Opinion

The British public are careful and calm – the problem is that the government isn’t

This is what a true crisis feels like. The UK has now recorded more than 100,000 deaths from coronavirus and, according to the government’s chief scientific adviser, the daily toll will continue to be awful “for some weeks”. Our capital city is so overrun that Covid patients are being moved to intensive care units hundreds of miles away, and across England nearly 4.5 million people are now waiting for operations.

A test-and-trace system that was meant to be “world-beating” is almost irrelevant; we now learn that the £78m plan for daily mass testing in English schools has not been approved by the agency that oversees medicines and health products. Vaccinations will eventually ease the situation, but everywhere else you look, there are government blunders, delays and failures which – in a more predictable world – would already have had huge political consequences.

What kind of country allows this to happen? In the polls, the Conservatives are either ahead or neck and neck with Labour. Among many people I have interviewed and some I know, there seems to be a shrugging belief that, because the virus is unprecedented, disaster of some kind was always inevitable, and on balance, Boris Johnson and his ministers are doing as well as anyone could. Sometimes, in fact, I wonder whether calamity is so built into our understanding of politics and power that some of the public almost expect nothing less: as Fintan O’Toole put it in his book Heroic Failure, “the grand balls-up is not new, and in English historical memory it is not shameful”.

One reason, perhaps, is bound up with an ingrained unseriousness that has periodically surfaced in our national life – and which Johnson has revived, to keep people’s expectations of his government low and shield him and his colleagues from their own failures. What have been his most memorable phrases since the crisis began? “Squash that sombrero”? “Send coronavirus packing” in 12 weeks? “Operation last gasp”? Or his grim characterisation of the virus as an “invisible mugger”?

Though most observers are seemingly too polite to admit it, when Johnson hosts press briefings or makes television announcements with his hair freshly ruffled, and the sense that a smirk may not be too far from his lips, there is an implied deflation not just of the gravity of his message, but of his own accountability. And a similar spirit runs through the entire government. Last week, the fisheries minister admitted that she had not read the Brexit trade deal because she had been “very busy organising the local nativity trail”. The reason Gavin Williamson is still the education secretary has something to do with the same syndrome: given low public expectations, brazen incompetence is priced in, and the pantomime carries on.

There is an associated set of questions about what the government thinks about the public, and how those perceptions have shaped its responses to the crisis. A lot of official thinking seems to be derived from the pages of the rightwing papers, and a picture of Britain – or, more specifically, England – as a country that always verges on the ungovernable, and tends to view orders from on high with the utmost scepticism. In this reading, millions of people have greeted every new restriction with howls of anguish, captured in a long run of headlines: “Pubs shut till Xmas” (The Sun); “Families ask when will the nightmare end” (Mail Online); “Fury of golfers as they are banned from the links” (Daily Mail). There is no little irony in the fact the same outlets tend to hark back to a wartime Britain that was supposedly determined to keep calm and carry on.

This view of the country’s mood has embedded the idea that, if the government has often been hasty and irresponsible in loosening the lockdowns, it was only responding to a public “clamour”. Last summer, given that many people were tiring of confinement in balmy weather, the pubs simply had to reopen. Christmas is such a non-negotiable part of everyone’s calendar that the government would inevitably plan to drastically relax the rules for a few days, to avoid some kind of national uprising.

In the same way, exiting the first lockdown was never going to be framed as something best done cautiously, but a spell of joyous freedom kicked off by “happy Monday”, when barbecues would be lit, and all would once again be well. Even at the time, plenty of people knew what was happening was reckless. But the public gets what the public wants.

For the people at the top, one corollary of all this has now proved to be very useful. The narrative of an impatient, risk-taking population means that millions of us can be held to be complicit in the government’s failures. In the last fortnight, this has been reflected in the idea that, as hospitals are nearing breaking point, much of the blame must lie with everyday rule-breakers, from people on beaches to the miscreants who think nothing of driving miles to “beauty spots”. The disaster, it seems, belongs to us all: it is not that Johnson and his colleagues have screwed up, but that the whole country proved unequal to what the virus demanded (remember that Dominic Cummings, in the prime minister’s view, “followed the instincts of every father and every parent”).

Self-evidently, this is light years from the truth. A recent study by University College London – which collected responses from more than 70,000 participants – found 96% were following most or almost all of the rules for the week ending 10 January, the highest figure since April of last year. According to YouGov, 85% of people endorse the new lockdown, and 77% think it should have happened sooner. All over the country, there is a sense of dutiful and resigned acquiescence, however difficult some of the rules may be for millions of us. There are genuine echoes here, perhaps, of the autumn of 1939, and the Labour politician Richard Crossman’s observation that people greeted the introduction of conscription with “an apathetic equanimity impossible a year ago”.

If the government is ever going to be held to account, this is the country we need to hear a lot more about. Indeed, for the Labour party – which currently seems to be floundering around in search of a message, and bloodlessly fixating on either “competence” or the need for tougher rules – telling a story about the contrast between the country the political right imagines and the one that actually exists might be a good idea.

Most of the public are stoic rather than impatient, and possessed of a calm and a sense of duty the government seems to have long since mislaid. Make this point often enough, and the politics and morals of 2021 might become much easier to see, along with the deep ditch we have all been led into.

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