Boris Johnson's 'gaslighting' of Britain has been so successful that his Covid failings hardly seem to matter – Joyce McMillan

It was on Tuesday of this week that the House of Commons’ Health and Social Care Committee, chaired by Jeremy Hunt, and its Science and Technology Committee, chaired by Greg Clark, published their joint report into the UK government’s handling of the early part of the Covid pandemic; and the document is already on its way to becoming a classic of its kind.
Boris Johnson should heed the words of Vaclav Havel that free citizens need to 'live in the truth' (Picture: Frank Augstein/WPA pool/Getty Images)Boris Johnson should heed the words of Vaclav Havel that free citizens need to 'live in the truth' (Picture: Frank Augstein/WPA pool/Getty Images)
Boris Johnson should heed the words of Vaclav Havel that free citizens need to 'live in the truth' (Picture: Frank Augstein/WPA pool/Getty Images)

The report – from two committees both chaired by former Conservative ministers – contained a raft of damning criticisms of the performance of both government ministers and their scientific advisers in the run-up to the UK’s full lockdown on 23 March 2020, and then again before similar measures were taken in the autumn; lockdowns which, they argue, could and should – given the information already available – have come weeks earlier, saving tens of thousands of lives.

This, though, is a report that deals in facts, and not in rhetoric or rabble-rousing; and even the most casual observer of current UK politics will therefore be aware that its short-term impact is likely to be limited.

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The Prime Minister who presided over last year’s questionable policy decisions felt no need to respond to the report at all. On the contrary, he was on holiday in Marbella, at a villa owned by one of his many millionaire ‘friends’; and as his speech at last week’s party conference made clear, he would never in any case allow such facts to get in the way of his triumphalist celebration of the UK’s pandemic response, which – in his world – was always world-beating, and is now a roaring success.

And the question that arises from this week’s report is therefore not about its immediate impact; but about what it does to people, to live in a society where the mechanisms of accountability for such misjudgements seem to have all but broken down.

This week, Hannah Brady of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families For Justice group used the word “gaslighting” to describe her feelings; and it is difficult indeed to imagine how those scores of thousands of grieving families must feel, when they hear the Prime Minister talking in jovial terms about the UK’s imagined triumph over the pandemic.

At the very least, they must feel a sense of dissociation between lived reality and official rhetoric that can cause pain, anger and profound depression; and of course, the Covid pandemic is not the only area in which this dissociation is being experienced in the UK at the moment.

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The whole of Northern Ireland for example – with the exception of a small minority of extreme diehard unionists – must currently be watching agape, as the UK government does its level best, for reasons of low politics, to sabotage a trade protocol about which it was boasting less than a year ago, and which has been working well, in terms of protecting Northern Ireland from the current Brexit-related shortages elsewhere in the UK.

And it’s a pattern of disjunction repeated again and again, across the public pronouncements of a government that says, for example, that it believes in freedom, but ruthlessly denies the basic human right to travel in search of a better life; or that says it wants to ‘level up’, but suppresses public sector pay, starves local authorities of cash for essential services, and rips £20 a week in Universal Credit out of the hands of Britain’s poorest families.

Theories seeking to explain the government’s continuing relative popularity, despite this deluge of doublespeak, suggest that its supporters no longer seek or want truthfulness, integrity or decency from governments or leading politicians; instead they identify with and admire those, like Boris Johnson, who can “get away with it”, break rules with impunity, make themselves rich at others’ expense, and provide good entertainment value while they do it.

It’s not that most people in the UK actually subscribe to these views or values for themselves; most people continue, in their daily lives, to be kind, generous, and truthful, and – as we have seen during the pandemic – often show astonishing compassion, resilience and endurance in a crisis.

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Yet it seems that a critical section of the UK voting public has ceased to expect or demand a politics that significantly reflects those values; and has instead settled for a government that repeatedly betrays and even mocks them, while wrapping itself in cultural signals – including the defence of a rose-coloured version of British history that avoids any discussion of colonialism or slavery – that seem to reassure many voters that, despite all their actions to the contrary, they are somehow “on their side”.

And this is the Tory stranglehold on British public opinion that supporters of practical and realistic progressive politics across all parties should now be striving to break, if they want the UK – either as a union or a reimagined confederation – to avoid a future of profound reaction and serious decline.

As Vaclav Havel once unforgettably put it, free citizens need the right to “live in the truth”; and to that end, the Tories’ lying triumphalism needs to be exposed, their creeping authoritarianism fought tooth and nail, their reckless conflict-mongering for cheap headlines stopped in its tracks, and the false narrative of a cheap right-wing retro-patriotism replaced with real love for the people of these islands, and the kind of policies that truly invest in their future health, wisdom and well-being.

In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the foundation-stones for that kind of resistance to the blustering demons of Johnsonism are already laid; not perfectly, but they exist. Now, though, the English opposition urgently needs to find a coherent voice, and join that effort of resistance; or risk a future not only economically grim and divisive, but also morally corrosive and degrading, in ways that – slowly but surely – begin to eat the soul.

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