Musa Okwonga explains why, despite the Government’s objectively scandalous handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, those in the UK remain broadly supportive of the Prime Minister.
Much of the British public is laughing at one of Boris Johnson’s current pronouncements – but for once that is probably not how he likes it. The Prime Minister is famed for his humorous asides, which at one point made him the toast of the nation; whether he was acting as its figurehead during the London 2012 Olympics or merely acting as one of its figurines. His talent for banter has already got him very far – into Number 10 Downing Street and out of the European Union. But with the arrival of COVID-19, he has finally encountered a situation that he cannot bluster his way out of.
For the optimists, there may seem some indications that this moment is different.
Good Morning Britain presenter Piers Morgan has been long criticised by many commentators, including this one, for not taking key issues seriously enough. Recently, though, he has distinguished himself, holding Johnson’s Government to account with sustained precision and ferocity. On the same channel, the normally mild-mannered Philip Schofield has also become irate, describing the Government’s policy on social distancing – to ‘Stay Alert’, which apparently allows someone to visit each of their parents separately in a public place one after the other but not together – as “bonkers”.
Those watching from beyond the UK are often astonished at what voters endure from the ruling party, but within the UK it is a very different story.
Elsewhere, the comedian Matt Lucas has released a parody video of Johnson’s attempt to clarify said policy which has been viewed more than five million times.
Some within the Conservative Party are deeply concerned – not least the normally bullish Tim Montgomerie, a former government advisor, who remarked that the Government was being ridiculed across the country.
These are all new forms of objection, and even resistance, to the way Johnson is carrying out his duties. Yet, so far, absolutely none of them seem to be working.
Despite the various withering critiques of Johnson’s performance – including a lengthy report in The Sunday Times – his party has so far maintained a fairly strong approval rating. There could be several reasons for this.
One may be that, in times of crisis, people generally back the incumbent party. This perhaps explains why, even though only 30% of the public believe that the Government’s ‘Stay Alert’ policy is easy to understand, it retains their support overall. Another reason may be the Opposition’s slow recovery from its unpopularity in the last General Election. But a third reason may be the country’s relationship with politics itself.
Broadly speaking, the UK is a place where many people are not that engaged in the political process, which is why those who intend to affect the status quo in a radical way are viewed with intense suspicion. If the past few years are any evidence, it is that the electorate is prepared to accept severe cuts to public services, so long as the natural order of things is not disturbed.
Those watching from beyond the UK are often astonished at what voters endure from the ruling party, but within the UK it is a very different story. The British public – and more specifically the English one – for the most part has a stoicism, a willingness to withstand social and financial strife, that is currently being ruthlessly abused.
That stoicism has a dangerous flipside, which is that the country tends to turn off when anyone progressive tries too hard to rock the boat. (Though Jeremy Corbyn was criticised for many things, in several cases fairly so, it is ironic that many of the measures the Government is now taking to protect the British public are essentially socialist in nature).
That is why, for all the protests of Morgan and Schofield, the public mood is more accurately reflected by the cricketer Ben Stokes, who was impressed by the tone struck by Johnson in one of his more recent addresses. That is why Matthew Parris, for years regarded as the heartbeat of sensible Conservative opinion, can write searing columns in The Times about the inadequacy of our leadership and be met with indifference.
The margin for error is so small when communicating Britain’s flaws to itself: too passionate and you are a dangerous firebrand, too gentle and you are ignored – and that is why Sir Keir Starmer’s first few weeks in his new role as Labour leader have been greeted with some anxiety by the right.
Starmer’s problem, and Labour’s more generally, is that for a long time in Britain the discussion of politics – that is to say, the way in which complex systems adversely affect the daily lives of individuals – has long been dismissed as something for intemperate cranks, the pursuit of people who have too much time on their hands. The result of being ashamed of talking about politics is that too many Conservative politicians, encouraged by this lack of scrutiny, have become shameless.
In an American context, Jay-Z provided the best illustration of this challenge: that his country had for so long brushed over the deepest issues in its society that they had enabled a President who was immune to truth or ridicule, a superbug.
It is only now that COVID-19 has literally made Johnson’s meanderings a matter of life and death that many are just beginning to hold him to account. If Britain is to move forward as a country, then it must be prepared to hear hard truths about itself from all sections of society and not just those whose manner it finds most pleasing.
Here’s hoping that the country, at last, is becoming ready to listen.