In the 19th-century Welsh Marches, when someone lay on their deathbed, folklore reports that it was usual to summon a person known as the “sin-eater”. This person would place a plate of salt on the dying person’s breast, then a piece of bread on the salt. Then, as a witness described in 1852, the sin-eater “muttered an incantation over the bread, which he finally ate, thereby eating up all the sins of the deceased”.
Today’s sin-eater is yesterday’s cake-eater: the Prime Minister who not long ago was being castigated for not imposing lockdown rules swiftly enough, and is now being berated for never really believing the rules. Meanwhile, no one respectable wants to look at whether the rules he imposed, with overwhelming public support, were themselves worth the price.
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The rules were harsh and the No. 10 breaches were numerous: “socially distanced drinks”, boozing on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral, leaving and Christmas parties, cheese and wine. The list goes on; but the minutiae are less important than the cumulative sense that the Government, presided over by Johnson, carried right on with normal, sociable working life while the rest of the country dutifully took the lockdowns literally and endured a self-imposed state of alienation, isolation and misery.
No doubt some measure of the resulting media feeding-frenzy is powered by people who raged at Johnson’s Brexit-era political untouchability. His haute Remainer haters are hugging themselves with glee to find him now not only touchable, but downright tarnished.
This group would try to turn Boris forgetting to put the loo seat down into a resignation offence. But beyond this Greek chorus, Partygate has cut through all the way to the sensible people who take even less of an interest in Westminster court politics than I.
Some of this is about offences against the British sense of fair play. After the Great Crash, David Cameron declared that “we’re all in it together”, a slogan regularly flung back at him when (as was often the case) his policy decisions seemed to fly in the face of this high sentiment.
If Cameron’s austerity demanded a straitening of the public purse-strings, our pandemic-era leaders demanded an equally austere straitening of the public heartstrings. We were asked, in the name of social solidarity, to accept a brutally thin gruel of human contact and intimacy. And now public outrage is driven by the same feeling that we’re not ‘all in it together’, and never were.
Beyond the fury, though, lies something deeper yet, and far more uncomfortable: a need for absolution.
Richard Munslow, the last known sin-eater, died in 1906. But the work of French philosopher René Girard suggests we’re less removed from the practice of singling out one individual to carry the weight of collective wrongdoing than we might imagine.
In Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978), Girard argues that human societies long ago developed what he calls the “scapegoat mechanism”, as a means of keeping social rivalries in check. Where tensions threaten to boil over, he suggests, a group will instead resolve them by focusing anger and hostility on a single individual.
Today, social tensions are certainly high – and pandemic measures a central battleground. Some in our increasingly politicised debate claim Covid is a “plandemic” pushed by plutocrats, or that vaccines are unsafe, and merely an element in a “New World Order” conspiracy between government, finance and Big Pharma.
On the other side, supporting public-health measures has also become a political identity. For the most zealous, it’s no longer even really about science: I have argued that, for some, vaccination has taken on a social meaning wholly independent of the vaccine’s actual function, that’s less about public health or infection control than spiritual purity.
But we didn’t get here all at once. On March 9, 2020 Italy imposed a lockdown, and on March 23, Britain followed suit; but the slide toward today’s bien-pensant restrictionist orthodoxy wasn’t immediate. Into April that year, it was possible to argue in the Guardian that borders should stay open and that masks don’t work.
But by then the public was already under lock and key. It felt like a moment of national crisis, and the moral pressure to “do your bit” was powerful. It also swiftly took on a censorious edge, with surveillance drones over the Peak District, a scenic lake dyed black to deter anyone in search of a pretty view, and police forces setting up easy ways for people to dob their neighbours in.
The cost of this mass collective effort at austerity of the heart was innumerable tiny moments of alienation. People tried to educate five-year-olds on Zoom, or denied them birthday parties. Large families were banned by the rules from seeing grandparents. There was the little old lady fined for sharing a socially-distanced cup of tea in her communal garden. People died alone in hospitals, or struggled, unsupported, with illness and disability.
People reported seeing their aged parents, locked away in care homes for their own safety, visibly dying of loneliness. A nurse was arrested for trying to take her 97-year-old mother out of a nursing home, so she didn’t have to wither away in isolation like that.
We all suffered, and nearly all agreed to it. Now, as even the Covid-maximalist Guardian reports that Omicron seems to be waning as rapidly as it waxed, the question rears its ugly head: was any of it worth what we suffered? Were we right to assent collectively to austerity of the heart?
Re-opening that question would mean revisiting every extra instant of loneliness or abandonment experienced over the last two years, in the name of public health. Every instant borne disproportionately by the members of our community oldest, youngest, poorest or the most in need of care – and that every one of us went along with.
I don’t know if it was worth what we suffered. But the behaviour of Boris Johnson suggests he was never entirely convinced. So now we’re angry with him. The Labour Party tweeted a quote from “Jenny”, an NHS nurse, who described how a man ‘begged, wept, shouted to be let in, but we said no – for the greater good of everyone else.” The man’s wife then “died unexpectedly and alone, as the Government had a party.”
A funeral worker broke down in tears on LBC, describing to James O’Brien how he felt ‘like an idiot’ for stopping weeping, bereaved people coming into funerals, to mourn their dead loved ones.
Electoral politics likes to pretend that whatever policy is being offered won’t come with any downsides. Johnson himself is famed for such “cakeism”, which he brought in spades to the Brexit campaign. But as Rafael Behr pointed out recently, the pandemic has forced us to confront the fact that sometimes there are no cost-free choices.
In Behr’s view, the cakeist error was clinging to “liberty” when we needed was swifter and more decisive restrictions. Such measures as were imposed were, for the most part, followed in good faith: the nurses turning sobbing relatives away from wards where their loved ones lay dying did so out of concern for the patients in their care, not a sadistic wish to sever the bonds of family.
But lurking in the background of all the rage now pouring out at Johnson lies the opposite possibility: that perhaps all that alienation and misery didn’t make enough difference in the end to have been worth it.
Is this true? We’ll never know. We made the choices we made. And now, thanks to Johnson’s metamorphosis from our leader to our sin-eater, we don’t even need to wonder. All of it was his fault, all along.