organisation. The Irish government cancelled the planned national celebration of St Patrick’s Day and started the process of shutting down pubs and social gatherings on 9 March. In the fortnight that followed, Britain allowed Liverpool to play Atlético Madrid at Anfield, in front of a crowd that included 3,000 fans from Spain, many of whom travelled from Madrid, a city already ravaged by the virus. The Cheltenham racing festival went ahead on 10-13 March. Public transport remained packed. Pubs and restaurants stayed open.
Why the difference? It was not that the Irish government was particularly brilliant, merely that it was not blinded by an obsession that there should be some special Irish way of facing the threat. It grasped the meaning of the “pan” in pandemic: all, every, whole. This was something happening to humanity, not to individual nations. But in London, the government (and to some extent its scientific advisers) seemed to be reading a book called Why Be Normal When You Can Be British?
Almost every policy response was shaped by a refusal to do the obvious thing. Britain had the immense advantage in this gradually developing global crisis of being able to see what was happening in China, in Taiwan, in South Korea, in Italy, in Spain, in New Zealand. The good and bad examples were everywhere: copy the good, avoid the bad. But that would be to admit the one thing that cannot be conceded: that Britain is pretty much like most other countries. The coronavirus had to be seen instead as an opportunity to demonstrate British difference and British greatness.
Thus, to begin with, the extreme reluctance to go into lockdown. Even when Italy imposed drastic restrictions on movement, there was a widespread belief in political and scientific circles in England that the virus was somehow going to behave differently on the sceptered isle. As Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, put it on 9 March: “Personally, I do not think that such a large-scale lockdown would be appropriate in the UK.” Hovering around this belief was a notion that the naturally libertarian British people, unlike the more docile nations abroad, would not obey the rules.
This idea of what was “appropriate” to Britain fused with the Brexit myth that the British chafed under the yoke of Brussels because they are an exceptionally freedom-loving people. On 20 March, even as Johnson finally announced the closure of pubs, he presented the measure as a terrible assault on the historic character of the island race: “We’re taking away the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go to the pub. And I can understand how people feel about that… I know how difficult this is, how it seems to go against the freedom-loving instincts of the British people.”
There was in this the implication that the true Brit would honour the ancestors by breaking the rules – as Cummings and other members of the Tory elite would, of course, feel free to do.
In absentia: Dominic Cummings fled from Downing Street to County Durham during lockdown. Credit: Jonathan Brady/Pool/AFP via Getty
Even in relation to medical equipment, Britain had to be special. It did not bother to join the EU’s joint procurement programme for personal protective equipment and ventilators. (This was “a political decision”, according to the Foreign Office, but a “mix-up” according to the government, prompting the question of how, with the state of British governance, one might possibly tell the difference.) It could not concentrate its mind on the problem of getting enough ventilators into hospitals. Instead of simply licensing existing designs, there had to be special, new British ventilators to serve as exemplars of the native genius for invention and can-do spirit. The government launched what Peter Foster of the Financial Times called “an Apollo-19 style great leap forward type campaign to invent, in six weeks, what had already been invented”.
The Ventilator Challenge UK was a symptom of what we might call BAADD – Brexit-acquired attention deficit disorder. Even while posing as a demonstration of national excellence, it actually set minimum standards so low that Alison Pittard, dean of the Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine, told the Financial Times: “If we had been told that that was the case, we’d have said: ‘Don’t bother, you’re wasting your time. That’s of no use whatsoever.’” Not a single usable “innovative” ventilator designed from scratch went into production.
But who needs ventilation when you can have hyperventilation? It could never be right for Britain to copy, for example, Germany’s highly successful tracking and tracing system. Britain’s had to be, as Johnson prematurely ejaculated, “truly world-beating”. Saving lives is not a common human task – it is a competition in which Team Britain must take the gold.
Britain’s global greatness and Britons’ “freedom-loving instincts” melded in the fiasco of the unique, all-English tracing app. Not only would the red-white-and-blue app save hundreds of thousands of lives, it would, as the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, claimed, be crucial in getting “our liberty back”. The app had to be uniquely British because it must serve as a cypher for the great project of national liberation. And in a way, by not coming into existence at all, it did.
The Brexit mindset is a binary of greatness and nothingness. Britain must be either triumphant or sunk in humiliation. Mirroring this crazy dualism, the alternative to “world-beating” efforts to rout the virus is total failure. There is no middle way, no possibility of being like everybody else, doing one’s best, following best international practice, learning from mistakes, paying attention to the obvious, saving as many lives as possible. In the demented logic of the ruling caste, that which is not greatness – competence, functionality, patient and honest effort – is of no account. It is all or nothing, and time and again in the tragic mismanagement of the pandemic, the first has collapsed into the second.
The nadir of greatness rhetoric was probably reached in February 2019 when Gavin Williamson (then defence secretary, now, in perhaps Johnson’s only recent good joke, in charge of education) boasted: “Brexit has brought us to a great moment, in our history. A moment when we must strengthen our global presence, enhance our lethality and increase our mass.”
At least the bit about enhanced lethality has turned out to be true. Four years ago, when the UK voted to leave the EU, it seemed obvious that this could not be a mere snipping of the thread that had bound one to the other. It would also be a violent tearing of the fabric of the British state. The pandemic has exposed the threadbare condition of that fabric. The most basic task of the state is to keep its citizens safe. The post-Brexit polity has shown itself to be incapable even of doing that. A ruling faction bred on recklessness, bluster, nationalist exceptionalism and contempt for day-to-day reality has made absence of mind a mortal sin.
Read more from this week’s special issue: “Anatomy of a Crisis: How the government failed us over coronavirus”
This article appears in the 01 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Anatomy of a crisis