Tuesday, 24 March 2020
Our flacid upper lip.
I think it was sometime in the 1960s when the electricity in one or more of the the London Underground lines failed and passengers were locked in carriages stranded in tunnels. After an hour or two patience and fortitude cracked, windows were smashed and passengers poured out onto the lines. Whether this was the result of anger or a dash for freedom is not clear, but some of the press reported it as the end of Britain's reputation as the home of the phlegmatic, "show them we can take it," stiff upper lip Blitz Spirit.
Of course the Blitz Spirit itself was by no means universal. There was looting, there were spivs, a "black"* market and profiteering. Nor was there universal deference. I've read recently that the King and Queen were booed on at least one of their visits tot he East End.
Events of the last few days have demonstrated that, in spite of universal secondary education and vastly more comfortable living conditions, public behaviour has deteriorated rather than improved. Shelves of essentials have been stripped in most supermarkets, "self first" people have brushed aside NHS workers and the elderly in a supermarket that had tried to reserve an hour during which these essential workers and most vulnerable could have priority. And despite repeated advice to keep at least two meters apart, the weekend saw crowded shops, beaches and parks, and second home owners flocking towards rural areas where medical services are even thinner on the ground than elsewhere.
Prime Minister Johnson looks pained and tells us that we really must learn to do what he tells us.
I suspect one of the reason so may people don't is that he is a proven serial liar who has demonstrated again and again that his only principle is his own advancement. So why should they believe him now?
But Johnson is not the only culprit: he is just possibly the worst example of a culture of prevarication, half truths, misinformation, exaggeration, smugly-assumed unawareness of previously immovable positions, and now fake news, which has come to dominate our politics in the last fifty years.
Tony Blair and the "dodgy dossier " about WMD in Iraq poised to destroy us in 45 minutes remains probably the most destructive example to date. Michael Gove, who in 2016 publicly declared that Johnson was not fit for public office is now now serving (cheerfully?) in Johnson's cabinet. The lies told in the Brexit referendum are too well known to bother repeating. The "red lines" that were sacrosanct in the early Brexit negotiations are now ignored and agreements which cross them are hailed as glorious victories.
None of this excuses the decline in standards of public behaviour, but today's politicians bear considerable responsibility for it. Too many at the top are clearly not men and women of high principle dedicated to the country's service.
If and when this crisis is over we need to clear up our act.
*When I taught economics we tried not to use this phrase but rather referred to the "informal" economy. However, that is what it was called a the time, and for a long time afterwards.