It is one of the strange quirks of the last three years that the two genuine watershed moments concerning lockdowns both revolved around Matt Hancock, the Lockdowner-in-Chief. First, the capturing on camera of his ‘passionate embrace’ (if we can put it that way) with Gina Coladangelo in the late spring of 2021 seemed to signal a significant change in the mood music surrounding Covid. Everyone was by that point thoroughly sick of lockdowns and social distancing, and the fact that our most lockdowny politician of all obviously and flagrantly didn’t seem to consider the rules to be important had the feeling of being a genuine nail in the coffin for the whole daft business. Now we have his leaked WhatsApp messages, and – lo and behold! – we are seeing the dam break and the media are actually (three years too late) having a proper debate about whether lockdowns were a good idea at all. They were even discussing it on the Today programme this morning. (What they weren’t discussing, of course, was the BBC’s own role in whipping up panic back in spring 2020. Let’s not hold our breath waiting for that one.)
What is one to make of Matt Hancock? While undoubtedly possessing more than his fair share of low cunning, he lacks any other discernible gifts. The barely suppressed glee with which he announced every single new lockdown measure should have been enough on its own to disqualify him from high office – nobody whose megalomania is so plainly evident should come within a barge pole of a Cabinet position. He is living proof of the old adage that somebody who genuinely wants political power should be the absolutely last person to be allowed to exercise it.
Perhaps the more pertinent question is what to make of a political system which ends up with Matt Hancock as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. (He was actually being talked up as potential winner of the Tory leadership contest in 2019 and hence Prime Minister. I’ll let that sink in for a moment.) The strongest argument against big government, and particularly against technocratic government, has always been that in the end even technocracies are run by people, and the kind of people who will be in charge will tend to be awful. It might be the case that political Platonism – the idea that there could be an elite capable of identifying the greater good and implementing it on behalf of the hoi polloi – is achievable in theory. But it’s a moot point, because, at least in the absence of a natural (merit-based) ‘aristocracy’ (of the existence of which few are in favour), in any modern political system such an elite will inevitably comprise careerists and sociopaths who couldn’t be less interested in what’s good for anyone but themselves.
Milton Friedman’s way of understanding things, as always, had the most merit. For Friedman, Matt Hancock and his ilk are inevitable byproducts of the existence of a political system. You will always get the faeces rising to the top, as it were. Since this is the case, the ideal system is one in which those people are able to do as little as possible, and ideally are incentivised so their selfishness produces tolerable outcomes. What you want is a system in which somebody like Hancock can have his petty little fiefdom, in other words, but isn’t in a position to send old people infected with Covid into care homes, slaughter the feline population of England and Wales, close schools, and make it illegal for non-cohabiting couples to have sexual intercourse. Instead, things should be geared so that he can’t really do much, and when he is able to act, the system of rewards and punishment will funnel his fundamentally selfish nature towards beneficial ends.
What is truly strange about British democracy is that nobody ever reflects on whether it is a good idea for politicians to have much power in the first place. The position is always: “Well, Matt Hancock was bad, but we can appoint somebody else”. The same mentality prevails at the macro level: “We’ve had enough of the Tories, so maybe Labour will do better.” Isn’t it about time we asked ourselves whether the problem is politicians per se and what we can do to limit the damage they are able to inflict?
Dr. David McGrogan is Associate Professor of Law at Northumbria Law School.