April 28, 2021

Which of the following is the odd man out?

  1. Mobutu Sese Seko, African dictator, who embezzled at least $4 billion while leading one of the poorest countries on the planet?
  2. Héshēn, the most corrupt official in Chinese imperial history, who amassed a vast fortune including 20 solid gold bedsteads and 600 concubines?
  3. Benedict IX, who stands out among dodgy medieval popes as the only one who sold his position to his successor?
  4. Boris Johnson, who tried to get some private donors to pay for improvements to a public building, before giving up on that idea and paying for the work himself?

Not for the first time in his life, Mr Johnson appears to be the exception. Clearly, sleaze ain’t what it used to be. Even by boring British standards, the current “scandal” — if that’s what you can call it — is underwhelming. There’s no comparison to, say, David Lloyd George who flogged-off peerages to the highest bidder or John Stonehouse who faked his own death.

Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email

Already registered? Sign in

And yet over the last week, we’ve had day-after-day of screaming front-page headlines — depicting Downing Street as a latter-day court of Caligula.

It’s absurd. Everyone knows it’s absurd. And yet “we” — by which I mean those in the media — pretend that this nonsense matters.

Take the allegation that the PM remarked that he’d rather see “bodies pile high” than take the country into another lockdown. I don’t care whether he said it or not. I do care if our leaders can’t use intemperate language or gallows humour to let off steam in private.

What next? Perhaps we could force our politicians to wear body-cams and microphones at all times in case they do or say something offensive. What was that, Prime Minister? An inappropriate smile? A muttered expletive? Will you apologise to the British people and resign immediately?

What is genuinely offensive is that while the media are engaged in fevered speculation as to what Boris Johnson did or didn’t say, actual bodies are piling up — in India. If you haven’t done so already, I’d urge you to read Tom Chivers’s sobering article on the issue. It’s not just the scale of tragedy that stands out, but the fact that the West could be helping with its supply of desperately needed vaccines.

Britain — with its close ties to India and its influence on vaccine policy — could be playing a leading role in mobilising a global effort. But with Covid spiralling out of control in the world’s second most populous country, we’ve been arguing about interior decor instead. This twisted sense of priorities is the real scandal, but as it involves the journalistic establishment as well as the political one, don’t expect the mainstream media to complain.

Indeed, far from heralding the fall of the House of Boris, the story behind the non-stories of last week is in fact a reassertion of control. When the Covid pandemic washed over our shores last year, it disrupted the established order of Westminster politics. As the full gravity of situation became unignorable, things that had been seen as important — including things that actually were important, like Brexit — were suddenly overshadowed. That meant that the people who dealt in the normal currency of Westminster politics were overshadowed too. They could only look on helplessly from the wings as the likes of Chris Whitty, Patrick Vallance and Jonathan Van-Tam took centre stage.

In newsrooms, science and medical reporters had their stories promoted to the front page. Indeed, just about anyone with a basic grasp of statistics found themselves in demand — and a lot more relevant than the previously dominant Westminster gossipmongers.

Of course, the latter took every opportunity to claw their way back into the limelight. A prime example was last summer’s press conference with Dominic Cummings in the Downing Street garden. One after another, the big names of British political journalism puffed themselves up to express their moral indignation. But in doing so they only exposed their own powerlessness — Cummings lived to fight another day.

More serious was what followed, which was a free pass for actual government policy. Decisions on which ministers should have found themselves under serious pressure — such as the reckless encouragement of international travel — were more celebrated than scrutinised. The trouble we were brewing for ourselves later in the year went largely unanticipated.

Luckily, the vaccine cavalry was on its way to rescue us. But don’t forget that last autumn, the media were more interested in attacking Kate Bingham for who she’s married to and who she went to school with, than understanding her vital work with the Vaccine Taskforce. Had politics-as-usual been in full force, the media witch-hunt may well have forced her out. Fortunately, the grown-ups were in charge and she was able to finish her job.

The irony is that it’s the success of the Vaccine Taskforce that’s allowing politics-as-usual to reassert itself. Half the population has been vaccinated, Covid deaths are heading down to zero and lockdown is lifting.

In celebrating with a festival of gossip our political journalists are signalling that nature has healed and they are back in charge of the news agenda. Indeed, no titbit from the last 12 months is too trivial not rake-up and present again to the public; for example, the alleged animosity between Dominic Cummings and, er, Dilyn — the Prime Minister’s canine companion.

The mystery is why our leaders are so keen to feed the beast, by which I don’t mean the dog. Even if they didn’t have events of world-historical importance to concentrate on, like India, ministers have enough to worry about at home. For instance, it’s just over a week to the Scottish Parliament elections, on which the fate of the Union hangs. There’s also the Welsh Senedd elections and a double set of local elections. And let’s not forget the crucial Hartlepool by-election — which could cement Tory control of the North or provide the first sign of a Labour comeback.

It therefore seems an extraordinary time for Downing Street to start a briefing war with Dominic Cummings.

But then one has remember that No 10 isn’t just the victim of the Westminster gossip machine, but an active participant. From the Prime Minister downwards, they’re all devotees of a political culture which is all about mastery of the unimportant.

In his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera explores whether it is better to live one’s life “heavily” — that is to deeply care about the situations one finds oneself living in and the people we share them with; or to live life “lightly” — without being weighed-down by any great burden of responsibility for anyone or anything.

Through the characters, he ultimately comes down on the side of heaviness — and, as such, he is writing against the philosophy of Friederich Nietzsche. It may seem strange to associate Nietzsche with lightness or levity, but that is the ultimate meaning of his ideal of the Übermensch. It isn’t actually any concept of racial superiority that makes the Nietzsche’s “super-man” über, but the fact that he rises above the things that weigh down ordinary people — especially Christian notions of morality and the distinction between right and wrong.

In its own shallow kind of way, there’s something distinctly Nietzchean about the British culture of politics. It too refuses to be weighed down. It is ruled by super-persons who consider themselves above the details of governance and are much more interested in fleeting moods and shifting narratives then anything concrete.

Covid, however, made politics heavy again. Suddenly it became impossible to prevail through rhetorical means alone. The politicians who tried, such as Donald Trump or Ursula von der Leyen, came badly unstuck. For the first time in years, politics fell into the hands of people who really know and care about things that actually matter.

In this country we now have a choice. It is whether to stay grounded in the real or to return full control to the PR spivs. I’ve got a horrible feeling that it going to be the latter – and that really is unbearable.