Reflections on the UK’s latest baffling poll
The UK is currently divided between those who support the government’s handling of the pandemic and those who see it as an unconscionable disaster. Extraordinarily, the former group are winning.
How do we explain this? I want to begin with Dr Rachel Clarke’s account of a Covid ward. It merits quoting at length –
The wards and ICUs are overwhelmed, awash with the virus. The patients seem younger, the new variant more virulent. We are drowning, drowning in Covid. The sight of a doctor or nurse breaking down has become unremarkable. Too close, for too long, to too many patients’ pain, we have become – just like them – saturated. Behind hospital doors, tucked away out of sight, we seem to suffer as one.
For every patient who dies from Covid-19 in hospital, from the moment they encounter that first masked paramedic, they will never see a human face again. Not a single human being without barricades of plastic.
Please don’t flinch. Please don’t look away. The truth of conditions inside our hospitals needs telling. To dispel a few prime ministerial press conference myths, the NHS is not “close to” or “on the brink of” being overwhelmed. We are here and now in the midst of calamity.
Whoever deteriorates overnight may live or die according to whether a bed can be found on ICU. This is rationing. No one here is being “protected”, not the patients, not the nurses, not the doctors, not the families, and certainly not the NHS writ large. Doctors and nurses should not be suicidal with stress, nor tended by their own as they suffocate and die on ventilators. It did not have to be like this. None of these horrors were inevitable.
Dr Clarke has faced abuse for her stance.
I don’t think I am alone in finding accounts like this distressing. But this distress is compounded by the government’s refusal to take any responsibility for their failures of pandemic management. Of course, very many Covid deaths were unavoidable. But the government was told repeatedly by the UK’s scientists that, with a better pandemic strategy – earlier lockdowns, proper PPE and care home protection to name just a few – thousands of lives would have been saved.
This was advance warning, not hindsight. Yet the government both ignored this scientific advice at the time and continues to flatly deny they acted wrongly. So accounts like Dr Clarke’s are distressing also because they are read in the knowledge that every Covid death we hear about might have been avoided – that, with better governance, the patient might have lived.
This distress is further compounded by the fact that, despite the government’s pandemic mismanagement and the resulting tragedy of so many avoidable deaths, they are ahead in the polls. To describe this triple whammy as ‘traumatizing’ is not to diminish the experiences of frontline NHS staff or bereaved Covid families. But there is something traumatic about a situation where so many are dying unnecessarily because of a government that is so incompetent but is still so favoured in the polls whilst we seem so powerless to change the situation.
So Dr Clarke’s account cries out for an explanation. How, for example, can the government be ahead in the polls? The ready answer is that Labour isn’t providing effective opposition. Whilst we shouldn’t excuse Labour here, what are the obstacles they face?
Support for Johnson may well not have been so sturdy if the pandemic hadn’t occurred in the context of Brexit. Johnson surfed to power in 2019 on Cummings’ propaganda wave. The mainstream media helped to polarize views on Brexit into hot headed tribal factions in which Leavers invested enormous ideological and emotional energy in supporting their Brexit enablers. Just as parents who are determined that their daughter’s marriage succeeds may turn a blind eye to the groom’s indiscretions so the polls may reflect that Leavers need to downplay the government’s failures since to admit to political incompetence in dealing with Covid might call into question the government’s management of the Brexit prospects that Leavers covet.
Fear of Labour
The polls may also be driven by fear of Labour – years of anti left-wing rhetoric from the mainstream media have succeeded in presenting Labour policies as ‘dangerous’. This perception then strengthens the view that the current government’s approach must be accepted, regardless of its errors. Fear of Labour has a major role in patching the cracks in the government’s pandemic management. We see this in the frequently repeated mantra ‘However bad things get, they would have been worse under Corbyn’. So far, Starmer hasn’t shifted this perception. But this may be partly because it is immensely powerful in counteracting feelings of loss of control – ‘If Johnson is doing a better job than Labour would have done then we have at least escaped greater chaos. So we must count our blessings. We are safer than we would have been’. Whilst not excusing Starmer’s diffident approach his difficulty may be that whilst the UK is experiencing death and trauma people will vigorously defend the perceived ‘safer’ option against criticism.
Fear of Covid
The Tory lead has also been boosted in a non-partisan way by Covid itself. It has been a salutary year – we’ve seen death on a daily basis, a fate made even more real by normal life being completely upended and replaced by an alien new world of masks, self-isolation, social distancing and lockdowns, practices which constantly remind us that Covid is a ubiquitous, lurking menace. This is frightening and the uncertainty has quietly increased – people coped best with the first lockdown, thinking it would be a quick fix. But as time went on that view was dashed. Now the idea of Covid even having a definite endpoint has receded and, thanks to the proliferating ‘variants of concern’, we are shifting to a new mind-set of having to live with the repercussions of Covid without having any idea at the moment what these will be. All we really know is that the vaccine roll out isn’t quite the ‘get out of jail’ card it was cracked up to be.
In frightening life or death situations we can’t control, we tend to perceive those in charge as our protectors. Just as people put unquestioning faith in the surgeon who is about to operate on them, so they put their faith in government to ‘sort danger’. In both cases, since our life is in the hands of others, it is reassuring to view them as benign experts with our best interests at heart. Perversely, this attitude to authority has become consolidated for some as feelings of fear, lack of control and uncertainty have increased during the pandemic.
There’s an element of Stockholm Syndrome here. This is a mechanism for coping with significant threats to one’s physical or psychological well-being that cannot be controlled. (Ed: See also Liz Webster’s article on Alcoholic Parents and an Abusive Government.)
Victims cope by ‘developing positive associations, and even colluding, with their abusers’. So we see the public adamantly insisting that the government is ‘doing well’ despite the glaring facts of our near world beating death toll and economic hit. Similarly, as Oborne notes, many Tory backbenchers refuse to believe Johnson is dishonest. This frantic positivity and collusion is echoed in the mainstream media’s anaesthetizing good news-ism, a trend nicely exemplified in Any Questions by BBC’s Chris Mason’s blurted interruption of Joan Bakewell’s Brexit critique with the indignant but irrelevant question: “But how about the vaccine roll out. That’s going well, isn’t it?” Cracks do appear but they are quickly papered over again – the landmark death toll led to a temporary rash of right-wing media anguish but it soon retreated back to safety from this moment of recognition.
Another non-partisan reason for the poll is Johnson’s use of patriotism to shore up support. Patriotism serves two simultaneous functions for him – it feeds his narcissistic childhood fantasy of being a Churchillian hero. It also provides a device for maintaining control via the use of guilt. Real heroes such as Captain Tom and the NHS are wheeled centre stage for Blitz style rituals such as ‘clapping’ and ‘fly pasts’. This enables Johnson to bask vicariously in their limelight whilst sending the message that ‘we are all in this together and if we dissent or challenge him then we are guilty of being unpatriotic’.
This weaponisation of patriotism is Johnson’s most frequently used tactic. At PMQs he regularly accuses Starmer of ‘not supporting the cause’, of ‘trying to undermine the Covid effort’. These attacks are designed both to chime with the public and present the accuser as ‘the patriotic one’. Ironically, this attack is misplaced because Starmer’s ‘benefit of the doubt’ support for government policy is rooted in his own belief that to challenge in a crisis is somehow inappropriate, disloyal or in poor taste. So here Johnson is whipping someone, who is already toeing the line and whose reticence has tempered his willingness to provide a more vocal opposition throughout the pandemic. So the poll can also be seen as a consequence of the nation being guilt tripped into supporting Johnson’s fantasy ‘war effort’ and Starmer’s inadvertent collusion with it.
I have suggested that the Tory poll lead stems from various factors – commitment to pre-existing Brexit ideology and media driven fear of Labour together with fear of Covid itself. These together, lead to extreme investment in and collusion with authority. These processes have been amplified and mutually reinforced by Johnson’s tactical use of patriotism and guilt to strengthen support in the face of calamitous incompetence and also by a reticent opposition. However, the extraordinary Tory poll lead despite our shocking place in the global Covid league illustrates the tenacious grip of non-rational forces and suggests that, perversely, the more the government’s failings are highlighted the more support they could acquire. This is not to excuse the opposition or to imply that they should give up challenging the government but to suggest that appeals to the facts and campaigning on progressive alternative strategies may fall on deaf ears whilst the pandemic continues.
This is a tough conclusion, especially because the situation, as I suggested, feels traumatic – something like a nightmare dictatorship in which rationality, compassion and integrity have dissolved and been replaced by blatant self-serving criminality, wilful blindness and collusion that we feel powerless to change.
But I don’t think we will get clear sightedness until the spectre of Covid is either gone or fully controlled.
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