The story of Boris Johnson’s coronavirus ordeal will surely become a moment of national memory, one of those legends that echoes down the years and comes to stand for much more than itself.
Mr Johnson will not be unhappy with that. He’s very interested in the “great man” theory of history — that way of understanding the world that attributes grand events and trends to the actions of a few heroic individuals. He loves the classics with their heaven-born heroes smiting each other hip and thigh in defiance of gods and fate. His hero is Pericles, the “first citizen of Athens”. He chose politics over journalism “because no one puts up statues of journalists”. He wrote a biography of Winston Churchill, the best-known great man of British imagination: he won the war, didn’t he?
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Provided he isn’t seen to have screwed up dramatically over the crisis once he’s recovered, it’s quite easy to see how the story of the prime minister who led the response to a deadly disease and nearly died from it himself will weave its way into the British imagination.
But the tale of Boris and the Virus can be told in two different ways. The way Conservatives, in particular, remember it will help decide whether the story unites or divides.
It all flows from a very basic question: why did Boris survive? How people answer that question will say a lot about politics and determine how Britain changes — or does not change — when we finally put coronavirus behind us.
Some will describe a battle of personal heroism, of grit and determination. Even when the PM was in the ICU and his fate was, frankly, uncertain, many people were talking of his toughness, his vigour, how his strong character and boundless appetite for life would equip him to “fight” the virus and win.
I don’t much like that language, though I understand why people use it. I worry it overstates the role that character and personal choice play in medical outcomes. When I wrote elsewhere about this last week, I was slightly surprised by the vehemence and volume of responses. I know that Twitter isn’t Britain and all that but it’s still a bit striking to see people arguing that yes, some people die of various diseases because they just don’t want to live. That even life and death are ultimately a matter of choices made by individuals.
Others, though, will describe how he survived thanks to a huge infrastructure of medical support, provided and funded by many other people — as well as a bit of blind luck. To grossly over-simplify, some people will remember that Boris survived because he wanted to, because of things he did himself while others will say that it was because other people looked after him when he needed it.
The more weight you put on the first explanation, the more likely you are to be somewhere on the Right of the political spectrum. The idea that people choose their fate is popular among conservative-inclined voters. A very good study by the Bright Blue think tank in 2014 found that Tory voters were about twice as likely as Labour people to say that people in poverty are poor because of their own choices: they haven’t done enough to help themselves.
Similar evidence in the US suggests that people on the Right tend to believe that those who enjoy economic success do so largely or solely because of their own efforts.
As Bright Blue put it:
“One key conservative belief concerns the degree of power and responsibility individuals have over their own situation. Conservatives tend to see individuals as agents who can shape and determine their circumstances, and so see them as agents responsible for such circumstances.”
The other side of the old Left-Right binary is a familiar story, best articulated by Elizabeth Warren in 2012 talking about how people get rich:
“You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police-forces and fire-forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory — and hire someone to protect against this — because of the work the rest of us did.”
(This is the speech that led Barack Obama to attempt the same argument with disastrous consequences in his “You didn’t build that” comments. He was talking about the social infrastructure that supports business, but he botched his lines and created a meme that helped elect Donald Trump. Words matter, folks.)
Whether Covid-19 changes politics depends on how conservatives chose to explain Boris’ recovery. If they cling to the idea of people as rugged individuals deciding their own fate, politics will remain divided on its current left-right binary. If they look beyond heroic individualism and accept that individuals exist in a network of social bonds and obligations, we might just see a real realignment and the start of genuine post-liberal politics in the UK.
For the Left, the coronavirus crisis offers little in the way of intellectual challenge. A national crisis revolving around the NHS and requiring collective social effort is likely to feel like validation instead. Jeremy Corbyn’s claim that the crisis proves him right over public spending will be the foundation-stone of a myth built by his devotees that if only he’d become PM, none of the bad things would have happens.
The equivalent retreat to the comfort-zone for conservatives would be to use the Boris story as a validation of individualism. But more interesting, challenging and profitable would be to learn from the obvious fact that the PM did not win his “battle” against the coronavirus alone.
In the modern history of ideas on the Right, some of the most prominent explanations of individual agency lead to an atomised view of society and a minimal state. Think of Ayn Rand (“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being”) or Friedrich Hayek, who said that “after creating formal equality of the rules applying in the same manner to all, we can leave each individual to find his own level.”
But more recent and more interesting thinkers have begun to test that heroic individualism. Think of John Gray’s Post-Liberalism. Gray, in turn, has paved the way for post-liberal political practitioners such as Nick Timothy, who has recently published his own book, Remaking One Nation: The Future of Conservatism.
What makes Timothy intriguing and original is that he is a Conservative (and a conservative) who enthusiastically embraces the state — and rejects the idea of heroic individual success:
“Nobody, however successful they might be, has succeeded alone. They might have relied on their families to give them love and security. They might have a school, college or university to thank. They might have benefited from the kindness or wisdom of a mentor or employer. They might have been supported by the state, through the welfare system or … a Sure Start centre. Precisely because nobody has succeeded alone, we all have a debt to others. “
Which brings us, circuitously, back to Boris Johnson and how he — and by extension his party — will remember his recovery. It is notable that his short message briefed to the Sunday papers is all about the NHS and the debt that he incurred in illness. “I owe them my life,” Johnson said simply.
That is an acknowledgment that even the most heroic individual does not rise — or fall — alone. But will that acknowledgement carry through into a wider revision of Conservative thinking around public services and collective provision? That would be no surprise: Tories have been trying to embrace the NHS since David Cameron became leader in 2005. A post-crisis settlement where the Tories seek to define themselves as the party of the NHS would be a logical, if extremely difficult, aim now.
Most contemporary Tories would have little trouble embracing the NHS: the number of ideologues who actually want to break it up or sell it off is vanishingly small. More novel and challenging would be a Tory rethink about welfare.
Even though some Tories have recently tried a new approach to welfare — think of Iain Duncan Smith and Universal Credit — they have stuck with the idea of rational, autonomous individuals deciding their own path. Universal Credit was premised on the idea that claimants were deciding not to work more because the financial return wasn’t there. Even Tory welfare reformers thought welfare was a question of choice.
We may well be about to see unemployment temporarily pass the three million mark, with hundreds of thousands of people now needing benefits to get by. And all through no fault or choice of their own: can you really hold people personally responsible for being sacked by employers whose business has been shut down by a pandemic? Those Conservative attitudes to claimants will surely be tested in the months ahead.
So far, post-liberalism is a fringe element on the British Right, so politics remains broadly familiar. The 2019 election opened up the possibility for these things to change, but then the virus hit and all the emergent thinking about “levelling up” and the Tory embrace of the state was thrown into the crucible.
Are we heroic individuals who decide our own fate, or social animals whose outcomes are inextricably bound up with — and partly dependent on — the actions of others? Boris will likely get his statues one day. And how the story of his illness and its happy ending are told by his friends might just determine the history of Britain after the virus.
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