At the time of writing, we have 27,510 corpses – and rising. GDP is 30% down – and falling. We have lost 950,000 jobs – and there are more to go. We are 37% short of full personal protection equipment for doctors. We are runners-up in the race to have the highest Covid-19 death toll in Europe and may soon leapfrog the Italians and claim the title outright. In short, we are a country that has been put to the test – and seen its leaders fail.
As they were bound to fail. From the moment Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Michael Gove won the Brexit referendum in 2016 by promising we could inflict a shuddering change to our country without feeling pain, failure has been inevitable. The only wonder is that it has taken so long for the British charlatan style to die.
It’s dying now as surely as the lost souls in care homes disappearing out of sight and out of mind. I say British rather than English because Alex Salmond’s promises of Scottish independence without tears anticipated Johnson’s promises of a painless Brexit and because British dishonesty takes a distinctive form.
Since 2016, Johnson has been a postmodern populist. His myths have been cheerful, a world away from the menace behind Trump’s snarls. He claimed the impossible was possible with a wink to the camera and a smirk on his face. He believed, or seemed to believe, you could never be sure, that all difficulties could be overcome with a dose of British pluck.
Good government in these circumstances would have been next to impossible. Now the pandemic has hit, it is impossible. Everyone involved in the fatal failure to contain the virus in February and early March is covering their backs. You do not, however, need to stare too hard at Johnson’s belated statement on 21 March that “we’re taking away the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go the pub” to know that the ideology of the Brexiters is out of time. Johnson did not act until the pandemic had engulfed us because his puffed-up nationalism held that the Brits, so favoured by providence, would refuse to imitate the cowed continentals. We stood alone in 1940. We stood up for ourselves in the Brexit referendum. Why couldn’t we stand at the bar now?
Johnson believed, or seemed to believe, that all difficulties could be overcome with a dose of British pluck