The Last Refuge of a Scoundrel: Coronavirus and the British Establishment

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

I do not wish Boris Johnson to die. I only wish him to suffer.

As paradoxical as it might sound, I don’t mean this in a sadistic way.   Suffering is part of the human life; it is as integral to our experience as the drawing in of air, or the feeling of sunlight against the skin.  Hospitals are places of suffering; we suffer the fear and anxiety which comes from a loved one undergoing an operation.   And we suffer the fear which comes from our own bodily being when we are ill or injured and we are wheeled into a hospital ward.

The Ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus wrote ‘he who learns must suffer’.  It is in hospitals where, I think, I have learnt the most.  Most of all what it means to be vulnerable.  When a loved one is seriously ill, when every fibre of your being is shrilling with that terrible lurking dread – the feeling that you might never see them again – the calming, compassionate words of the doctors or the nurses who take the time to talk to you, to update you on what is going on, are sometimes the only things which allow you to hold on to a shred of sanity, to keep you going.  When you are stretched out on a hospital bed in an operating theatre, as helpless as a new born baby, the reassuring murmurs and the kind eyes of the surgeons leaning over you are the last things you experience before you slip into darkness.  Hospitals teach us about our own vulnerability.  Above all, they teach us that we are social beings; that ultimately our lives are bound up with those of others, and that our well-being and redemption depends on that.

I hope Boris Johnson suffers.  I hope he suffers so that he might become aware of his own vulnerability.  And when a black doctor attends to that vulnerability, I hope the warm feelings of gratitude which bubble up within him are such that Johnson can no longer see that doctor as a ‘picaninny with a water-melon smile’.   I hope he might see the Muslim nurse who has some calming words for him as the ventilator is placed over his face as something more than ‘letter box’-like.   Perhaps the porter who shares a rude joke with him and brings a smile to his face, as the PM is wheeled down a hospital corridor in the dead of night – perhaps that man can now step forward as something other than a ‘drunk, criminal and feckless’ member of the working classes.

I hope that the NHS and the people who use it no longer appear to him as some political abstraction which does not touch his inner life, but is merely one more component in a political jigsaw designed to facilitate his immense ambition. Above all, I hope that he feels a burning shame and regret for being part of a cabinet which cheered and brayed when they were able to block the pay rise of nurses – I hope this shame is so great he vows never again.

There is an episode of the TV series Frasier, that wise and poignant depiction of the joys and sorrows of human life.  An episode in which the character of Roz gives birth to a beautiful baby girl; the mother, her face flushed with exertion, relief and absolute joy – takes one of the nurse’s hands in her own, gripping it tightly, overwhelmed with gratitude and promising never to forget her.  A couple of years later, the Roz character is in the same hospital, this time visiting a friend, and she comes across the same nurse at reception.   The nurse looks at her, the hospital worker’s face lights up in warm and fond recollection.  For her part Roz beams back – but her smile is reflexive and polite, and it is clear that Roz has no memory of the nurse whatsoever.

The point is not to depict Roz as superficial and ungrateful.  The point is a much more wistful one.  As well as our great capacities for compassion and gratitude, we also have a great capacity to forget.   Roz’s appreciation of the nurse who took care of her and her little one was genuine.  It was just that, as she got sucked back into the maelstrom of everyday life – a bustling existence balancing out her working schedule with the demands of a new-born baby – the details of her hospital experience began to fade and disappear.   When I broke my leg, some years ago, I promised myself I’d buy the doctor who did such a good job patching me up a bottle of whiskey.  I never did.  Now, I don’t even remember his face.  Sometimes life just takes over.

We cannot know if Johnson will experience any kind of moral epiphany in hospital.  But if he does I suspect it won’t be a long lasting one.  He will be pulled back into the stream of his own existence, and while he will continue to laud the great NHS in honeyed tones dripping with patriotic sentimentality – in actual fact, the faces of those who actually risked their lives in order to help him will very quickly fade from his mind.  For there are few who have done as much to endanger those lives as Boris Johnson himself.   He has been an active part of the government which has helped reduce and strip the resources of the NHS for ten years, and thus set the basis for the absolute cluster-fuck of a situation we are experiencing in terms of the NHS’s incapacity to deal with the spiralling numbers of ill people flooding through its gates.

More specifically, and more sinisterly, Johnson – through his Cromwellian underling, the odious Dominic Cummings – advocated the now notorious policy of helping to facilitate ‘herd-immunity’; that is, the policy of allowing the virus to spread, largely unchecked, on the rationale that – even though a number of the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions would be killed off – nevertheless the majority would be able to pass through the crisis developing immunity and the economy wouldn’t be affected in terms of its fundamental rhythms and cycles.  When the world’s various health bodies and organisations were clamouring for the UK government to call for a lock- down – to close non-essential workplaces and to introduce measures for social distancing – Johnson himself appeared on the cameras, all braggadocio and bombast, doing his best to channel the spirit of Churchill, boasting of how he had shaken hands with people who had contracted the virus, offsetting the grave and growing concern of the scientific community with the claxon blasts of vulgar chest-swelling nationalism.

But this was about more than the emotive and irrational being set against the deadly form and flow of a virus expanding in a clinical, interminable and exponential fashion; it was about more than the trumpeting of a self-important windbag, living out the most vulgar fantasies of himself as a ‘great leader’ strutting across the stage of history. Rather the ‘herd-immunity’ debacle was a necessary outcrop of a patrician elite which has for the last decade performed the most ruthless hacking away of the social safety net, precisely on the grounds that the poorest and most vulnerable are the deadweight which is to be shed in order that the ‘economy’ – an abstraction as terrifying, cold and omnipresent as any God of yor – be propitiated. It is estimated that from 2012 to 2019,one hundred and thirty thousand human beings lost their lives due to the austerity politics of the Tory government.  The numbers of the dead can be tallied, but the grief and loss of their loved ones; there is simply no statistic for that.

The drive to secure ‘herd immunity’, then, did not come out of a clear blue sky; it was nothing other than the most extreme forms of neoliberal economics translated into public policy at the worst possible time, by the worst possible people.

The coronavirus has revealed two essential aspects of our society.  One; it has shown us that the gravest problems human beings face inevitably require social solutions; that is, it’s only when we respond through rational organisation on a collective basis that we might hope to sustain.  Person A could (being a good neoliberal) decide to buy up as many goods as possible, and as quickly as possible, so that he or she will be completely secure during the pandemic.  But, if a number of people hoard this way – they end up depriving the society more broadly of the things it needs to fight the pandemic – hand sanitisers, toilet paper and so on.  For this, the virus spreads much more easily among the people who are denied access to those things, so that when person A finally leaves their house again, they have a much higher chance of contracting the illness.  Self-interest on the basis of a narrow individualism ultimately reveals itself to be self-refuting too.  Even the Conservative government belatedly recognised this; when they finally introduced some of the collective measures the World Health Organisation had recommended, albeit on a much more limited basis than in other places.

The other thing to be revealed is the class character of society itself. This virus has exposed the vast fissures between those of a low economic bracket who are its disproportionate victims, and those who will receive the best care money can buy – much like Johnson himself – people who will, in the main, be the ones to walk away.  The NHS workers on the frontline are, inevitably, dying in much higher proportions.  But this isn’t simply the result of the fact that they are exposed to the virus in stronger and more regular doses; equally significant is how the government have failed to kit them out with the most basic medical necessities such as medical-grade masks.  Accounts are rife of nurses going into work using things like their children’s swimming goggles in order to ward off infection.  The Doctors’ Association UK argues that such blatant complacency regarding the lives of NHS workers is akin to treating them as ‘cannon fodder’.  Boris Johnson was very good at ensuring the population come together in order to clap ‘the incredible nurses, doctors, NHS support staff & carers’ in their struggle against the virus.  He hasn’t been so good at ensuring those same people actually manage to survive.

Of course, this is to ‘politicise’ the situation.  And surely there is nothing more uncouth than that – nothing more obscene than making partisan points, when the Prime Minister himself is languishing in intensive care.  Are we not all part of a greater humanity – can we not set politics aside for a moment and simply appreciate that Boris Johnson is a human being and he is a seriously ill one at that?  Such are the voices raised in the mainstream press – the venerable and time-honoured guardians of civility and decorum who refuse to be dragged into the baser impulses of recrimination and bitterness.  Those elevated people who disdain politics, who are in some way above the fray.  Those like the broadcaster, ‘journalist’ and establishment mouthpiece Julia Hartley-Brewer who tweeted in a tone of more-sorrow-than-anger – ‘j]ust a reminder that Boris Johnson is not just the Prime Minister of our country (even if you didn’t vote for him), he is also a father, a father to be, a fiancé and someone with family and friends. He’s a fellow human being and he is desperately ill. Just try to remember that.’  It was then pointed out by some eagle-eyed commentator that she’d had a markedly different reaction to the health tribulations of Fidel Castro who has passed away several years before – ‘Delighted to hear Fidel Castro is dead’, she had tweeted in grave-dancing glee. ‘Amazing how many on the Left defend him because Cubans had decent schools & hospitals.’

My point here is not to skewer Hartley-Brewer whose stupidity and complacency makes of that dull sport indeed.  Nor do I wish to lionise the late Cuban dictator of whom I was never a fan. But what I hope to make clear is that many of the people who are so ardently taking the line that ‘this is no time for politics…show some basic humanity for God’s sake’ are actually using such reasoning to disguise their own deeper political leanings; leanings which are, more often than not, in favour of the same figures in the establishment who pushed austerity and the ‘herd immunity’ thesis, and thus have facilitated the needless deaths of countless numbers.  One finds that the claim to be non-political is often the most political claim of all.  For it is a political necessity for the most powerful in society and their mouthpieces to appeal to some more abstract and vague notion of humanity in which real social interests and class divisions are occluded.  The dead and the dying are but flickering shadows in a faraway backdrop while in loud, bright and patriotic colours the politician steps forward from the podium to tell us all to clap for the great British NHS, to ensure us in that rich, mumbling patrician brogue of his that we are, in fact, all in this together.

When this is all over Johnson and his cronies will be everywhere before the cameras.  With moist eyes, these same people will extoll the sacrifices of the ‘great British public’. With a catch in the voice and quivering pride, they will tell you just how humbled they are before the sacrifices of the selfless NHS staff who risked their lives on the frontline. When they say these things, when they enact those performances – never, ever forget. Never forget this video where, like a group of syphilitic aristocrats, they roar out their triumph at having ensured that nurses, and other poorly-paid public sector workers, are not to receive a most desperately needed pay rise. Never forget the obscene cruelty of those grimacing faces, the ugly contempt in the voices.  This is what they really feel. This is what they truly are.

Tony McKenna’s journalism has been featured by Al Jazeera, Salon, The Huffington Post, ABC Australia, New Internationalist, The Progressive, New Statesman and New Humanist. His books include Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist Perspective (Macmillan), The Dictator, the Revolution, the Machine: A Political Account of Joseph Stalin (Sussex Academic Press), Toward Forever: Radical Reflections on History and Art  (Zero Books), The War Against Marxism: Reification and Revolution (Bloomsbury) and The Face of the Waters (Vulpine). He can be reached on twitter at @MckennaTony