Unfinest Hour

Our character has been all too gruesomely on display in our response to the pandemic


Who’s like us? Gerald Frost’s account in this issue contemplates our moral character. The British character, by this reckoning, is the undemonstrative one which knows to do the right thing even when no one else is looking. That we’ll behave like a Pont cartoon come to life. Or, as Frost magnificently recalls, as we would anticipate the editor of The Times to expect us to behave. The Critic is of course an avowedly open-minded magazine, so allow us to disagree, and to fear that these are very different times.

Crises may or may not lead to change, but invariably they reveal with greater clarity what’s already there. That’s what “character” is: how you respond to the bad and the hard rather than just to the easy and the good. Our character has been all too gruesomely on display in our response to the pandemic. We’ve informed, scolded, disapproved and loved it.

Our police, once merely one of our many wonders the world so envied, have been true to form and run riot. From threatening to seize our children and invent evidence, to investigating our shopping for its appropriateness to actually arresting someone for sitting on a park bench on her own for too long, nothing has been beyond them. Once again our tradition of an unarmed police is more a practical relief than a point of pride.

Where have our politicians been while the police have been merrily exceeding the laws parliament provided for them during this crisis? Silent, in the case of the Home Secretary, who has been detained elsewhere during this public order crisis. The loquacious Lord Chancellor has likewise been too shy to explain to the police why they should follow the laws there are rather than make up the ones they’d like there to be.

Police and Crime Commissioners — the supposed great democratic remedy to the deficiencies of the police — have been nowhere to be seen either. But perhaps this should not surprise us given the attitudes of the public towards the lockdown. Nowhere else in Europe matches the opinion-polled willingness of Britons to tidy themselves away for the greater good.

Yet what do they get in return for their dull docility? Police whose performative stupidity leads them to cram together on Westminster Bridge to flash their lights and toot their horns for the NHS, advisers who close by their colleagues scuttle past their symptoms into Number 10. The press have been criticised too, though much of this is simply public confusion at seeing the pig before the sausage, as far as live, unminced, broadcast press briefings go. In truth, the press have been in the main decorous to a fault, restrained in what they show, and supportive of the government’s line.

Some journalists, not least at The Critic, have, however, tried to do their job and publicly question the coagulating consensus. Among the first to break cover by questioning the lockdown’s assumptions was Toby Young in an article for our website. The reward for him and those expressing similar scepticism has been abuse, contempt and death threats.

The NHS reform which we so plainly need will be further away now it has been washed in martyrs’ blood

The most responsible and respectable voices in the press, when they haven’t actually been taking part in the pile-on against dissent, have been at their primmest in regretting those vulgar enough to break away from herd conformity. Like applauding Italians at a funeral, we have exchanged silence and reserve for the New Britain. Now we troop out for our two-minute clap, while too many of us notice those who don’t. Hopefully not too many undergraduates have been traumatised by this noise, thanks to plentiful trigger warnings beforehand.

We might even fear that while Americans plainly want to get back to working, being paid and at home is for many Britons entirely agreeable shirking. And for what? To “protect the NHS”. Well might we ask, as Theodore Dalrymple does in this month’s Sacred Cow, why does this envy of the world, which no one anywhere else sees fit to emulate, need protecting? Isn’t its very point to protect? Rather than the economy being sacrificed to it, might it not have been better ordered as servant rather than pre-conquistador god?

“Protect the NHS” exploits our cultish devotion to it, and demonstrably leads to politicians and journalists self-censoring when its sacred name is invoked. The reformation of the NHS we so plainly need, given its manifestly, disastrously poorer public health outcomes compared to alternative models in other countries, will be further away than ever now that it has been washed in martyrs’ blood. Criticism will be blasphemy.

If only to get away from the disquieting sight of ourselves, we cannot get back to our old distracting routines soon enough. Better being busy than being pious, smug and indoors.

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