FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

The BoJo Follies

Photograph Source: Matt Brown – CC BY 2.0

The ‘Five O’Clock Follies’ was the name given during the Vietnam War to US military press briefings that were infamous for announcing non-existent victories and wildly exaggerated numbers for enemy casualties.

British government briefings about the Covid-19 epidemic have taken a shorter period to gain the same dubious reputation for making over-optimistic claims. Supposedly crucial advances in the battle with coronavirus are greeted with fanfare only for these successes to evaporate mysteriously or be downplayed as marginal a few weeks later.

The latest silver bullet, of which great things were expected, was the app that was to supply the information to allow for the speedy tracing of anybody in contact with an infected person. Proudly introduced by Matt Hancock, the health secretary, at one of the five o’clock press briefings, it was meant to be an essential part of Britain’s fight back against the disease.

The app was tested in the Isle of Wight, and research revealed that it did not work. As one senior government official with a ludicrously firm grip on the obvious was quoted as saying: “No app is better than a bad app.”

There is a curious lack of outrage in the country over the app debacle and other failures that were once billed by the government as lifesavers, but turned out to be duds. Perhaps cynicism is now so rife that upbeat predictions and promises by ministers are discounted from the word go.

Yet the non-functioning app would have helped establish the find, test and trace network that is essential if Britain is ever to escape semi-lockdown. This has been done before with illnesses like TB, polio, syphilis and HIV, and should not be too difficult to do again. I caught polio in an epidemic in county Cork in Ireland in 1956, and the following morning an official from the ill-resourced Irish Health Ministry was visiting neighbouring farms, none of which had phones, to tell them what had happened and that they should go into what would now be called self-isolation. Yet what was done in impoverished rural Ireland in the 1950s is somehow beyond the capabilities of the vastly wealthier and more sophisticated British state today.

Seeing Boris Johnson seeking to cope with the pandemic has become more and more like watching Peter Sellers play Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films. The audience knows that Clouseau is always a little off beam and the next fiasco is just around the corner.

The analogy works well but it is difficult to laugh at it because the grotesquely long list of unforced errors by the government has contributed to the deaths of as many as 40,000 additional people. The only truly apposite comparison is with the British generals of the First World War, whose collective idiocy inflicted such hideous losses on their men.

If the death toll was not so grim, the antics of the government would produce some sour amusement. The 14-day quarantine for people entering Britain does not at first sound as if it could be a source of merriment. The regulations are strict and the punishments severe for those who break the rules that amount to a sort of house arrest, confinement being more rigorous than the original UK lockdown.

The self-defeating absurdity of what is proposed only becomes clear when one reads the enormous list of exceptions to the quarantine who can go where they want. These include specific occupations like aerospace engineers and farm workers as well as broad all-encompassing categories such as those who have “specialist technical skills” or are in the habit of commuting once a week between the UK and any other country.

In reality there is no real quarantine, but why go to such trouble and take so much criticism in order to pretend that there is? Is this simply the Brexit mentality at its worst and British exceptionalism at its silliest? Perhaps the Brexit project as a whole itself will turn out to be a ringing declaration of independence followed by a long list of exceptions.

When faced with a real-life crisis like Covid-19, Johnson and his ministers seem to yearn for the days when they could wrap every issue in the union jack. Johnson slid easily into his old role by claiming that the Black Lives Matter protests somehow challenged Britain’s history and traditions, the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square being in particular danger, though evidence for this was meagre. This sort of threat-enhancement to some national icon is the shop-soiled gambit of every nativist demagogue from Sao Paulo to Budapest and Washington to Manila.

For Johnson, it is a default position, using shallow patriotic rhetoric to justify the merging of the Department for International Development (DfID) with the Foreign Office. It is strange that such a move should be given priority in the middle of a crisis but Johnson claimed that it had become a “giant cashpoint in the sky” for various undeserving countries and that in future British aid will be geared to supporting British interests in such paragons of financial rectitude as Ukraine.

Such abrupt governmental reorganisations usually cause confusion and do little good to anybody. It is one more sign that the Johnson government thinks only in slogans and headlines and has no real strategy for dealing with coronavirus. Johnson may seek to imitate Churchill and make embarrassing sub-Churchillian speeches, but in reality he is a sort of “anti-Churchill” doing the exact opposite of his heroic idol.

Churchill was very conscious that Britain only won wars or exerted great influence in Europe when it created or joined a powerful alliance of European states. He knew that Britain could not stand alone for long and devoted immense efforts in the Second World War to building up an alliance with the US and Soviet Union against Nazi Germany.

Johnson has never shown much knowledge of British or European history beyond the bombast. This is typical of the Brexiters who have a sort of blithe self-confidence that everything will turn out all right on the night and global Britain can rise again, without knowing much about the rest of the world. A symptom of this sort of self-confident provincialism was Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, showing that he had somehow managed to remain ignorant about why people “take the knee” as a gesture of solidarity with the worldwide anti-racist campaign.

Johnson is very different from Churchill and it is difficult to think of any leader from British history whom he closely resembles. Most of those with whom he is compared are fictional characters such Rufus T Firefly, the leader of Freedonia in the Marx Brothers’ film Duck Soup. Others believe that such a poor leader cannot last long in such a serious crisis and, like Macbeth when the going got rough he feels “his title/ Hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe/ Upon a dwarfish thief”.

More articles by:

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

Weekend Edition
July 10, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Lynnette Grey Bull
Trump’s Postcard to America From the Shrine of Hypocrisy
Anthony DiMaggio
Free Speech Fantasies: the Harper’s Letter and the Myth of American Liberalism
David Yearsley
Morricone: Maestro of Music and Image
Jeffrey St. Clair
“I Could Live With That”: How the CIA Made Afghanistan Safe for the Opium Trade
Rob Urie
Democracy and the Illusion of Choice
Paul Street
Imperial Blind Spots and a Question for Obama
Vijay Prashad
The U.S. and UK are a Wrecking Ball Crew Against the Pillars of Internationalism
Melvin Goodman
The Washington Post and Its Cold War Drums
Richard C. Gross
Trump: Reopen Schools (or Else)
Chris Krupp
Public Lands Under Widespread Attack During Pandemic 
Alda Facio
What Coronavirus Teaches Us About Inequality, Discrimination and the Importance of Caring
Eve Ottenberg
Bounty Tales
Andrew Levine
Silver Linings Ahead?
John Kendall Hawkins
FrankenBob: The Self-Made Dylan
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Deutsche Bank Fined $150 Million for Enabling Jeffrey Epstein; Where’s the Fine Against JPMorgan Chase?
David Rosen
Inequality and the End of the American Dream
Louis Proyect
Harper’s and the Great Cancel Culture Panic
Thom Hartmann
How Billionaires Get Away With Their Big Con
REZA FIYOUZAT
Your 19th COVID Breakdown
Danny Sjursen
Undercover Patriots: Trump, Tulsa, and the Rise of Military Dissent
Charles McKelvey
The Limitations of the New Antiracist Movement
Binoy Kampmark
Netanyahu’s Annexation Drive
Joseph G. Ramsey
An Empire in Points
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
COVID-19 Denialism is Rooted in the Settler Colonial Mindset
Ramzy Baroud
On Israel’s Bizarre Definitions: The West Bank is Already Annexed
Judith Deutsch
Handling Emergency: A Tale of Two Males
Michael Welton
Getting Back to Socialist Principles: Honneth’s Recipe
Dean Baker
Combating the Political Power of the Rich: Wealth Taxes and Seattle Election Vouchers
Jonah Raskin
Edward Sanders: Poetic Pacifist Up Next
Manuel García, Jr.
Carbon Dioxide Uptake by Vegetation After Emissions Shutoff “Now”
Heidi Peltier
The Camo Economy: How Military Contracting Hides Human Costs and Increases Inequality
Ron Jacobs
Strike!, Fifty Years and Counting
Ellen Taylor
The Dark Side of Science: Shooting Barred Owls as Scapegoats for the Ravages of Big Timber
Sarah Anderson
Shrink Wall Street to Guarantee Good Jobs
Graham Peebles
Prison: Therapeutic Centers Or Academies of Crime?
Zhivko Illeieff
Can We Escape Our Addiction to Social Media?
Clark T. Scott
The Democrat’s Normal Keeps Their (Supposed) Enemies Closer and Closer
Steve Early - Suzanne Gordon
In 2020 Elections: Will Real-Life “Fighting Dems” Prove Irresistible?
David Swanson
Mommy, Where Do Peace Activists Come From?
Christopher Brauchli
Trump the Orator
Gary Leupp
Columbus and the Beginning of the American Way of Life: A Message to Indoctrinate Our Children
John Stanton
Donald J. Trump, Stone Cold Racist
Nicky Reid
The Stonewall Blues (Still Dreaming of a Queer Nation)
Stephen Cooper
A Kingston Reasoning with Legendary Guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith (The Interview: Part 2)
Hugh Iglarsh
COVID-19’s Coming to Town
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail