When this is all over, will it become the custom every November to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph for the Covid dead? Given the prime minister’s insistence on comparing the pandemic to a war, you might be forgiven for thinking so.
It’s hardly a secret that Boris Johnson fancies himself as the heir to Churchill, boldly directing his people in a time of national crisis. The prime minister remains determined to make of Covid his Second World War. To convince us the two events are similar, he hurls himself upon the imagery of war with all the enthusiasm and abandon of a Viking plundering a treasure-filled monastery.
In his article in yesterday’s Mail on Sunday, Boris banged his war drum as he urged people to continue to stay at home. Rare were the battles he did not invoke, and few the metaphors unmixed.
The prime minister enlisted the Napoleonic Wars for his purpose with characteristic bombast: “the armies of science are coming to our aid with all the morale-boosting, bugle-blasting excitement of Wellington’s Prussian allies coming through the woods on the afternoon of Waterloo.”
Our bugle-blaster-in-chief called also upon the First World War for an image, warning us that if we reject the government’s restrictions “we will tangle ourselves in the last barbed wire”. And, almost inevitably, the “sunlit uplands” of Winston Churchill’s “This was their finest hour” speech got a look in as well.
One might argue that Boris’s language doesn’t really matter. But it has an effect on how people view the pandemic. We are being told that we are in a war and that we owe the soldier’s duty to obey.
Covid deaths are routinely compared to casualties of war. The numbers are admittedly shocking. More Britons have so far died from the virus than have been killed in all conflicts since the Second World War – over seven times more. The number of Covid deaths exceeds the casualties of the recent British operations in Iraq and Afghanistan by a factor of 80.
It is somewhat less alarming to say that England has registered 20 per cent more deaths since the pandemic began than would be expected in a normal year.
It is also true that this is not a disease that kills the young in the same way wars do. Three-quarters of those who have died were over 75 years old. If wars were fought predominantly by the over-75s, they would perhaps be considered a far lesser tragedy.
The pandemic-as-war metaphor matters because it is part of an attempt to pressure the population into accepting what the government is doing. This is not an issue of the Conservatives mismanaging the crisis; instead, we are told, the country is in the middle of an existential crisis. To question the government during such a time would be unpatriotic, even traitorous.
The pandemic-as-war metaphor matters because people are being deceived
The metaphor matters because people are being deceived. It matters because the extra £280 billion of government spending during the crisis is more than twice the NHS’s entire annual budget and more than three times annual education spending. That is before we even take into account the £100 billion that the government has lost in tax receipts from strangled businesses. This is money that could have been used to transform society. We may as well forget about “levelling up”: we’ll be lucky even to preserve the status quo.
Normally reasonable people are buying into this. A generally sensible person I know warned against going out because “it is October 1918”. Why risk your life when the Armistice is just round the corner? That very concept is sure to result in government restrictions being imposed for longer than is necessary.
And what are the warrior values that the War on Covid demands? Who are the heroes of the age? This is, after all, a war in which every one of us is on the front line. There is no Home Front. We are all too busy fighting the virus to be able to work. No one is to be praised for going to work, and indeed we are actively incentivised by the government not to work. It is not a time for courage but timidity. No one is urged to put on a brave face.
Once we pick at the idea of the pandemic being a war, we see how flimsy it is. And there is a danger, not one that Boris much worries about, of using language that is too great for what it describes.
Maybe this is ungenerous to the prime minister. To some extent, it is hard-wired in us to conceive of our struggles in terms of the language of war. And Boris was very possibly too busy with his bugle to write the whole article himself; though his hand can surely be detected in places.
In June 1940, Winston Churchill urged Britain to carry on fighting its enemy: “If we can stand up to him all Europe may be free and the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands”.
Let’s compare that with Boris: “We are so nearly out of our captivity. We can see the sunlit upland pastures ahead. But if we try to jump the fence now, we will simply tangle ourselves in the last barbed wire, with disastrous consequences for the NHS.”
The most plausible reading is that even the prime minister no longer believes in what he is saying
This is meaningless carnage, a Passchendaele of metaphor. Johnson’s change to “sunlit upland pastures” seems to suggest that we are a nation of enthusiastic cattle-grazers or, perhaps more likely, simply cattle. In warning us not to “jump the fence”, he seems confused by the rural mode, conflating a horse jumping a fence with the idea of “jumping the gun”.
Meanwhile the pairing of “our captivity” and “barbed wire” suggests that we are all in a prison camp. There is no mention that this captivity has been imposed and exacerbated by Boris and his government. It’s rather like the camp commandant apologising for detaining us and telling us to hang on a bit longer.
Then Boris delivers his masterstroke: the picture of someone (likely Boris) trying to escape this prison camp (or farm) and becoming so tangled up in figurative barbed wire that it inflicts literal injuries upon him “with disastrous consequences for the NHS”.
Surely, someone as well versed in rhetoric as Boris must detect the note of the absurd creeping into his warlike metaphors. The most plausible reading is that even the prime minister no longer believes in what he is saying.
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