Just ahead of the first national lockdown in March last year, Boris Johnson said Britain could “send coronavirus packing” within 12 weeks. The claim seemed irresponsibly out of step with the scientific consensus even then, but it was only the start of a torrent of doggedly optimistic pandemic messages.
Last July, the prime minister told us that it might be almost over by Christmas. Before that there was the promise of a “world-beating” test and trace system. Then there was Operation Moonshot, which would deliver “literally millions” of rapid Covid-19 tests “on a far bigger scale than any country has yet achieved”. The announcement of a vaccine breakthrough late last year prompted him to hint at the possibility of normality being restored by Easter. And just days before Britain’s death toll from Covid-19 passed 100,000, his party was boasting on social media about the UK being number one in Europe and third in the world for administered vaccine doses – vaccines that, at one point, No 10 wanted emblazoned with the union flag. As though this were a competition between nations and not a collective global effort.
This combination of cynical optimism and nationalist boosterism is inextricably linked to the populist right’s main project before the virus interrupted proceedings: Brexit. For years, they preached about a great British revival upon being released from the European Union’s imagined shackles. The campaign to leave the EU heralded this present era of hyper-hopeful nationalism. And now that the leavers’ capacity to crow about our supposed new freedoms has been hindered by the pandemic, you can sometimes see the wires getting crossed, as when the health secretary, Matt Hancock, claimed that Britain’s early vaccine approval was “because of Brexit” (a point swiftly squashed by the UK’s medicines regulator).
Britain has always had a complicated relationship with self-aggrandisement – you can see the currents of flag-waving running through the empire, Thatcherism and even Cool Britannia, but British people are also famously suspiciousness of this type of unbridled positivity; Australians do not call us whinging poms for nothing. This Eyore-ish national disposition was described by the social anthropologist Kate Fox in her book Watching the English as “grumpy stoicism”. And yet the right’s fever-pitch optimism has so gripped our political culture that simply asking for a bit of substance to support the talk of national grandeur will have you accused of miserabilism and of doing Britain down, if not actually wanting the country to fail.
A core feature of the Conservative election campaign in 2019, Johnson’s Britannia Rules revivalism acts as a protective shield against criticism or requests for policy small print. His cheer-for-Britain buffoonery is an image cultivated over many years, definitively captured in the vision of him as London mayor during the 2012 Olympics, stuck on a zip wire with a union flag waving in each hand. Now this manufactured persona is paying dividends for him as prime minister, deflecting responsibility for his chronic pandemic mismanagement.
Johnson took us into lockdown too late, and eased it too fast over the summer. Going against scientific advice, he refused to back a circuit-breaker in autumn, or to close schools until the very last minute this year. He assured us that Christmas would be full of festive gatherings and then chaotically U-turned. Yet all these failures are cast as the behaviour of a British “freedom-loving” figure who simply can’t bear to bring bad news: a perfect smokescreen for deadly negligence.
Then there is the trap set by this type of rightwing populism, which relies on the illusion that national greatness is always thwarted by an interchangeable list of adversaries: the EU, immigrants, pesky lawyers, the left, elite politicians or the “doomsters and gloomsters” whom Johnson berated for not believing in Brexit in his first speech as prime minister. This template has been transposed on to the pandemic, so that to criticise any aspect of the government’s coronavirus measures is to disparage the country itself. Even the opposition leader, whose actual job it is to scrutinise the government, was accused of “knocking the confidence of the country” when trying to establish details of the pandemic response. Almost every policy criticism Keir Starmer makes is met with the retort that he is “talking down our NHS”, undermining frontline workers, or even – this week – attacking the vaccination programme.
The danger is that it is impossible for the government to communicate the pandemic’s severity, if it is telling the public that everything will be fine because Britain is brilliant. Just look at the reported concern from government scientists that the constant trumpeting of Britain’s vaccine rollout is adversely affecting lockdown compliance, as people are more inclined to believe Johnson’s claim that the scientific cavalry has come over the hill. False optimism also risks exhausting public patience for lockdown measures as hopes are repeatedly raised, only to be crushed again. And the government’s exaggerated, Britain-boosting claims often bump other stories off the front pages, so our news cycles lead with empty ministerial promises instead of the never-ending, granular problems with the outsourced test and trace system, or the failure to raise statutory sick pay so people can afford to self-isolate, or the alarming numbers forced to go to work during lockdown.
We all need some hope to get through this, but in place of sober messages and clear plans, the government is using nationalistic cheerleading to paper over its appalling pandemic mismanagement. This doesn’t just jar with reality, it makes it harder to fight the virus. Far from reassuring a frightened public, flag-waving boosterism has been bad for Britain.