For about five weeks, the mayhem of coronavirus rendered the political mayhem of the previous four years irrelevant and dated. The divisive, petty, mendacious battles that had been waged in the name of Brexit suddenly appeared for what they were all along: conflicts conjured out of thin air by newspaper editors and their friends in the Conservative party. The era of digital “fake news” and memes was replaced by the sobriety of daily press conferences. Ministers broke their childish veto of the BBC’s Today programme. Boris Johnson ran for cover behind civil servants and academics. All eyes turned towards the cold objectivity of statistics.
We can date the opening of this window with some precision. Johnson’s general election honeymoon (which included holidays to Mustique and Chevening) came to a halt when he attended his first Cobra meeting on coronavirus on 2 March. We can only imagine the shock and disappointment Johnson must have felt, as it dawned on him that his premiership would not be remembered for Brexit at all. There followed weeks of earnest policy analysis, and when the lockdown finally arrived, it was accepted as the authoritative decision of experts.
We can date the closing of this window with equal precision. On 6 April it was announced that the prime minister had been taken into St Thomas’s hospital with Covid-19, and the next day he was moved into intensive care. By the time Johnson had re-emerged on 12 April with a video thanking the NHS staff who had saved his life, the mood had changed. Led by certain newspapers, the sense of measured proportionality that had governed public debate over the course of March was now lost, and an impassioned Covid nationalism was born.
For the press, with whom Johnson has always been so intimate, the prime minister’s illness was an opportunity to abandon the concern with aggregate mortality rates which had dominated the news for the previous month. The body of the leader now provided a symbol to focus on. “May Boris and Britain get through this battle,” intoned Charles Moore sombrely in the Telegraph. “Your health is the health of the nation,” Allison Pearson pleaded to Johnson. Britain has now lost more lives to Covid-19 than any nation in Europe, but its hero has survived. With the arrival of a new Johnson baby, followed by the 75 anniversary of VE Day, the Johnson administration spotted a path to reprieval.
The fact that Johnson and his adviser Dominic Cummings are in Downing Street at all is down to their intuitive grasp of symbolism and messaging, which floored their opponents in June 2016 and again in December 2019. During the hiatus of March 2020, as the government scrambled desperately for a position on coronavirus, this skill seemed to desert them. Messages were all over the place, to the point where scientists were liberated to throw around jargon about “herd immunity”. But when a line was found, it stuck: “Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.”
The status of the NHS here is interesting, and not a little troubling. As soon as horror stories started to emanate from Lombardy in February, it was clear that the worst possible nightmare on Britain’s horizon was of the NHS being faced with far more Covid patients than it could treat. The phrase “flatten the curve” means specifically reducing the peak to within hospital capacity. But over time, the ambition to “protect the NHS” has taken on such momentum, it has come to overshadow the third part of the slogan, “save lives”.
The video that Johnson released on exiting hospital made the extraordinary gambit of elevating the defence of the NHS above the defence of the public:
We are making progress in this national battle because the British public formed a human shield around this country’s greatest national asset – our National Health Service. We understood and we decided that if together we could keep our NHS safe, if we could stop our NHS from being overwhelmed, then we could not be beaten, and this country would rise together and overcome this challenge, as we have overcome so many challenges in the past.
This was an ingenious piece of political rhetoric, sidelining the methodical and morbid question of body counts, and replacing it with a national story of collective identity and sacrifice. Where a standard utilitarian logic might presuppose that health policy should be judged in terms of outcomes for human welfare, now Johnson was suggesting that human welfare was a price worth paying to preserve a cherished symbol of health policy. Such rhetorical acrobatics were all the more impressive from a man who had been at death’s door only five days earlier.
The draping of the union jack across the NHS has produced some sickly results. The gratitude that is felt towards health and care professionals has been profoundly moving to experience and witness, and the weekly “clap for carers” is one of its many valuable expressions. But over the weeks, this spirit of spontaneous solidarity has thickened into something more forceful and censorious, potentially something angrier. Johnson’s supporters in Westminster have turned on journalists for probing the government’s performance too critically, as if any criticism was a sign of disloyalty to the national effort. Challenged in parliament by the Labour MP and A&E doctor Rosena Allin-Khan about the shortage of available PPE, health secretary Matt Hancock suggested she change her “tone”.
As the weeks have passed, the symbol of the NHS has become entangled with a host of other national British icons, many of which hark back to the second world war. The 100th birthday of Captain Tom Moore, who raised an astonishing £30m for NHS charities by walking around his garden, was celebrated with a flyover by two fighter planes from the era, a video message from the PM and a promotion to the rank of colonel by the Queen. Moore revealed that he’d received a letter of congratulations from 103-year-old Dame Vera Lynn, whose song “We’ll Meet Again” had topped the charts, after the Queen referenced the famous wartime number in her televised lockdown address to the nation.
As much as the left might wish otherwise, the NHS has always been available as a potential nationalist icon. As David Edgerton details in The Rise and Fall of the British Nation, the invention of “Britain” as a post-imperial nation state, defined as a national economy with a single people, was initially a project of the Labour party more than the Conservatives. Edgerton points out that the manifesto on which Clement Atlee won the 1945 election, and that set out plans for an NHS, contained the words “socialist” and “socialism” three times, but the words “nation” and “national” nearly 50 times. Years before wartime mythology and nostalgia took off in the 1970s and 80s, it was Labour – and not the Tories – who did most to create a sense of “Britain” as a single imagined community.
A more extreme version of health nationalism has been bubbling away on the far right for some years. The alleged problem of “health tourism”, of foreigners exploiting the generosity of the NHS, has been repeatedly referenced by Nigel Farage, and is a common trope among English nationalists such as Tommy Robinson. Governments have occasionally indulged this sentiment, with Hancock accusing Labour of giving a “free rein to health tourism” during the election campaign. Theresa May’s “hostile environment” migration policy (the cause of the agonising Windrush scandal that broke in 2018) also sought to deploy the NHS as an instrument for deterring immigrants from settling in the UK. A new sociological paper by Des Fitzgerald, Amy Hinterberger and John Narayan examines how Vote Leave seized on the NHS as a symbol of shared British “heredity”, the means through which the nation reproduces itself culturally and biologically. The vision of free healthcare, for the people and by the people, is a seductive part of Britain’s national mythology.
As the Covid crisis has confirmed in the starkest possible terms, the everyday reality of health and care services in the UK flies in the face of this jingoism. The litany of those who have died in the course of their professional care work could scarcely be more ethnically and nationally diverse – a testimony to how little nation matters, where expertise and basic humanity are concerned. This could, of course, be a basis on which to reset the story of “Britain”, in ways that take stock of its globally connected, porous nature. But at the moment, that story is losing the battle for column inches with false memories of the second world war.
With the government lashing itself to the NHS, and then lashing the NHS to Dame Vera Lynn, a new facet of populism looms into view, in which critics and statisticians become tarred as useless naysayers. The possible political benefits to Johnson (who is born to this style of fact-free leadership) are obvious, but the potential consequences for policy are quite terrifying. It emerged during April that the UK’s true death-toll was at least twice as high as the government was insisting, once care homes were taken into account. According to an investigation by Reuters, a decision was made in mid-March to transfer 15,000 patients out of hospitals, back into the community, including many who had tested positive for Covid and would return to care homes. So desperate was the effort to “protect the NHS” and free up capacity, it seems that infections were being released into the care sector. Still the government’s “official” tally of deaths only counts those which have occurred in hospitals.
Johnson has never been as popular as he was during his hospitalisation. Like most national leaders, his approval ratings have risen as a result of this crisis, and the Conservatives have been consistently polling at around 50%. Having the worst death toll in Europe clearly counts for less in the eyes of the public than the rallying around of our resolutely National Health Service. The style of politics that Johnson mastered over the previous four years has returned, and it is delivering for him, just so long as the accumulation of deaths can be slotted into a narrative of sacrifice and community.
But as with previous nationalisms, the communities doing the narrating are not the same as those doing the grieving. It’s here that the cultural politics of Brexit potentially resurfaces. Study a map of where Covid-related deaths have been concentrated, and the eye is immediately drawn to major cities: London, Birmingham, Manchester, Cardiff, Glasgow. A lower concentration of mortality sweeps up the middle of the country, from the south-east, through the West Midlands, up to the north-west and on towards Scotland. But the east and west of the country are far less affected. It’s not a perfect fit by any means, but the map loosely resembles a more familiar one: the 2016 referendum result. The virus presents the greatest risks to those inner city urban areas, such as Hackney and Stockport, which voted remain.
This overlap is scarcely surprising. The remain vote was clustered in centres of international connectivity and intense commercial activity, both rich and poor. The choice to remain was a choice very often connected to the larger international world of global capitalism, travel and urban life. It is these same things that allow a virus to spread. Conversely, the disconnection experienced by rural leave voters also reduces their risk of infection. The interests of rural, car-driving England are not necessarily those of the inner cities, though the stakes are now of course far higher than just culture.
The continuity between coronavirus Britain and Brexit Britain is greater than we might have imagined, and certainly greater than it appeared during those five weeks before Johnson’s hospitalisation. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Johnson – like Donald Trump – was elected to office on the back of an anti-metropolitan, anti-liberal cultural platform. Johnson’s core vote is predominantly outside of those Covid danger zones of the inner cities and clusters of prosperity. Johnson, like Donald Trump, represents people who believe in the value of hard work, but don’t do very much of the really unpleasant hard work themselves, either for reasons of wealth or age. They believe in “unleashing” the economy, less in a macroeconomic sense, and more in the sense of ditching all the red tape and political correctness that comes from government administrators and universities.
This is how opposition to the European Union can shift seamlessly into opposition to the current lockdown. Some have pointed out the apparent hypocrisy of rightwingers who gave not a hoot for GDP when it came to Brexit, suddenly expressing their concern for Britain’s economy when it comes to coronavirus. But there is more consistency here than initially appears. Theirs is a worldview that cares little for statistical aggregates, whether that be GDP or Covid-related deaths. It pays scant attention to economists or epidemiologists, claiming to know what’s in the public interest, indeed it sets little store by the very idea of a “public interest” in the first place.
Instead, the purpose of the economy, from this conservative perspective, is to inculcate independence, both at an individual and a national level. The national economy should be self-reliant, manufacture its own goods, and employ its own people. It’s this national economy that globalisation, Brussels and lockdown all inhibit, and therefore need overturning. For the inner-city cleaner or hospitality worker, whose life would now be put at risk by a newly “unleashed” economy, the injunction would be to take more care, change jobs or take out life insurance. But it’s not the government’s problem, and it’s certainly not the problem of the typical Tory donor whose investment portfolio is currently under the cosh.
Johnson may not hold this worldview personally, but it is the one that propelled him to power, thanks to the victories of 2016 and 2019, masterminded by Cummings. Voices in favour of this libertarian economic nationalism have grown steadily louder since the lockdown began, and their vision of Britain is crystallising: fewer Chinese imports, fewer universities, lower immigration, more indigenous manufacturing and put the young and unemployed to work in the fields. No pain, no gain. It’s not an ideology commonly held by people who work in the genuinely wealth-producing centres of British capitalism, nor by the generations who will pay the greatest financial cost for this crisis over the coming decades. And the lockdown retains remarkably widespread public support. But it is an ideology to which Johnson will keep on nodding, and which is being drip-fed to the public by rightwing newspapers, Tory backbenchers and opaquely funded thinktanks. His confusing televised statement on Sunday night, which urged people back to work without any clarity around how this should occur, was clearly crafted partly to please conservative hardliners who are appalled by the current scale of state interventions.
Even with the most metropolitan and internationalist party in power, the coronavirus would force some reassertion of the nation state, as a legally binded entity with a common historical trajectory. There is no use trying to imagine Britain out of the story that we are living through. The question is whether a version of Britain can be imagined and described that avoids the worst nationalist excesses that are now stirring, as the death toll climbs, the NHS becomes a political shield and the wartime nostalgia tightens its grip.