Moral panic and Partygate

It has often been said that there are few things more ridiculous than the Great British Public in a state of moral panic. However a lot of the present moral panic about Whitehall parties seems to me something of a confected media event.

Make no mistake: the British public are very angry about these revelations. They are angry because they kept the rules and their rulers didn’t. They remember parents and grandparents who died alone with only a kindly nurse to hold their hand. Often they could not even give them a proper funeral. And they remember the Queen sitting alone in the chapel at Windsor in her black mask, with none of her children able to comfort her for the loss of her husband because they weren’t part of her “bubble” and because she was determined not to allow herself anything that her subjects were denied. Of course people are furious that high-ranking civil servants were partying the night before. But this generalised public anger at the Whitehall establishment is quite distinct from the specific media focus on Boris Johnson as a bogeyman who must be got rid of.

To begin with, Johnson was not sent to Downing Street with the biggest majority in decades because the electorate thought he was a noble and good person. They always knew he was a rogue. To be fair to him, he has never pretended to be anything else. Johnson is ambitious, unscrupulous and amoral, but at his best he can work magic. He can do things that no else seems able to do, sometimes that no one else would dare to do. He was elected specifically to get Brexit done and he succeeded where everyone else had failed. Some of the negotiations at that time were the most brilliant seat-of-the-pants flying that I have ever seen. Who but Boris would have armed himself in advance with a power, voted to him by parliament but illegal under international agreements, not because he had the slightest intention of using it, but in order to be able to trade it away for what he really wanted? It was an outrageous tactic but it worked. It was also Boris Johnson, more than anyone else, who drove the investment of time and money into developing and ordering vaccines that put us ahead of all other countries except Israel when it came to vaccinating our people.

Furthermore, most members of the public have an even lower opinion of Johnson’s accusers than they currently do of him. Dominic Cummings in particular is seen as being motivated wholly by the desire for revenge on the man who dumped him in 2020. It does not help his case either that he notoriously broke lockdown restrictions himself at that time and then tried publicly to justify it. Does anyone really believe that he drove all the way to Barnard Castle simply to test his eyesight? A well known saying about pots and kettles comes to mind.

Thirdly, people are not at all pleased to see police time being wasted on this nonsensical affair, all the more so as it all supposedly took place two years ago and would have merited no more than an on-the-spot fine if detected then. Actually I don’t remember a time when the police, and the Metropolitan Police in particular, were so despised by the general public. I think it’s because they no longer seem interested in protecting ordinary people from crime. It is impossible to get rapists into court nowadays; rape has effectively been decriminalised and women are not safe on the streets any more. Burglary is dealt with simply with by giving victims a crime number so that they can claim insurance. And no one is doing anything at all about the wave of online and telephone fraud which is emptying the nation’s bank accounts. But there always seems to be plenty of police time available to comb Twitter for alleged hate crimes and to chase after stale cake!

And fourthly, a lot of people suspect a secret agenda here, not least because of the way the media (especially the BBC) are choosing to handle the whole thing. We currently have a world-wide energy and fuel crisis, a national cost of living crisis threatening a return to the rampant inflation of the 1970’s, and a small but finite possibility that World War Three will break out over the Ukraine. You would expect news bulletins and current affairs programmes to be full of these things. But it seems that all journalists want to talk about day after day is parties in Downing Street. Have they no sense of proportion?

Significantly a lot of the hostile leaks on which the media are feeding are coming from the upper echelons of the civil service. Now I used to be a civil servant myself and it was always a source of great pride to me that the British Civil Service was and is largely immune to the financial corruption that is so sadly common among government officials in other parts of the world. British civil servants have also traditionally prided themselves on being politically neutral, ready to work whole-heartedly with any government the electorate chooses. I hope and believe that they remain neutral as far as party politics are concerned. But the real political divisions in modern society no longer follow party lines, and the topmost advisory and administrative layer of the civil service (not the service as a whole, I think) is anything but neutral on most of these.

To put it bluntly, all these people are passionate "Remainers", as are most of the journalists who work for the BBC and similar companies. They are all supposed to be neutral and cannot therefore openly express an opinion about such matters, but people who can (like Michael Heseltine for example) have said or written quite honestly that getting rid of Boris Johnson would be highly desirable as the first step to getting us back into the EU. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see a pattern here.

But the greatest irony is that most of the real (as distinct from confected) public outrage is simply about the contrast between what was allegedly going on in Downing Street and what people were suffering in the outside world at the same time. If lockdown had been less harshly enforced — if there had been no separated families, no old ladies fined by officious policemen for sitting down on a park bench to catch their breath, no endlessly postponed weddings or bleak, unattended funerals — I suspect that many people would not give a toss about whether or not Boris Johnson was served a cake by his civil servants on his birthday . One of the things that I most hope for after the pandemic is a proper statistical evaluation of the real social costs of statutory lockdown, and the real effects on covid mortality and morbidity compared with the kind of voluntary public discipline that was practiced in countries like Sweden.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but in 2020, nobody really know what we were up against or how to deal with it. We carried out a huge social and medical experiment and we still have no idea of the actual benefits (if any) or of the costs to social cohesion, to political trust, to people’s overall physical and mental health. We are just beginning to find out and the fault lines are popping up in some very odd places.

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