Tom Whyman on the COVID culture wars, what the Tories really want, and how staying in and going out can both be acts of rebellion.
When it comes to lockdown, what exactly does the government want us to do? The other week, the Tories downgraded their lockdown advice in a rather confusing way: switching up their slogan from “Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives.” to “Stay Alert. Control the Virus. Save Lives.” – before clarifying that in fact, staying alert in this case meantstaying at home. Boris then used one of his television addresses to introduce a bizarre new alert metric with which the coronavirus threat could be assessed, by a new “joint biosecurity centre” created for the purpose. Throughout the lockdown, Boris told us, we had been at a 4 (not quite the worst number, a 5 – thank God!!!!). But “thanks to your sacrifice,” we were now ready to downgrade the alert to a 3.5: not enough to be allowed to guiltlessly enjoy ourselves, but certainly enough to start going to work again (so go on, on your bike).
But although this is, technically, what the government said, this is not necessarily what people have heard. As anyone has been outside recently knows, for all intents and purposes, the lockdown in England is over (the UK’s devolved regions resisted Boris’s calls to downgrade the lockdown and have kept stronger measures in place). Yes, the pubs aren’t open again yet – yes, a lot of us are still working from home. I can’t get my eyes tested (which I need) or have that tooth I’ve chipped fixed. But people everywhere are sat in their front gardens with visiting family members enjoying the hot weather; socialising in parks; driving for hours to go to the beach. Businesses are re-opening: on one street near where I live, a dog grooming parlour has been back in operation for weeks. They complain, of course – the general public – about other people’s lack of consideration. But only, for the most part, because they’ve seen people doing the exact same irresponsible things they are. “Boris says you can do what you want, go where you want now,” was one motorist’s characterisation of the government’s line, after he was stopped on the Welsh border.
And so we are presented with a rather interesting political paradox. By almost any measure, lockdown is now this government’s flagship policy: as definitive and transformative as austerity was for David Cameron’s government, or Brexit for Theresa May’s. Nothing else they have done – and almost certainly, given how extreme this situation is, nothing else they will do – is going to change the way that people in this country live and work and spend their leisure time as much as this has. And yet: the people least supportive of Boris and the Tories are precisely the people most likely to fervently observe it – indeed, to want the policy to go further; it is the government’s own supporters who are, when it comes to lockdown, their most fanatical opponents. The Tory press hate lockdown – the Telegraph and the Spectator, and their commentators (the likes of Allison Pearson and Toby Young) have been particularly audible in their lockdown scepticism. But they are still the Tories – and Boris is still their man.
Perhaps there is a parallel here, of sorts, with Brexit: hard to remember sometimes, but technically the referendum was a defeat for the Tories, at least if you identify “the Tories” with Cameron’s government; technically, Theresa May was a ‘Remainer’. But Brexit was always a Tory issue – and the most Tory thing to want was always the hardest and fastest Brexit possible (hence why the Tory party, as represented by the likes of Steve Baker and Jacob Rees-Mogg, spent so much of the last parliament opposing May’s government for any perceived compromise with Europe). Likewise: it has been a Tory government which has implemented lockdown. But everyone knows which side the Tories are ‘really’ on – everyone knows that their preference would have been to pursue a strategy rather more like Sweden’s.
Ironically, of course, the Tories would almost certainly have been able to do just that, if they hadn’t spent the past decade under-investing in the NHS with such dogmatic enthusiasm: even they had to recognise that, given the state of our health service, actually allowing the virus to spread freely across the population would have risked a disaster too great for even them to be forgiven for (somehow, “highest death rate in Europe” doesn’t yet come close to being bad enough). Although, having said that: it is far from clear that doing what the Tories ‘really’ want, were it even possible, would actually have been to this Tory government’s advantage. One major reason why the Tories have been so successful at winning and wielding power, from the Cameron years onwards, is that – though the governing party – they have acted as a sponge for people’s resentments towards the government.
Cameron won a majority in 2015 because everyone hated his coalition partners, the Lib Dems – made the fall guys for the remnants of the Blairism he himself also represented; Boris won his landslide in 2019, in part, because Leavers were so frustrated at a Tory government which had failed, consistently, to implement Brexit. The Tories have been the government for over a decade now – but being anti-government is the basis of their mandate for governing. There is a culture war element to this, as well: the Tories are seen to oppose a present state of things in which a shadowy establishment of woke PC university professors, Guardian journalists, trade unions, and London-based baristas reign triumphant over the poor, downtrodden ‘real’ people of Britain, unable to even scream racial slurs in the street anymore.
This state of affairs, of course, is a win-win for the Tories. There is almost no way they can be held to account. If things go wrong, this must be the fault of the government – but the government, the state, ‘the present state of things’, is precisely what they are seen to oppose. Every blundering incompetence can thus be made into a reason to vote for them. More statist opposition parties end up functioning, in this Tory universe, like the God of Hangovers from Discworld, who exists to feel the consequences of the God of Wine’s excesses.
But this isn’t just a good strategy for holding power. It’s also a good strategy for exercising it – for policing people. Lockdown remains, for the most part, in place. But when people break it, they feel that Boris – and thus, the government – is somehow ‘with’ them. Let’s return to the lockdown-flouting motorist I mentioned above. “Boris says you can do what you want, go where you want now.” When he says this, the motorist feels that he is the one with the power of the state behind him, as opposed to the policeman (the literal representative of the state) he is addressing. He even goes on to imply that, as an Englishman, he ought to be exempt from Welsh law: “don’t we control Wales?” With Boris, spiritually, on his side, the motorist is able to go away from the encounter feeling satisfied: obviously, he feels injustice has been done to him (the policeman gives the motorist a fine, which the motorist complains about). But he is able to feel as if he is, nevertheless, in the right – his freedoms are being restricted, but he does not think to blame the people who are actually doing the restricting.
Meanwhile, staying at home – following the rules, in short – can almost become an act of rebellion. Believing the government to secretly want them to stop, the diligently locked-down can feel the thrill of transgression, precisely through remaining responsibly at home.
To close this article, by answering the question I asked at the start. When it comes to lockdown, what do the Tories want us to do? Well, as far as I can tell: it’s probably something close to the weird fudge we have now, where the country is open and active enough for the economy to minimally function and to stop people from getting rebelliously or resentfully bored, while also keeping enough people at home to allow them to spin the disaster as something they’re able to effectively deal with. Ultimately, the desired outcome for the Tories is pretty much the same as it ever is: to get through all this with their grip on power in this country strengthened, rather than weakened. With this as the criteria, it’s hard to claim our terrible anti-government government is having anything other than an excellent disaster.
Tom Whyman is a writer and philosopher from the UK.