Who will represent the dissenting minority?
UnHerd polling shows that a populist strain in British politics persists
A new UnHerd Britain poll released today confirms that Britons still support lockdowns. When asked if they agreed with the statement that, in retrospect, lockdowns were a mistake, 54% of people disagreed, compared with only 27% who agreed.
Most interestingly, the results were very similar across different socioeconomic demographics and even among Labour and Conservative voters. This is certainly related to the fact that the founding myth of lockdowns — that they were a necessary evil to avoid an incalculably high number of Covid deaths — is still held by most people to be true, even though it is not supported by evidence, and ends up trumping all the negative effects of the policy.
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It also shows that, on highly polarising and identity-defining issues such as lockdowns, people’s opinions are virtually unshakeable: no amount of rational discussion is likely to change what are ultimately pre-political, tribal beliefs. It’s no coincidence that there is only one party whose members think lockdowns were a mistake: the Brexit Party.
This indicates that people’s stance on lockdown wasn’t — indeed, isn’t — driven primarily by their first-hand experience with the policy but, instead, largely by their pre-existing level of trust or distrust in elites, political institutions and the media. It confirms that “populism” versus “centrism” remains a defining feature of British politics — but it’s just that the former camp has been largely reabsorbed into the latter since Brexit, which has given way to less divisive issues such as the cost-of-living crisis and the NHS.
The virtual overlap between Conservative and Labour voters over lockdown, with an almost identical majority disagreeing with the notion that lockdowns were a mistake, may appear to confirm that Britain has entered a post-populist phase. Indeed, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage have been replaced by the two managerial and technocratic figures of Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer, who have largely indistinguishable positions on the major issues, and who have successfully steered the two main parties away from the radicalism of the last decade back towards the centre ground. However, the poll also shows that the Brexit divide still exists, even though it has been temporarily tapered over, and is likely to re-emerge in some form or another in the future.
The nearly 30% of citizens who think lockdowns were a mistake are unlikely to feel represented by either of the two major parties — on issues ranging from immigration to globalisation to the war in Ukraine. This silent (for now) but sizeable minority shows that there’s a potentially large space for a new populist party in Britain, and that the management of the pandemic will continue to remain an important divide in British society. Attempts to sweep the events of the past three years under the carpet won’t make the issue go away: they will only radicalise those who feel deeply betrayed by the political establishment.
It’s not so much the lockdowns I’m concerned about and whether or not they were a mistake (I believe they were, but there’s nothing much anyone can do about it now), but more about the change of character in Western governments. They seem to be becoming quite comfortable with dictating to the masses. It seems to me that their main purpose now is to extract as much money and labor as possible from the productive middle and working classes, while justifying it by labelling it ‘equality’, ‘anti-racism’ and / or ‘net zero’.
This article on Areo magazine goes some way to explain the means by which governments are doing this: https://areomagazine.com/2023/03/15/cute-authoritarianism/
I’d agree. I’ve not read the article you’ve linked to (yet) but the post-pandemic landscape looks and feels different. However it evolves, there’s no question that mature, educated, ‘democratic’ populations showing such willingness to give up freedoms has been an eye opener. I don’t absolve myself from that process.
If the Inquiry were to include this socio-political aspect within its scope, it might be worth the time and money that’ll be expended upon it; but of course, it won’t. How could it?
The author (as per usual) bandies terms like ‘populist’ and ‘centrist’ about as if they represented something any of us could agree upon, when they’re as malleable as clay on a potter’s wheel. I doubt any of us would end up drinking from the same resulting cup.
The Areo article that you linked to is very good – using cuteness and fluffy animals to sell authoritarianism to the masses.
re: “This indicates that people’s stance on lockdown wasn’t — indeed, isn’t — driven primarily by their first-hand experience with the policy but, instead, largely by their pre-existing level of trust or distrust in elites, political institutions and the media.”
There is a co-relation, but co-relation is not cause, and in my case the causality went precisely the other direction. I started out pre-pandemic with pretty good trust in media and political institutions. I didn’t think that the members of political institutions routinely lied to me, and the reason I thought that this was so, despite a political class that carried an over-burden of knaves, was that whenever they did the media would come by and expose them. Thus, however knavish I thought certain political figures (very) I thought that there was a limit to what nefarious things they could get up to because they would be found out.
But then, sitting in Sweden, I ended up with first-hand experience of the pandemic and found out that it was no longer was the case (if it ever was) that the media would ferret out the truth and present it over the objections of the politicians. Instead everybody lined up behind the one story we were all supposed to believe in, and when Sweden ended up not following the script we rarely had truth-finders coming to Sweden either to dispute the truths we were certain we had found (children are not serious vectors for Covid, masking doesn’t prevent much, and only the very elderly and those with at least 2 co-morbidities are at real risk for dying of this thing) or to learn them so they could teach them back home. Instead we got ‘truth is this narrative and to hell with any inconvenient facts’ and a daily dose of pillorying in the international press.
So it was the pandemic which taught me to not trust the media, because they now shill for whoever pays them, and sell the stories their readerships want to believe.
I am honestly curious here: Is it not the case that in Sweden the government and media were anti-lockdown? That would put you in the interesting position of being able to trust the Swedish government and media narrative – while rejecting both lockdowns and the UK version. If that is the case maybe you too are driven more by ‘pre-existing level of trust or distrust in elites’ than by independent truth-finding in deciding which side to pick. As, for sure, am I and many others.
The government (i.e. the politicians) didn’t say much. The Public Heath Mininstry gave news briefings every day, for months, and then reduced things to once a week + when needed. The media argued about lockdowns a good bit. But when 3 independent groups, including one made up of journalists went and took Neil Furgusson’s model and applied it to Swedish data and all determined that, were his model anything close to accurate the numbers in Sweden would be very different and many, many more people would be dead, most people got the idea that the international press had perhaps got a hold of the wrong story. Still the press arguments went back and forth about various proposals — should people stop attending church? Should people stop singing in choirs? The normal things you get when people are trying to figure out what to do and not to do.
There are two things to remember about lockdowns. The supporters of it thought that you could use it to keep the case numbers low until something — say a vaccine — could be developed. In order to get this to work you needed to have a population that didn’t have much covid and a way to test people entering the country for covid, or a ban on people entering the country altogether. But these conditions, unlike in Norway or Denmark, never existed in Sweden. The Swedes, Danes and Norwegians who first started showing up in the hospitals in all three places had caught covid in the last week of February, and nearly all of them had caught it while being out of the country.
The last week in February happens to be the week where the least amount of international travel happens in Norway and Denmark, due to the fact that their winter week long break happens earlier — the Danes were off the second week of February and the Norwegians were off the third. They reported fewer than 1% of their population were out of the country at this time. But the last week of February is the week where the very most Swedes travel internationally. In a nation which loves to travel, this is the week that the Stockholmers get to do it. Göteborg and Malmö travel earlier. The end result is that more than 10% — we think more than 12%, but making sure you do not count people twice for 2 separate trips is difficult, so pick the low number — of the population was out of the country in this time.
They came back sick. The people who travelled to Italy, and then 2 days later Italy or Austria were asked to quarantine themselves. They did so. If those two places were the only places where you could catch covid in the last week of February, this might have had the hoped-for effect. This may have determined that the variant of covid that dominated in Sweden was not the same one as in Italy, Austria and the other Nordics (called 20E or EU1) but a different one (called V1122L) see: https://covariants.org/variants/S.V1122L and all their other interesting graphs. But it didn’t stop covid. We will never know where 1122L came from. It is possible that it is a Swedish mutation that happened here. It is also possible that some Swede brought it home from vacation to a country that wasn’t tracking covid mutations at all — or at least publishing them. There was a tiny bit of it in Norway, Latvia and Denmark (from people who caught it in Sweden or from visiting Swedes) but it was only dominant here.
If you had a time machine, and could forbid Swedes from travelling out of the country the last week of February, you might have an effect but by the time that travel was halted, Sweden was already well seeded with covid. And testing all the arrivals to the country was also out of the question, because we hardly had enough tests in those early days to test people who were going into hospital.
The thing that needs mentioning is that the people who did the bulk of the dying in Sweden _were_ completely isolated from the general population. They were in the locked down end-of-life nursing homes, or they were living alone in their apartments, only seeing the home care people who come a few times a week to cook, clean, help them with showers and the like. They were infected by their professional caretakers, a group that would always have been exempt from any lockdown because they were providing the most essential of services. (The people who delivered groceries and the like to the door did not show up as a significant vector.)
And the caretakers weren’t catching covid from the general population in the restaurants — they were catching it from other people who were providing health care. (At least this was the case in the early days when tracking variants was an important thing to do, and before 1122L became dominant. Because then you could track, based on different variants, which venues were significant for spread.) To the extent that you could limit your exposure to health care workers, you did better. We believe that some elderly people survived because the first thing they did was to tell home care to stop coming, and had their children come and take care of them instead, but of course it is impossible to prove this.
Some of this is discussed here. https://www.thelocal.se/20200611/public-health-agency-head-coronavirus-came-to-sweden-from-countries-that-were-under-our-radar/
Note that this article from June of 2020 has a headline of ‘hundreds of different people may have brought covid home with them’. Think ‘high number of hundreds, not 100-200’ here. (Indeed, these days we think over 1000 is more likely the truth of it).
This will take more thinking than I can do during working hours. Thanks for a very good answer – I shall come back later.
Laura – congratulations. You really should be writing for UnHerd. This post deserves to be an article.
In the discussion of what should have been done back when it all started, this suffers from the problem that the things you mention could hardly have been known with any certainty back when those decisions were made. It will take more to convince me that Tegnell et al. did not take an unduly risky decision given the available evidence and the associated uncertainties, and I still think that (not unlike Ferguson) he suffered from an excessive faith in his own models. But in a way that does not matter much. What is done is done, and Tegnell, like health and politician decision makers across the world had to take some decision on the basis of inadequate information.
The rest is much more interesting – a discussion of exactly how the epidemic worked, and what you can or cannot do with lockdowns for future reference. There is still one point that confuses me. You say that COVID in Sweden was seeded from maybe a thousand people that came from all kinds of different places. How is it possible, then, that COVID in Sweden was overwhelmingly of a single variant that was not really found anywhere else? That sounds more like a single import or mutation doing the seeding.
It is highly interesting to see any kind of reliable data on the spreading paths of the pandemic. Unlike feasible models, reality clearly has a lot of microstructure in what is happening. What you are saying sounds to me like:
– You *can* suppress an epidemic with isolation, testing, and tracking, as long as disease levels are still low and you have enough tests and/or know where to look. That is shown by the results of Korea, Australia, and the suppression of the Italian variant in Sweden. But only as long as the virus is not *too* infective; that is shown by the eventual effect of micron.
– Once disease is widespread only extremely radical separation of people in isolated bubbles has any chance of working. As shown by your comment on the elderly who replaced their circulating carers with family members – and the story of China (unreliable as information from there may be).
– The Barrington policy of letting the disease rip and isolating and protecting the vulnerable is a total non-starter, for exactly the reasons opponents mentioned at the time. The old and vulnerable all have to see carers, and it is not feasible to isolate the carers from the rest of society while the pandemic is raging.
– Whether lockdowns helped to achieve the aims given at the start – to ‘flatten the curve’, keep the health service from being overwhelmed, and give time to produce a vaccine, would seem to be still an open question.
re: How is it possible, then, that COVID in Sweden was overwhelmingly of a single variant that was not really found anywhere else? That sounds more like a single import or mutation doing the seeding.
Always, when there are several variants of a disease available there is competition between them for the available population. Usually one wins. Sometimes you get an equilibrium of 2. Rarely the whole thing never resolves. We cannot know if the reason that 1122L beat out the rest was that it (the virus) was more infectious (plausible) or whether it just happened to be what the health care workers had and they really were efficient at spreading it, or simple random chance. Or something completely different — Stockholm is dependent on its subway system to get its health care workers to work. Maybe the subway was a concentrator? I don’t know any way to test this idea. You can get the result (1122L wins) with a variety of mathematical models, all with their own assumptions, none of which we could test.
We think that the carers could have avoided becoming the great vector for disease if they had had proper protective equipment and proper training in how to use it. Also if they didn’t contain a certain population who insisted to come to work even though feeling ‘a little sick’ because ‘they need me’ — and, at least for the hourly workers, because they didn’t have the same ‘get paid when off work sick’ protection that normal Swedish workers have.
Also, we have pretty strong evidence that the Great Barrington proposal to isolate the elders would have worked great in Sweden even among the people so frail as to need care workers coming to their home several times a week. The telling point was ‘did your care worker have a N-95 masks and wore it properly’. Some care homes were well prepared for the pandemic, had lots of masks in storage, got them out …. and the people who dwelled there did well. Mostly. There were exceptions. Some groups of hem tjänst also had and used this gear. They mostly didn’t kill people either. The problem was that these groups were in the minority. Seems nobody considered the case that when you need more of the stuff you won’t be able to get it from China because every other customer of your supplier wants a whole lot more, too.
If you are up for an academic discussion:
– I note you are definite on the idea that masks work. I’ll file that one.
– Again, I note you saying that isolation and protective measures work. The question (as for masks) is how they scale when they are applied to all of society at short notice. It is likely true that in an ideal world where everybody have enough PPE and everybody followed the rules the Barrington declaration strategy could have worked fine. But then – in an ideal world where everybody etc. etc. surely lockdown would have eradicated the disease? In the real world we had a lack of PPE, people were unprepared, and even health and care workers were careless enough that they became one of the main disease carrying vectors. What is the likelihood that (as I predicted) a Barrington strategy would have meant that *everybody* got the disease real fast, the old and vulnerable definitely included, and the Barringtoners would have been left looking at the list of vulnerable people who had died and muttering ”Ah but it *would* have worked, if only…’?
– Wanting to learn: I am not an epidemiologist, and I never understood the way in which the ‘losing’ variants die out. On simple logic the spread of one variant is independent of the spread of the others to start with. Variant B does not suffer from the presence of variant A, *until* you get to the point where all those exposed to variant B have already had variant A and are immune. From which I would conclude that 1) If variant 1122L had been the only variant to enter Sweden, and the other 999 disease carriers had been stopped at the borders, then the pandemic would have developed in exactly the same way. 2) If only the people (maybe just one person) carrying 1122L had been prevented from entering Sweden, or the relevant spreading pathway had been stopped, it is not unlikely that the pandemic would have been quite a lot slower. Which would suggest that there is a lot of random input with big consequences. Which again suggests that every measure that stops *someone* from spreading the disease (like a lockdown?) would have a definite probability of saving quite a few lives. Bottom-line question – what is your model for what would have happened if 1122L had been blocked at the outset? And how do you justify that model?
Just for laughs: I call it the ‘Barrington Declaration’ because I do not think it is in any way ‘Great’ – and because I think the people making it deliberately chose a city with an auspicious name for publishing their declaration. If they had published it in Bad Axe, Michigan, I would have been happy to refer to the ‘Bad Axe Declaration’.
Also — written after my other reply — our newspapers still produce ‘debate’ pieces, where people on opposite sides of an issue get a page to present their case, which then are displayed side-by-side. The people who wanted Sweden to do whatever the rest of the world was doing were able to present their case in the press which in no way only reported what our government wanted them to. We’d get blistering essays about what the government, and home care providers, and hospitals and whoever were and were not doing all through the pandemic. But this ‘people were not sure what was the right thing to do and so they argued about it with each other’ was the sort of thing I thought would happen _everywhere_ and not just in our newspapers. But it seems that in most of the world the notion that ‘reasonable people can and do disagree about stuff’ is no longer widely believed. Instead it is ‘if you disagree with me then you must be unreasonable, or worse actively evil and an enemy of civilisation’. How did we get there?
On COVID (as on vaccines) we had a situation where saving lives was seen to depend on everybody pulling together and respecting the rules. With a very real risk that if enough people refuse to comply, the rest would say ‘Stuff it – I am not staying at home when everybody else is partying anyway’ and the whole thing would break down. And with a lot of lies floating about. In Sweden, lots of people deciding that the government policy was wrong would not have any adverse effect beyond changing the poll numbers.
It is a lot easier to have a civilised debate about what is the best thing to do when there are not lots of lives depending on immediate compliance, and when most people believe you will be reasonably all right in either case. Consider someone who argues publicly that Russia is in the right and deserves to win the current war, and we should do all we can to help them. If he lives in Sweden or Hungary, that is just a normal part of democratic debate. If he lives in Ukraine it is treason.
I would’ve separated this question into ‘Do you believe the first lockdown/subsequent lockdowns were warranted?’ instead of lumping all lockdowns together. The answers to these two questions may have been more revealing.
That’s a very important point. In early 2020 we were confronted with a new virus of unknown danger. We were seeing pitiful footage from northern Italian hospitals; patients dying on mattresses on the floor etc. The first lockdown was forgivable because what did we know?
Later lockdowns were not the same; we knew who the at-risk groups were, and they didn’t include most people.
My vox pop displays that 3 subjects are most disliked by people, and any political party who stood up against the triple mantra would win a landslide election… the hated mantra are… surprise surprise….. LBGT, racism, and global warming.
I deliberately broke every possible lockdown rule possible, and took every opportunity to mock and tease coronaphobes…. because I loath being told what to do by the state, and despise the yellow spined cowards who comply……
… and I have a belief in fate… I never locked the doors of wherever I lived as I believe that if one is going to be burgled, the perpetrator will break in anyway…. Airport security is the same… If the Islamists have picked your flight, then searching my bag won’t help.
The author concludes that tge view on Lockdowns has nothing to do wit real experience but with political affiliation based on the fact that the Brexit Party has the highest percentage of skeptics?
This conclusion seems to go against all the data in my opinion. Rather, the fact that across the other parties it is a rather constant fraction that opposes lockdowns suggests to me that it has nothing to with politics and more with you actual experience!
Instead what’s happening is tgat since lockdown skeptics take this position quite seriously, they are shifting towards the only party that openly admits they were a mistake.
In conclusion, I think the author got its conclusion backwards: Skeptics were so shaken (I was for sure) that we are willing to abandon our parties for one that is with us in this issue. Since the Brexit party is the only one, the Brexit party it is.Even for someone so anti Brexit as myself.
It is precisely because it is not a pre conceived political issue that roughly 30% of everyone in every party feels the same.
Finally, it is very important to keep in mind that most skeptics are not in the Brexit party. Thus is because the total number of people in this party is much smaller than the rest.
The simple fact is that no government knew what was the correct course of action and therefore it is hardly surprising that the vast majority of countries with the wherewithal, not just the UK, erred on the side of caution. Sweden is the outlier and maybe they guessed correctly, or maybe there are other reasons, like average population density to explain the progression of the disease there. Trying retrospectively to pin the tail on the donkey is a pointless exercise. The only important thing is that we learn from the experience so that next time we handle it better.
Interesting and convincing article (not what I would have expected from Fazi, actually). It would explain a lot of the debate that in the highly uncertain and high-stakes discussion on COVID, people’s opinions (and the evidence they choose to build on) is pretty much detemined by what kind of things they prefer to believe. Which does not prove – either way – whether it the credulous sheep who blindly follow the official version, or the swivel-eyed loons who *prefer* mavericks and conspiracy theories and who reflexibly *dis*believe anything in an official message.
Of course it is *not* the case that ‘the evidence proves’ that lockdowns were a mistake, and that the idea they were necessary to (try to) save a lot of lives is a myth. That ‘proof’ only holds for those who believe it already and select the evidence to match. Always going *against* the herd is no more independent than always going with it, after all. With time some kind of rational evaluation should stil be possible, but it is sure not going to be easy.
You are really just advancing the opposite view to that in the article, via assertion but with no supporting evidence. You have ignored the evidence put forward in the article that supports the author’s case.
It is difficult to avoid the perception that you are an instinctive supporter of lockdowns who now understands that his cause is lost, but who can at least try to ensure that the truth is permanently obscured in political debate so as never to have to admit that you are wrong.
The author hasn’t provided any evidence at all other than to link to another Unherd opinion piece.
The other “opinion piece” you refer to contains the facts that render political opinions irrelevant from this point forward on the matter of whether lockdowns were justified. The facts are simple: lockdowns have killed more people than were saved.
The politics is done with: now it’s just numbers. Sorry you don’t like it, but the numbers don’t change just because you don’t like them.
The facts are not at all clear yet – unless you cherrypick a set that fits with your preconceived opinions. On Sweden and COVID you get opposite results depending whether you trust COVID death statistics, or excess mortality. And even with excess deaths you still need to correct for ups and downs in past death rates, the amount of ‘dead wood’ of very weak people who had accumulated etc. Back when the COVID death rates pointed to Sweden doing very badly indeed, the Barrington brigade were all over looking for such ways to explain the available facts away. The truth is stubborn – we will get there eventually. But we are not there yet. All that has happened so far is that the people who were 100% certain even before there was evidence now have more cherries to pick. As Fazi says, the main explanation for people’s opinions is their previous attitudes, not the facts or their life experiences. As Fazi does not say, that holds for your side just as much as it holds for mine.
Perhaps British folk more moderate and balanced than sometimes assumed?
Perhaps British folk beginning to recognise so called Populists tend to mislead and turn out to be v poor at actual governing?
Perhaps British folks think there are more important things to be getting upset about?
Anyway the Author does his usual by banding around the phrase ‘Populist’ in undefined manner which doesn’t entirely help, as well as implying the evidence against Lockdowns is overwhelming. Fazi certainly not immune to sweeping assumptions that play to the cognitive bias of a certain Unherd clientele.
Lockdowns and the benefits or not – surely the correct position for the moment is to be v inquisitive, questioning and insist the matter is fully covered in Public Inquiries. Closing one’s mind, whether for or against, is just lazy isn’t it?
This is certainly related to the fact that the founding myth of lockdowns — that they were a necessary evil to avoid an incalculably high number of Covid deaths — is still held by most people to be true, even though it is not supported by evidence, and ends up trumping all the negative effects of the policy.
That’s very disputable and only appears to appeal to the demographic described in the next paragraph, which let’s face it, is the large part of the audience on this website.
On that note, this is the third article today on this subject and all three have been explaining how and why the majority on this poll got it all wrong as opposed to why they got it right.
Think again Unherd.
It’s hard to tell who is right or wrong in this debate, Robbie, but your comment highlights a more serious problem that started some time ago. There is a deep division in the West separated by a chasm of belief on what is to be considered truth or falsehood.
Normally this wouldn’t be a problem. In the past people could espouse different views and just get on with their lives. The difference now is that governments, corporations, and other influential institutions have adopted a language and culture that purports to be looking out for the ‘marginalized’ and the ‘vulnerable’ while extracting wealth and labor from the most productive members of society. It’s akin to a cultural takeover by a hostile nation intent on subtly colonizing a subjugated people.
I went back to your above link, that was an interesting read, thanks.
I agree, i found that interesting.
I don’t usual follow links on Unherd (or anywhere really – i can find my own subject matter) but i made an exception with this.
“On that note, this is the third article today on this subject and all three have been explaining how and why the majority on this poll got it all wrong as opposed to why they got it right.”
In every case popular opinion is compared with the facts now known in retrospect about the effects of lockdowns. It has nothing to do with consensus except in the strict sense that the political consensus on lockdown is now proven to be wrong, and it is just as wrong no matter how many people insist on believing otherwise.
Intriguing point of view. Doesn’t sound very democratic!
Truth isn’t democracy, never has been. You cannot make a lie true by voting to make it so.
Democracy is a system designed to cope with imperfect information, radical uncertainty, and chaotic systems inherently resistant to prediction. That is why democracy is a good system when it comes to running nations. It is completely irrelevant to whether or not a specific claim can be proved through evidence or not, so your objection here simply misses the point.
Not really. You are representing a minority view yet insist you are correct. Seems to me that you have an engrained bias that doesn’t even allow consideration of alternative theories.
You’ve missed the point again. What actually happened is not an alternative theory, it was a real-time live experiment which has generated massive amounts of data which prove overwhelmingly that it didn’t work.
What Fazi points out is that despite the evidence “people’s opinions are virtually unshakeable: no amount of rational discussion is likely to change what are ultimately pre-political, tribal beliefs”.
And you’ve missed my point that there is any kind of evidence proving ‘it didn’t work’, all we have are conflicting opinions and views based on cherry picking data.
Fazi’s observation on engrained bias is reasonable in many cases however.
Your “point that there is any kind of evidence proving ‘it didn’t work’, (sic)” is simply incorrect. The article above and the linked article to which it refers contains that evidence.
If you don’t like it that’s your own problem, but don’t just tell everyone that the objective facts in question are just opinions. That’s just bollocks.
‘Bollocks’. Great word, very appropriate when referring to the ‘facts’.
You appear either to be a small child, or extremely obtuse. It doesn’t matter which.
Awww, can’t handle a little debate?
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