By Peter Phelps
Robert McCrum’s new book Shakespearean describes the wealth of words Shakespeare has for generations that find themselves in extremis. Few of his plays speak so presciently of the decrepit state of current political discourse as Hamlet, including the words in the title above, spoken by Marcellus.
Boris Johnson has Shakespearian pretensions himself. Although publication of his book about the playwright is long delayed, no doubt Johnson sees his Prime Ministership in Shakespearean as well as Churchillian terms. He was to deliver a “glorious summer” in the shape of Brexit and bring an end to “the winter of our discontent” (drawing here from Richard III). Who can say what might have been, but as Johnson took to our screens on 31 October, three hours late and uncomfortably inserted into the viewing schedule between the Six Nations and Strictly, it was not to announce anything glorious, but to confirm what we all already knew: the country was going into another lockdown.
The ensuing performance was certainly not Shakespearian and, despite the date and its grim content, less Halloween than an early and tragic pantomime. This was, after all, about saving Christmas. One wondered if the reason for the delay was that Johnson, looking even more reluctant and ruffled, had been hiding in a cupboard and forcibly dragged to the podium. Or perhaps he was playing an inattentive Dick Whittington who, forgetting he had already exceeded his destiny and become not only Mayor but also Prime Minister, believed it was still his cue to flee? How he wanted to shout, “It’s behind you!” But, oh no, it wasn’t! And instead we had to make do with the deadpan forecasts of his advisers interspersed with invocations of, “Next slide please!”
Putting aside the truth or otherwise of the accusations that followed: the data was conjectural and out of date; it failed to consider key information such as the excess death rate; the virus might already be plateauing; the announcement was a hasty reaction to a ministerial leak; the delay was actually caused by the need to talk the Chancellor out of resigning: could this be the worst slide presentation the nation has ever seen? In fact, we barely saw it at all, the layout was so poor and the writing so small. And how is it that in this age of technology Number 10 cannot even summon a slide clicker?
If the news conference told us little, the reasons for it and the farcical nature of its execution told us everything we need to know about what reeks in this Disunited Kingdom. Ignore for a moment that the lockdown represents an implicit policy failure, and consider only that this was another major and sudden policy U-turn of gargantuan proportions. Regardless of whether or not it will prove the right decision or the right time, is it acceptable that just two weeks before deciding to lock down the Prime Minister heaped ridicule on the Leader of the Opposition for suggesting it? Or that the Government cannot admit that the failures of its Test and Trace programme have been major contributing factors to the need for a second lockdown? Or even that there was no need for a press conference at all given the details had already been so comprehensively leaked?
No one doubts the decisions facing the Government are difficult and involve sacrifice. But these attempts at discombobulation are symptomatic of the manner in which we conduct our public discourse and decision making: a confrontational, winner-takes-all approach to politics, the refusal of ministers to answer questions for fear of hysterical headlines, a lack of transparency in regard to how and why such decisions are made, and the acceptance of lies as a part of political campaigning (remember that “NHS” bus). All this serves only to entrench distrust and division, leading to the style of decision making that brought us to this juncture.
Even before Covid, misplaced competition and narrow self-interest meant Britain’s infrastructure was fraying. Not just our physical networks – a crumbling national grid, chaotic railway system and lack of comprehensive broadband and mobile coverage – but our financial system’s failure to support the real economy and, above all, the decay of our social infrastructure. Pubs, bank branches, libraries and youth clubs were closing at alarming rates, reducing time spent in social surroundings and increasing isolation, crime, drug abuse and exacerbating the mental health crisis. Covid has only served to make things infinitely worse.
Donald Trump’s shameful antics following the US election show we are not alone in this and also how bad it can get. Yet there are alternatives. We are told the “Swedish way” of objective, consensual decision making, with an emphasis on personal responsibility, will not work here because we do not have the same trust between the state and its citizens. Instead of accepting this, we should be asking ourselves “Why not?” What do we need to do to repair this civic bond? Perhaps we can start with the creation of a cross-party, independently advised “Covid Council”, charged with handling our response to this crisis and mapping our way out of it. Longer term, we need a political system based on some form of proportional representation that reflects both the diversity and common values underpinning our whole society. Those who believe fundamental change can never happen should consider how much else has defied that diktat this year.
“The readiness is all,” said Hamlet, and as current events are proving, we face many alarming challenges. The Government’s shambolic record – despite its large majority – has torn apart any claim that the two-party system and first-past-the-post voting leads to strong governance capable of being ready for such crises. The greatest opposition in Parliament to the lockdown came from the Government’s own benches and all parties seem determined to keep schools open, showing how party-line divisions are more ephemeral than we think and consensus is possible. It is time for our leaders to reach across the divide and forge unity, to capitalise on the “lively wit, originality, stamina and courage” for which the British people are rightly admired, and rediscover the sense of common purpose that flickered briefly when Covid first struck. Only then will we be ready for the slings and arrows to come.
Peter Phelps is Editor-in-Chief at Perspective