September 17. Boris Johnson has given an interview to this morning’s Sun in which he is quoted as criticising the Home Secretary’s encouragement to neighbours to report breaches of the ‘Rule of Six’ to the authorities. He told the newspaper that “I have never much been in favour of sneak culture myself.”
Only readers of a certain age and a deep immersion British boarding school literature will understand the meaning of a ‘sneak culture’.
For illumination, let us turn to an iconic figure in such stories, the rotund person of Billy Bunter. In Billy Bunter’s Barring Out of 1948, Frank Richards’ eponymous hero is facing, not for the first time, a moral dilemma. Bob Cherry, a fellow pupil in the Remove at Greyfriars School, is facing expulsion after a bag of soot was inadvertently dropped on the head of the master, Mr. Quelch. Bunter announces to his class mates that he knows the culprit and intends to inform the headmaster. His proposal arouses immediate hostility:
“That’s why—I—I—I mean, I—Look here, you fellows, I jolly well know who it was, and I’m going to tell the Head.”
“You can’t do that,” said Harry Wharton. “You can’t give a man away—we don’t sneak in the Remove. But you can tell us, and we’ll put it to the fellow to own up.”
“And we’ll put it pretty strong!” growled Johnny Bull.
“I’m going to tell the Head,” persisted Bunter. “’Tain’t sneaking—I’m no sneak, I hope! Did you fellows ever know me do a rotten thing? I ask you!”
‘Sneaking’ constituted a fundamental breach of the public-school code. That Johnson should use the term betrays not just his upbringing but the juvenile way in which he conceives the restrictions his government has introduced. On the one hand there is an intrinsically repressive state, prone to impose regulation in order to entrench its power. On the other there is the community of the governed whose principal loyalty is to each other. There is no offence greater than reporting misbehaviour to authority.
In a grown-up world, it might be supposed that citizens and the state have a common interest in rules designed to achieve the urgent objective of controlling infection. If the agents of discipline, the police or local wardens, are seen as representatives of an alien regime, the prospects of observance diminish. There will instead be a corresponding increase in jolly japes like un-distanced drinking or non-face-masked shopping.
For Billy Bunter, as ever, the story ended badly:
“So you’ve wriggled out of it, you fat worm?” exclaimed Bob Cherry… “Gentlemen, chaps, and sportsmen,” said Bob Cherry. “It was Bunter all the time, and he seems to have pulled the Head’s leg and got off. I’m glad he isn’t bunked, but he’s going to be jolly well bumped—.”
“Oh, really, Cherry—!”
“Here, I say, you fellows—Leggo—Beasts—yaroooh!” roared Bunter, as he was collared.
“Oh, crikey! I say—.”
“Will you leggo?”
Billy Bunter sat on Smithy’s carpet, and roared.
Our own fat worm deserves no less.