This pandemic has revealed which countries are being governed by grown-ups
Something changed this last weekend. It’s hard to define precisely what, but there was suddenly a new tetchiness in the air. On a practical level, there were reports everywhere of more people on the move, more gatherings in gardens and parks, more grumbles of discontent. Even here in rural Montgomeryshire, where normally there would only be a couple of dozen vehicles a day pass the house, the lane hummed with walkers, cyclists and cars.
Stoicism is wearing perilously thin, and we’ve all become Harry Enfield’s teenage Kevin: “it’s not FAIR!” The rapidly lengthening days shine an even brighter light on our incarceration. As a friend put it to me, ‘it’s hard to know what day it is, and now that the days are getting longer it’s hard to know even what time of day it is’. Someone else said that the change was calibrated most alarmingly on the Thursday night claps. ‘When they began,’ she explained, ‘they were in the dark, and felt kind of private. Every week, they’re getting lighter – and you feel almost exposed now.’ It is not a comfortable sensation.
The chorus of birdsong is swelling, but so is the rather less melodious choir of libertarians and right-wingers demanding an end to the lockdown. And although the song appears to be the same, they’re not all singing the same tune. For the Telegraph Tendency, it’s a relatively simple choice: business versus health, unshackled free enterprise versus the horrors of the nanny state. We always suspected that to them, other people’s lives were worth less than the price of a good dinner, and at long last, they’re saying so.
Allied to them, and sometimes overlapping, are Dominic Cummings’ ‘misfits and weirdoes’: the incels, eugenicists and supremacists that have somehow found themselves shuffling from gaming into government. ‘Herd immunity’ looked so plausible and efficient on the computer model, but didn’t play out too well in the focus groups when their members started to die.
And then there’s a ragbag of folk who love to think that they are warriors of freedom, though usually that’s just the freedom to bore the arse off anyone they encounter. Get ten of them together and you’ll hear twenty different conspiracy theories before you can say ‘5G network’. Have a look on YouTube for the very entertaining demo organised on Saturday in – where else – Glastonbury, addressed by Jeremy Corbyn’s splendidly out-there brother Piers.
None of these fringe inhabitants would be gaining traction were it not for the fact that where mainstream politics should be operating, there is only a great gaping void. Our tolerance threshold for bullshit has been so systematically eroded, we barely have the ability to see it as anything unusual. Nothing could have underlined that better than Boris Johnson bouncing out of Number Ten yesterday and firing off a fusillade of gung-ho twaddle that elicited from the media nothing but a flutter of schoolgirl swoons.
In ten years time, when the memoirs emerge, we might discover some of the reasons for the hold that Johnson has on large swathes of the British establishment. His carefully staged persona has been crafted and puffed up for decades, and – inexplicably to many of us – still seems to be working in terms of public support. The image of the wartime general who nearly died in battle is already being milked mercilessly; we can expect so much more of that, I’m afraid. But it should be perfectly possible to say both how relieved we are that he survived this awful disease, while also demanding that he answers for his incompetent and utterly mendacious government.
Johnson’s kind of public school exceptionalism is a very English trait, a perpetually teenage bumptiousness that doesn’t really work in the highly different milieu of Welsh politics (reason enough in itself for more national autonomy). Without such a huge and reverberating echo chamber, cheap populism here sounds terribly tinny and shrill, and long may that continue to be the case. It’d be hard to pin such a label on Mark Drakeford, even if he has been noticeably beefing up his rhetoric of late, especially to the London media. It’s good to see, even if it’s rather like seeing Bagpuss take on the tigers at the zoo.
There have been many memes and threads in recent weeks about the apparent stark divide in handling the pandemic between the countries with macho authoritarians and populists at the helm (e.g. USA, Brazil, India, Russia, UK) and those governed by far more empathetic women (e.g. Germany, New Zealand, Taiwan).
While that divide is genuine and interesting, there’s an even clearer one to me: administrations of adults (who treat their people as such) and those of petulant children (ditto). If we want to be governed by grown-ups, perhaps we need to start thinking and acting like them too.
Read more in Mike Parker’s series for Nation.Cymru below: