Boris Johnson is a master of self-delusion. As a child he wanted to be “world king”, later convincing himself he had what it takes to be one of Britain’s great Prime Ministers in the mould of Churchill or Disraeli.
More than a year into his premiership, as we stand on the precipice of economic Armageddon, in the midst of a global pandemic, he looks increasingly out of his depth. A blustering buffoon masquerading as a Prime Minister.
But real life hasn’t dented his manic self-confidence, or his talent for making things up as he goes along. Britain will “prosper mightily one way or another,” he said a few days ago about the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, as economists warned of looming disaster.
His latest denial of reality is his assertion that the UK will soon be able to test millions of people every day for coronavirus.
As hard-pressed scientists, who rely on empirical evidence to get them through the day, looked on aghast, the Prime Minister insisted that “it should be possible to deploy these tests on a far bigger scale than any country has yet achieved – literally millions of tests processed every single day.”
His loudly trumpeted “Operation Moonshot” is delusional politics at its best – or worst – depending on your point of view.
Current testing capacity is only 350,000 a day and laboratories are struggling to keep up with demand. The prospect of millions of tests a day is as unbelievable as if Johnson had just announced he was about to be the first man to walk on the moon, as Dr David Strain, chairman of the BMA’s medical academic staff committee, told the BBC.
“The Prime Minister’s suggestion that this will be as simple as ‘getting a pregnancy test’ that will give results within 15 minutes is unlikely, if not impossible, in the timescale he was suggesting to get the country back on track,” he said bluntly.
“The mass-testing strategy is fundamentally flawed, in that it is being based on technology that does not, as yet, exist,” he added for extra emphasis.
We can all be guilty of self-delusion. Sometimes the failure to recognise reality is the only way to get through the day, whether it is convincing yourself you are two stones lighter than the scales suggest, or that tonight you will win the lottery.
Occasionally believing something is true when it’s so clearly not, is a quirk of human nature. Harmless, unless taken to extremes. Or when it infects our body politic.
Johnson is not the only leader to indulge in delusional politics. Indeed, we are currently facing a global epidemic of deception, with Donald Trump the grand master of misleading statements.
He lies about everything. Tapes released a few days ago reveal that during an interview on 7 February with Bob Woodward, one of the two journalists who broke the Watergate scandal which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974, Trump admitted he knew coronavirus was dangerous.
“It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus,” he said. Yet in public pronouncements after that, he dismissed the virus as nothing to worry about. “Just stay calm, it will go away,” he instructed America.
On Tuesday, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that the number of Covid-19 cases in the USA had surpassed six million and over 190,000 people have died. And research by the University of Washington suggests that, by the end of the year, the death toll could reach 400,000.
On Wednesday, Donald Trump justified ignoring the dangers of Covid-19 by saying he didn’t want people to be frightened.
“I don’t want to create panic, as you say, and certainly I’m not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy. We want to show confidence, we want to show strength,” he insisted.
This unrealistic, reckless insistence on showing confidence and strength infects Scottish politics too, most notably around the economics of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom.
The facts about the fiscal and monetary ties that bind the UK together are inescapable. Scotland’s latest financial report – published by the SNP-led Scottish Government – shows that we spend £15 billion a year more on public services and social protection than we raise in tax. The UK Government makes up the shortfall.
Scotland’s biggest trading partner is not the European Union, but the rest of the UK, with 60 per cent of our exports going to England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and only 19 per cent to Europe.
And the costs of Covid have been covered, not by Kate Forbes, Scotland’s Finance Minister, but by Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It was his plan that paid the salaries of nearly one million Scots furloughed during lockdown. And it is the UK Government that has secured 90 million doses of two different coronavirus vaccines, the only sure way we will escape Covid’s clutches.
Yet, despite all the evidence, Nicola Sturgeon and her tartan army insist that Scotland leaving the UK would be painless, invigorating even. Going it alone would generate such unparalleled economic growth that Scotland’s budget deficit of 8.6 per cent would simply disappear.
And Edinburgh would be magically transformed. Leading nationalist Angus Robertson wrote earlier this week that independence would bring the capital “global investment, jobs, economic growth, enhanced travel links, international visibility and a wide range of further benefits including to education, the environment and sustainable tourism.” Phew. Everything but a moonshot.
Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘Programme for Government’, published last week, argued that if there is majority support for independence after Holyrood’s elections next year, the UK Parliament cannot “ignore the rights of the people of Scotland to choose our own future”.
But just as Americans deserved to hear the truth from their President about the deadly danger of Covid-19, so the people of Scotland must be told the real cost of leaving the UK in the run-up to those elections. Only then can we properly choose our own future.
In the long term, delusional politics – whether spouted by Trump, Johnson or Sturgeon – will damage democracy.
Trusting people by telling them the truth, no matter how unpalatable, is the sign of a strong, confident leader. Anything else is just a delusion.
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