Boris Johnson stokes the flames of the culture wars because he knows he is trapped

The crisis has revealed the Prime Minister's painful limitations as a national leader, with his incompetence alarming even his allies.

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In the early weeks of the lockdown it was as if a peculiar quietness had settled on the land. We had been brought to an abrupt halt and, as people rallied to support one another, community was being rediscovered through enforced social isolation – consider those 750,000 volunteers for the NHS. The pandemic had created the conditions in which to rethink everything – our relationship to one another and to nature; our economic and political settlement; our national and international priorities.

On 12 April 2020, Easter Sunday, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, in a sermon delivered from his kitchen because of the closure of churches and places of worship,  spoke of the “resurrection of common life”. He continued: “After so much suffering, so much heroism from key workers and the NHS, we cannot be content to go back to what was before as if all is normal.”

This remark caught something of the national mood at the time when we were all working out how to live under quarantine and some of us were even daring to imagine that the world could be arranged differently afterwards. It seemed to me, as I spent my working days high in my attic office at home and as I wrote in these pages, that we might finally be emerging from the long interregnum that began with the 2007-08 financial crash into something potentially better than the way we were living before. I now think I may have misread the moment.

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How were we living before the virus? Why were we so angry – and so divided? It wasn’t just Brexit: an empathy gap had been growing among us, hardening our separation into different communities, classes and religious and identity groups, and it seemed as if we didn’t know what to do about it. Then the virus struck, all of us, everywhere, simultaneously. We were locked down and forced apart. The economy crashed. People’s sense of anxiety increased. We were told that we were all in this together; that ours was a fellowship of suffering – except that it wasn’t. As the virus spread it soon became apparent that people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds were disproportionately affected. According to figures from the Office for National Statistics covering the period from March to May, people living in the most deprived areas of England and Wales were twice as likely to die from Covid-19. We began to understand what was meant by essential and non-essential work. As Maurice Glasman wrote, the new definition of working class is not being able to work from home. And as the Johnson government’s messaging became ever-more confused and as we began to emerge hesitantly, erratically from lockdown, the empathy walls separating us seemed as unscalable as ever.

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The scenes at the weekend of far-right thugs – so-called football lads – clashing with police in Parliament Square were especially dismaying. These bullet-headed agitators had mobilised in response to the Black Lives Matter protests and described themselves as defenders of the nation’s heritage. With no live football to distract them – Euro 2020, the semi-finals and final of which were to have been played at Wembley, had been postponed – many of them seemed to be in town for a scrap on a hot afternoon. One heard the old songs and chants – “Ten German bombers”, “Inger-land, Inger-land” – that have accompanied the English football team on their travels around Europe in recent times. The atmosphere was rancid with beer and sweat and obscenity.

On Sunday 14 June, I received a text from my old friend Colin: “Remember the London Olympics spirit compared with now!” His point was well made. But, equally, I don’t think Justin Welby’s remark about the resurrection of the common life should be forgotten. Nor can it be so easily defeated by the actions of some far-right agitators. After all, we are the many and they are the few.

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If you wade into the fetid waters of the Twitter sewer, partisan politics and a culture of abuse are thriving. Here in amplification is the polarisation of our politics. But Twitter is marginal to most people’s lives. What matters to them is their families and friends, the places they live and work, and the networks of support and community that surround them. In the months ahead, the government’s response to the crisis will be evaluated and better understood, especially when compared to what happened in other European countries. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson will be content to inflame the culture wars to distract from executive failure. With the incompetence of his leadership alarming even his allies, Johnson responded this week as only he knows how: he published a column in the Telegraph.

The Telegraph is a safe space for Johnson: it indulges him and he indulges it. But no amount of bluster about Winston Churchill can deflect from the sad truth of the matter: the crisis has revealed his painful limitations as a national leader – and he now stands naked before us.

“We can learn from these dreadful days that stupidity and injustice are lethal; that, in a democracy, being a citizen is essential work; that the alternative to solidarity is death.” This is George Packer writing about Trump’s America in the Atlantic, but he could just as easily have been referring to Johnson’s Britain.

The Prime Minister is by nature an optimist and humourist; his preferred mode of address is boosterism, common on the libertarian right. But his great misfortune – and ours – is that his time as prime minister has coincided with the gravest crisis since the Second World War. He is the pandemic prime minister, and he looks trapped. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article appears in the 19 June 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The History Wars

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