Twenty years ago, a novelist went to see his publisher to discuss his proposal to write a dystopian novel set in Britain in 2020 when newspaper columnists have taken power and are running the country.
These opinion-makers, sometimes called the Commentariat, had for years been expressing outrage at the failings of the government and everyone else. Now they had a chance to show what they could do to put things right.
The novelist would probably not have mentioned the name of Boris Johnson, with his florid denunciations of EU tyranny or Michael Gove, with his historic hostility to the Good Friday Agreement as a surrender to the IRA, but these were the kind of people he was talking about.
“The book will be darkly comic as we see these self-confident pundits crash into reality,” explained the novelist. “Of course, to make the narrative more exciting I will have to dream up some sort of existential crisis menacing Britain to which they will respond with serial incompetence. It will be as if Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau had blundered into the dystopian world of Orwell’s 1984.”
The publisher cautiously replied that there was always a market for books predicting future calamities, but to be convincing it would have to reflect or satirise some feasible version of the future. “As for those irritating columnists, aren’t you taking them a bit too seriously?” he asked. “After all, fogies, young and old, have always been with us, claiming that the country is going to the dogs and pointing the finger of blame at Brussels, immigrants or the Labour Party. Remember Enoch Powell and his rivers of blood.”
It was at present, he added, a moment when most readers might feel that the nastier type of change seen in the 20th century had come to an end. Look at how well a mildly reformist Tony Blair and his New Labour were doing, he concluded.
The novelist sensed that his big idea was not going down as well as he had hoped. He suggested broadening the theme of the book by imagining a government run by former journalists and PR specialists, all experts in dominating the news headlines. But they would suffer from the chronic weakness of their trades which is to confuse words with deeds, think in terms of short-term headlines and not long-term policies, and blame others when anything went wrong.
“But isn’t that a warmed-up version of the old jibe against politicians that they have never actually run anything before taking office?” objected the publisher. “Yes, you’re right,” replied the novelist, “but politicians with a background in newspaper punditry are the worst of all because they have become too used to expressing simple-minded views on complex problems about which they know too little. They confidently say what should be done one week and say the exact opposite the next, in the correct belief that few of their readers will notice the U-turns.” He went on to say that the commentariat tends to be ignorant of the mechanisms of government and, were they ever to gain power, would be baffled when they pulled a lever or pressed a button and nothing much happens.”
The novelist could have gone on about the weaknesses of journalists in power but he saw that it was a lost cause and his book synopsis was heading for the wastepaper basket. He thought briefly, before dismissing the idea, of making a last-minute offer to shift the novel’s action from Britain to America and talk about the growing and malign influence of the commentators on Fox News and elsewhere.
In later years, the publisher did not regret turning down the book, but he did feel after 9/11, the Afghan, Iraq and Libyan wars, and the financial crash of 2008, that a disastrous future was becoming more imaginable. Liberal democracies espousing free market capitalism that had once seemed to be the wave of the future were withering as old autocracies became stronger and more brutal, and right-wing populist nationalist regimes popped up everywhere.
Brexit in 2016 was Britain’s contribution to this new trend, which would certainly not have happened without the right-wing press dripping poison into its readers’ minds about immigration and the EU as the source of their troubles. Yet demagogic influence by the media in Britain is not exactly a new phenomenon. It was, after all, almost a century ago that the Conservative party leader Stanley Baldwin made his devastating attack on newspaper proprietors for wanting “power and power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the age”.
It was obvious from the beginning that Boris Johnson’s government ticked all the boxes that the imaginary novelist and publisher in my fable had discussed 20 years earlier. Led by prominent members of the commentariat, they shared all its weaknesses, brusque and dismissive of the views of others and on constant patriotic overdrive with Britain always “world-beating” or potentially so. Such boosterism is harmless enough until it leads to serious miscalculation about the balance of power between Britain and other nations – in which case disaster swiftly follows.
None of this might have mattered much if Britain had not been on the verge of the worst crisis in its history since 1940-1941. This was not leaving the EU. Remainers said that Brexit would mean the ruin of the country, but then, as someone remarked, “a country has a great deal of ruin in it”. Brexit might not be quite the catastrophe that its opponents predicted, but the real mortal danger turned out to be the Brexiteers themselves, with their chronically poor judgement, dismal organising skills, vainly trying to stem an unprecedented health, social and economic calamity.
Johnson turns out to be the epitome of the commentariat who, by training and experience, are peculiarly ill-equipped to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. He overpromises and underdelivers on everything from the world-beating test and trace system, that has just seized up, to the proposed “moonshot” to test everybody in the country by Christmas.
There is a terrifying sense of inexperienced amateurs at work so the government is repeatedly caught by surprise by predictable – and widely predicted – events. The sight of Baroness Harding of Winscombe, in charge of the testing and tracing on which the fate of the nation supposedly depends, claiming that nobody she knew had foreseen a sudden surge in coronavirus sends a chilling message about the common sense and competence of the Johnson government.
As for Johnson himself, he would have been in his element writing columns about the current crisis: one week he could be demanding a total lockdown to suppress the virus and the next he could be saying that it was time to open up the economy and establish herd immunity. On this and every other issue, he would be having his cake and eating it. Meanwhile, we are getting an all too real idea of what dystopian Britain would look like.