I really hope future historians ignore our politicians and our journalists. They won’t. But I really hope they do.
Listening to speeches in Parliament or watching BBC News, would give them a rather strange picture of lockdown. A picture of dutiful, almost puritanical, moralists. All living like we were in the People’s Republic.
According to this story, lockdown involved every man, woman, child marching, obediently, to Professor Whitty’s droning tune. We tirelessly martyred ourselves to comply with government decrees. And on our singular allocated walk of the day, we were perfectly distanced like trundling robots. Throughout lockdown, as we all know, government rules trumped human instincts. This was true for everyone. Or so we are told. Apart from Boris.
Please note this is no defence of the Prime Minister. The man’s the political equivalent of a flashy billboard; he wins elections, but after that he’s really just a lump of dead wood. He confuses leadership with public school cronyism. And has no political vision beyond the accumulation of titles.
It’s often said that great Prime Ministers are remembered by their last name: Churchill, Thatcher, Attlee. Well, Boris is known by his first. And like Pennywise or Grock, he is a great clown. And now his show is over. The Prime Minister failed to lead by example. And so, he must go.
However, in our quest to rid ourselves of this blonde buffoon we are dangerously lying to ourselves. Rewriting our history. And forgetting our own nature. Did you ever go for two walks in a day? Did you stand within two metres of someone on one of those walks? Did you ever drive further than allowed? To Barnard Castle, perhaps?
We all broke lockdown rules. To some extent. In the same way everyone who has ever been to a pub has broken Section 12 of the Licensing Act 1872: “Every person found drunk…on any licensed premises, shall be liable to a penalty”. We were all within a metre of someone, at some point. We all left the house more than once, on some day. And no doubt you saw groups strolling along the lockdown streets. Or perhaps you saw middle-aged men playing football in the park. I certainly did. Yet according to the politicians in Westminster or the journalists on TV, this was not the case. Apparently, we all saw wrong.
Aaron Bell, the MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, recently gave a very moving speech. He described how, after the funeral of his grandmother, he refused to hug his grieving relatives. I have little doubt Mr Bell is telling the truth. However, when he positions himself as the nation’s moral paragon and Sue Gray asserts, in her much-fetishised report, that, “The whole of the country rose to [this] challenge”, then we have an issue. Did we? Did we really?
Following my own grandmother’s funeral during the first lockdown, I did hug my relatives. I did go within two metres of them. I did let my human instincts trump the government diktat.
And Mr Bell is not alone. Ruth Davidson recently took to Twitter to describe her partner’s birthday party. On the same day as Boris’ boozy cake and drinks, Ms Davidson hosted a restrained party, with only “one other household” which was “socially distanced”. And in subsequent interviews presented herself as the universal emblem of the British public. Is this really true though? Are we all the angels Ms Davidson pretends we are? Did you ever attend a gathering of one more household than allowed? When you met them, did you perfectly socially distance? I, like almost everyone, and probably Boris himself, obeyed restrictions almost all of the time. But to claim that everyone lived up to our saintly politicians’ example is more than a little far-fetched.
This perspective is not only the reserve of virtue-signalling politicians. The BBC, now outdoing the Tabloids for its coverage of daily political drama, had a field day with ‘Party-gate’. Taking inspiration from its wildly successful coverage of Prince Phillip’s funeral, the Corporation devoted every breathing minute to this particular scandal.‘Is Russia threatening Ukraine?’ BBC viewer 1 may ask. ‘Clearly not’, BBC viewer 2 would reply, ‘The only thing happening in the world today is Party-gate’.
Taking further inspiration from its sycophancy of Prince Philip, the editors at the Beeb took one, very opinionated, stance and decided to ram it down everyone’s throats. Just as Prince Phillip was an almost God-like moral paragon, devoid of any conceivable flaw, Boris is a Satanic deviant. Totally unlike anyone else in the country. Every BBC journalist allowed to speak took this moral high ground. A stance about as believable as Prince Phillip’s sanctity. Though it may be easy to blame this on The Establishment. We are all responsible for these lies. In our eagerness to get rid of Boris and to make ourselves feel better, we have gone just a little bit mad.
It is important to note that I do not doubt the pain of grieving families. Particularly when they learn that while they suffered from heavy-handed government restrictions, the blonde buffoon that set them partied away. But we must remember that Boris’ partying did not hurt these families. What hurt them was the unjustified strictness of restrictions. And the obstinate nature of their implementation. These horrific experiences throughout lockdown can only be avoided in future by addressing this problem. By changing how we balance Covid and humanity. Not by lying in order to find an easy way to oust the occupant of Number 10.
There is another problem, however, with these lockdown lies. One which I hope will make us re-evaluate who we listen to and how we think about ourselves. In his ‘Dictionary of Received Ideas’, the French novelist Gustav Flaubert documented many of the automatic thoughts of 19th century French society. “Absinthe”, according to the “Dictionary”, is an “Extra-violent poison…Newspapermen drink it as they write their copy”. While for “Metaphors…are always too many in any writer's style” (perhaps he’s not wrong with those!). Nevertheless, if we look at the ‘British public’ with Flaubert’s keen eye then perhaps we can understand our own absurdity.
“A collection of Gods among men”? Maybe not. Maybe, “A collection of Gods among other Gods”? Closer. “A collection of Gods among other Gods, apart from Boris”? Ahhhh, just right. Flaubert’s absurdities are rather trivial. ‘The Lockdown Delusion’, on the other hand, is rather more malevolent. And it all originates with us. We all want to be virtuous, or at least seen to be virtuous. Combined with anger, grief and a desire to get rid of Boris. And we created this lie. Then came the politicians and the journalists.
Politicians of all persuasions feel the anger of voters all too keenly. As your inbox swells, it’s easier to transmit the lie than resist. Add to this the opportunity to signal your own virtue. While also taking down a political opponent. And who could resist?
Journalists are a more difficult generalisation. Many born contrarians, they resist simple explanations. But a sensationalist attitude that ‘scandal pays’ is very attractive as profit margins squeeze.
The BBC, on the other hand, is a far easier generalisation. An insane obsession with political scandal, a favouring of Covid restrictions and a smug trendyism have made Party-gate irresistible to the Beeb. So irresistible in fact, that the idea of impartiality is now more suitable for the Mail.
As Flaubert highlights, these lies are the price we pay for living with other humans. Our success as a species is built on communication and cooperation. Inevitably we communicate lies which help most of us cooperate.
Politicians will not change, and the media will not change. And nor should they. Our system is not perfect. But it’s pretty decent. So instead of tearing it up, we should challenge our shared lies simply by thinking for ourselves. Questioning what everyone says. And avoiding groupthink even if it annoys people. The more we think as individuals rather than groups. The more we realise we are just like each other, that we’re all a bit like Boris.
Image: Unsplash, Jannes van der Wouwer