May 5, 2020.
We are now into the beginning of the unlocking of Britain. The prospect is raising the question of where the power lies in this crisis.
The Guardian reported at the weekend that ‘Fewer than one in five of the British public believe the time is right to consider reopening schools, restaurants, pubs and stadiums. The findings, in a new poll for the Observer, suggest Boris Johnson will struggle to convince people to return their lives to normal if he tries to ease the lockdown soon..’
You can be certain that Johnson and his advisers took this information very seriously. It is a truism long known to politicians and political historians, that successful social reform follows rather than changes public opinion. This was the case for instance with Roy Jenkins’ epochal tenure of the Home Office in the mid-1960s when he radically reformed the law on homosexuality, abortion, race relations and censorship. In each case popular sentiment was more than ready for such changes. The same is true, more recently, of the liberalising reforms in the Republic of Ireland.
It is not just a matter of a government avoiding grief in polls and subsequent elections. If a society is not, with the exception of inevitable die-hards, largely in favour of reform, it will not observe the new legal framework, and no amount of punitive policing or judicial intervention will be effective.
In the speeded-up metabolism of successive social changes in the coronavirus pandemic, the same rules apply. Johnson held back from imposing the lockdown until it was evident that the population would accept what a month previously had been unimaginable changes to its behaviour. For all the protests by Conservative backbenchers, the occasional arrests on beaches or in other public spaces have been largely symbolic.
The question is how far has the calculation of risk on the part of the general public changed. There is a case for arguing that fear of infection has increased since the onset, despite recent evidence that the peak has been passed. In March we knew that coronavirus was a serious form of flu. We did not know just how easy it was to catch it, just how unpleasant it was to be in intensive care, just how terrible a form of dying it was, and just how ineffective the government would be in key areas such as testing or the provision of PPE.
The government has been rightly criticised for allowing the Cheltenham Horse-racing Festival to go ahead in the week before it imposed the lockdown. A quarter of a million people jostled together on the racecourse. Now Cheltenham, an otherwise prosperous town, is a coronavirus hotspot. It is worth asking whether, were a similar event to be sanctioned this month, anything like this number of spectators would choose to attend. Gambling on horses is one thing. Gambling on your life is something else [this reminds me of the character of Sammy the Gonoph in Damon Runyan’s stories. Sammy was a professional bookmaker who could set odds on any competition, even life itself, which he calculated was, in the round, 5 to 4 against].
There are two conclusions to be drawn. The first is that a successful navigation out of this storm will be more in the hands of we the people than our hapless governors. When we decide to change, change will be feasible, and it is unlikely to be much influenced by public service announcements and daily press conferences.
The second is that the debate which is now taking place will once more highlight the issue of the coherence of British society. We have temporarily forgotten the Brexit divide, but there are still immense variations by class, race and gender in the experience of coronavirus. Those locked in small flats, those for whom the shutdown is wrecking their businesses or family economies, will be a good deal less patient with the lockdown than the retired historian who is writing this, looking out at Spring unfolding in his garden.
- With regard to David Maughan Brown’s entry yesterday on the Johnson interview in the Sun on Sunday, if Johnson’s prospects were aligning with The Death of Stalin, the question, for those who saw the entertaining film, is who would be the Lavrentiy Beria of the event, the head of the secret police who attempted to take over after Stalin’s death and was murdered by his henchmen? My money is on Michael Gove.