One of the most striking things about the past year has been the uniform and all but unquestioning embrace of the novel policy of lockdown by Government, opposition parties, and the mainstream media. Even as the number of fatalities, hospitalisations, and cases collapse, the Government remains religiously wedded to the sclerotic pace of its easing strategy and news bulletins continue to duckspeak calls to comply with the most illiberal restrictions ever imposed on British society, refusing to interrogate these restrictions’ costs. Those who question lockdown orthodoxy, be they distinguished scientists, civil liberties campaigners, or journalists beyond the print and televisual oligopolies, are denounced as ‘deniers’ and shut down.
Let us remind ourselves what lockdown means: it is the state-mandated end of normal social, economic, and political life. It involves everything from the forced-separation of families, to the capricious police over-enforcement of pettifogging, poorly written guidelines of dubious actual legality, to the total marginalisation of normal democratic and parliamentary procedures in what the admirable Lord Sumption has termed ‘government by decree’. It is an unprecedented policy taken from a totalitarian state and adopted by Britain and other Western nations at the cost of ignoring decades of research and established pandemic management strategies. It was the policy of panic. It has been sustained through the deliberate stoking of fear using outright lies. It fatally questions the claims our governmental system formerly had to an intrinsic moral high ground against the grim tyrannies of less happier lands. The economic cost is unfathomable. Yet it now seems to have become an established tool in the State inventory: Chris Whitty hinted as early as January that future lockdowns may be necessary – despite the vaccine – and New Zealand and Australia are showing how ready anglophone democracies now are to shut down their societies at the mere whiff of a handful of new infections.
Nothing, it seems, establishes itself so readily in the political culture of the twenty-first century than a revolutionary new orthodoxy that reverses every natural assumption on how things are and ought to be. It is perhaps telling that such an Establishment consensus exists around lockdown in an age when calling women who give birth ‘mothers’ is an issue of agonised controversy, and in which we are ordered to believe that some of the wealthiest and most socially privileged are, in fact, helpless victims of vast societal conspiracies of persecution. The madness of the age may be plain to many, but it is almost unsurprising to read from one well-informed source that even suggesting lockdown has costs and negative consequences is ‘heresy’ in a Whitehall that cannot even bring itself to brief the Cabinet on such issues.
The Establishment consensus on lockdown is nothing short of the omertà of national self-destruction. To try to understand why it exists, a first step to trying to combat it, we cannot apotheosise – placing politics on a plane above people – but should look to those in power who’ve been driving the policy and to their cheerleaders. The sheer absence of political leadership, as well as the dubious evidential and methodological basis on which the Government has based its decisions, has been noted before. Commentators on the left, moreover, have noticed how the Labour Party’s abject failure to oppose the Government, or even to speak up for sections of society hit hardest by lockdown, owes much to the social distance that now exists between working class communities and the metropolitan liberals who presume to be these communities’ tribunes.
I would argue that this lack of leadership, and the fragmentation of the Left, are but two symptoms of the same condition. Social and intellectual distance from society is a charge that cannot just be levelled at the Left, but at what we could call ‘the political class’ in general. The uniformity of this caste, which shares certain rarefied cultural and social assumptions and which is trained to play at politics in the same way, explains the lack of divergent thinking and the consequent gulf of principled, daring leadership.
By the ‘political class,’ I follow the definition given in Peter Oborne’s insightful 2007 book, The Triumph of the Political Class. His definition encompasses not only those whom Sir Roger Scruton described as career politicians and officials who have never worked in an ordinary workplace, but also the London-based media. Their academic training – all but invariably an arts degree like the politico’s crash course of Politics, Philosophy, and Economics (PPE) – conditions them to approach politics as a game of rhetoric, grand narratives, and media management rather than as a discipline designed to solve practical problems. Aspirant members of the political class then tend to move from this training into metropolitan jobs that place a priority on wordcraft, presentation, and persuasion – journalism, lobbying, and other occupations adjacent to Westminster politics – working with people who have a common lifestyle and who share the cultural tendencies they adopted at university. This limited exposure to life as it is lived beyond a narrow sliver of London’s knowledge economy and the imbibing of often niche, fashionable causes – the righteousness of which is reiterated in environments where there is a career premium on signalling virtuous credentials – is a recipe for groupthink.
Indeed, so much of this world is about the formation of social groups and social identity. Individuals from relatively non-elite backgrounds can establish themselves by signalling elite membership through what they do or say, and declaring an interest in certain fashionable – but narrow – interests demonstrates an elevated separation from the unenlightened. This elite identity crosses party lines and the lines that one would imagine would divide lobbyists and parliamentary staff, or journalists and politicians. It is, for instance, why Westminster and the media were so unified on the issue of Remain, and why I, visiting friends still working in parliament during the opening stages of the referendum campaign, was mocked from all sides for supporting Brexit over cosy, cross-party drinks between MPs’ staff.
The uniformity of the new ruling class, and the games that one must play to enter it, explains the consensus on lockdown. The political class is naturally drawn to power, meaning that its members are often keen to signal how ‘on board’ they are with elite projects. This distorts the line between those responsible for policy and those who should critique it. It is evident in the tendency of mainstream journalists to discuss the pandemic within the framework set by lockdown rather than to think outside of the box, or in their total failure to ask probing questions of ministers and state scientists. They can further tell one another that they are being ‘responsible’ by refusing to question a Government policy designed, of course, to ‘save lives,’ but this means that they partake in the state’s management of society rather than in holding power to account. Many journalists will also avoid criticising lockdown because a lot of those who do are political class undesirables, notably Donald Trump, with whom they do not want to appear associated. It often appears to be a political class article of faith that frequently unreasonable people cannot, in fact, say reasonable things.
It is, moreover, hardly irrelevant to note that lockdown is also more congenial to the political class than to most people in the country. They have secure, well-paid, often interesting and usually public-sector jobs that generally just require a computer and an internet connection. They are also less likely to know personally the kind of people working in private sector service or physical jobs who have suffered the most from the societal shutdown. Home-schooling is similarly less of a problem for those with the financial means or educational attainments to tutor effectively. Lockdown can mean leisurely late breakfasts and bicycle rides.
The background and associated cultural biases of the political class likewise helps to explain their doctrinaire faith in ‘experts’ and why they so unquestioningly embrace the kind of abstruse modelling peddled by SAGE. Above all, the political class is unfamiliar with the scientific method. They understand ‘the science’ as a term of power they can deploy to shut down debates and win arguments, which has one ‘correct’ answer. They fail to recognise it as a process of investigation, determined by assumptions and inputs, which will often produce outlying results and whose purveyors can unintentionally mislead the uninitiated by the words they use to describe phenomena like percentage correlations.
Who the actual ‘expert’ is or the nature of their track record is not entirely relevant (and the influential Professor Neil Ferguson’s past performance at predicting pandemic lethality is indeed abysmal). What is important is the rhetorical role that citing the expert plays: it is the argumentum ad verecundiam, designed to intimidate and embarrass opponents, which also abrogates the need to play the ball rather than the man and therefore to grapple with the issue at stake in a truly critical manner. It is the helpful quote in the rushed, weekly essay that allows you to stop thinking about one aspect of the subject and to move on. It is the PPE-ist’s answer.
Political class education, furthermore, all too often prioritises seductive theory over hard-won knowledge. Their social milieu similarly fetishises trendy ideas like innovation, technology, or big data. They therefore seem to have no problem with SAGE’s total eschewal of empirical evidence – be that ignoring seasonality or failing to acknowledge comparative evidence from Sweden or America – as they have been conditioned to see computer-driven, theoretical models as superior, not least because pretending to understand such models functions as a signal of intellectual and therefore of social superiority.
This theoretical bias, which has more than a little of the tendency to proselytise dogma over empirically-driven debate, combined with the political class’s preference for consensus and faith in experts, helps to explain the lazy and limited thinking that has defined the Government’s response to the pandemic. There seems to have been no debate on different courses of action – after Italy showed that the state could ‘get away’ with lockdown – or red-teaming on the policy proposed, with the shutting down of Parliament and the marginalisation of Cabinet contributing to the total absence of the kind of antagonistic debate that identifies problems and tests policies. Once the simple narrative of Covid being the only problem and lockdown the only solution established itself amidst media hyperbole and panic, the parameters of acceptable thought were set. Wider ethical discussions or the identification of adverse effects have remained completely absent.
This narrow-minded groupthink is an indictment of those who presume to be this country’s rulers. It is ultimately a product of a pattern of social and political evolution that has seen the British elite become far more uniform, metropolitan, and hostile to those who break the mould than was the case in the final decades of the twentieth century. Indeed, it is unsurprising that the most significant political event for generations – Brexit – had to be driven by those ‘fruitcakes and loonies’ to be found beyond the political class.
This class’s failure in the age of Covid is twofold. They have failed to represent those they apparently serve, whose reality is foreign to them, and they have failed to think with the degree of rigour, humility, and imagination that a crisis requires. They have been trained to look for easy media wins achieved through citing experts, doubling-down on simple and specious narratives, and attacking their opponents as individuals rather than engaging with their arguments. Herds do not by definition lead. The myopic perspective means that the political class is blind to the costs of lockdown.
Significantly, now that the professional credibility of swathes of the Establishment is tied to lockdown, they cannot refute or question it. Whatever the objections lockdown sceptics can muster, the logic of the political class will also always be able to combat them to their own satisfaction: lockdown superficially makes sense on a theoretical level, even if increasing amounts of evidence shows that reality does not conform to theory; the opponents of lockdown are ‘bad people’ because the policy was all about ‘saving lives’, and the favoured experts will always be able to be cited in its support. We are told that the current lockdown will be the last, but the structural inability of the political class to question it means that the risk of future societal shutdowns has not, even cannot, go away.
In March 2020, Covid was the crisis. As crises often do, however, it has revealed the far deeper problems already afflicting society and the State, problems more deep-rooted, more damaging, and perhaps far more difficult to address than the disease itself.
Dr James Moreton Wakeley is a former parliamentary researcher with a PhD in History from Oxford.