It was perhaps a couple of decades ago that I began to see an extraordinarily consistent pattern, in the comedy strands served up for our amusement on BBC Radio 4. Perhaps the cleverest and best-written example of the genre was a show called Clare In The Community, by writer Harry Venning, about a politically correct senior social worker whose hypocrisy and lack of self-knowledge – and consequent capacity for general bullying and insensitivity – becomes more breathtaking with every unfolding episode.
The show is partly a powerful critique of the unacknowledged privilege of some sections of the British middle class; but it also carries a heavy freight of ideological assumption about the uselessness of any belief in equality, decency and social justice, and its inevitable collapse, under the pressure of the presumed “reality” that people are just not that nice. And if Clare, who first appeared in 2004, was a brand leader in the genre, she has been surrounded, over the last two decades, by flotillas of leading characters – usually male, often played by the incomparable Bill Nighy – whose function is to draw us into complicity with a way of life that combines charm with abject moral failure; indeed Jack Docherty, the writer and star of the Radio 4 comedy series Start/Stop, once light-heartedly described his central character Barney, with whom we are clearly intended to identify, as “a duplicitous, disloyal moral coward – and that’s just his good points”.
It’s a style of comedy that has always made me slightly uneasy; like Malvolio in Twelfth Night, I tend to “think nobly of the soul”, and dislike seeing all human aspirations to decency, fidelity, generosity or honesty characterised as mere hypocrisy. Over the last 40 years, though – since British society took its turn away from welfare-state collectivism – this ugly, reductive view of human nature seems to have gained ever more traction and acceptance in our public life; this despite the fact that it obviously represents only half of the truth, and that examples of kindness, decency and fidelity are everywhere, for those who care to see them.
And now, to my infinite sadness, I feel I am watching this attitude to people, and to human potential, playing itself out where it really matters – in the political decisions we make, and in the leaders we choose. There is no secret, for example, about the fact that Boris Johnson has been a faithless husband to both of his wives, that he cannot say how many children he has, and that he makes no pretence of being an attentive or present father; and for those who take the view that these are strictly private matters, there is also overwhelming evidence of lying, disloyalty, naked opportunism, and a casual attitude to ethics and the law, in his public life.
Yet somehow – in a close parallel to the Donald Trump phenomenon in the United States – Boris Johnson was the man with whom the largest single group of British voters seemed to feel comfortable, when they came to make their decisions in last year’a general election. “I just couldn’t trust Jeremy Corbyn,” said one Labour-to-Tory swing voter. “Do you trust Boris Johnson?” said the interviewer. “No”, said the woman, laughing. Others said they couldn’t, as working-class people, identify with someone as “middle class” as Jeremy Corbyn; before going on to vote for a Prime Minister who is far richer and more privileged than Jeremy Corbyn has ever been.
Double standards, in other words, have become the name of the game; and they have never been more clearly visible than in the fawning attitude of some newspapers to last weekend’s announcement that the Prime Minister’s girlfriend Carrie Symonds is expecting a baby, and that she and the still-married Johnson are now engaged. I could invite you to imagine the public reaction if a 55-year-old female Labour Prime Minister, recently elected, announced that she was starting another family with a 31-year-old lover, while still married to the husband she recently abandoned, along with their four children; but in truth, no leader of the left with a personal and political record like Johnson’s would ever have come anywhere near Downing Street, so effectively would they have been taken apart by the media.
And although all of this can seem like a story of personalities, rather than of policy and ideology, in truth it is hardly possible to overstate the seriousness of the prospect we face, with leadership of this quality, at this time. Because leaders like Trump and Johnson behave badly, and do not apologise for their bad behaviour, they are perceived as “authentic” and “honest”; their lack of ethical and social aspiration, and their visible alliance with the wealthy and powerful in our unequal world, seems somehow familiar and reassuring.
Yet in truth, the unreliability and self-absorption of leaders like Trump and Johnson, and their inability to open their mouths without lying and confabulating, renders them all but useless as leaders in any serious situation; including the current coronavirus crisis, and of course the looming climate emergency, which requires both a clear vision of a more sustainable world, and an actual belief that it can be achieved.
Imagine, if you can, what would have happened to postwar Britain if voters in 1945 had taken the same cynical view of what our society might achieve that so many voters took last December, when they dismissed Jeremy Corbyn’s much less ambitious manifesto for social justice and a green new deal as unrealistic pie-in-the-sky.
And then tremble for the nations that – faced with what is perhaps humanity’s greatest challenge yet – have chosen leaders who reflect back their acquired view of themselves as merely selfish, jokey, self-indulgent and opportunistic, rather than appealing to those reserves of idealism, hard work and strong, generous collective endeavour that have always been essential for social progress; qualities that – if edited out of our shared sense of ourselves – leave us not only with diminished self-esteem and happiness at the personal level, but with a society unable to maintain and cherish its own social fabric, at exactly the moment when those bonds, structures, safety-nets, and arenas for action, are most desperately needed.