Social distancing and self-isolation are not just a physical reality for the age of covid-19, but the reality we have increasingly endorsed. They are the natural end point of Britain’s drift toward going it alone, personally and politically.
Boris Johnson, as the man who became prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party by ending free movement, leading Britain’s retreat from the European Union’s community of nations and harnessing the Brexiteer slogan “I want my country back,” has been part of — perhaps even a cause of — that process.
Friday’s announcement that Johnson has contracted the coronavirus and is disappearing into quarantine and government-by-Skype for two weeks feels like the ending of a fairy tale about a prince who seeks perfect happiness. He walls more and more of the nasty things out, until, finally, he is completely alone. At this point, the prince would traditionally reach some sort of epiphany and see the error of his thinking. But what of the prime minister?
Like all of us, Johnson is a product of his time. The post-war generation he so successfully courted was brought up on the mythology of an island standing alone, proud in isolation and defiant in the face of invasion-happy Europeans. Britain’s story from the 1950s onward — much like America’s — has been of how it accommodated the changing attitudes of that bulge generation as it moved from youth to old age; from wanting teenage kicks in the 1950s and marching for demands as students in the 1960s to turning career-hungry 30-somethings in the 1980s.
It was these baby boomers, like Johnson himself, who heard as their call Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 catchphrase, “There is no such thing as society.”
That utterance — first landed by Thatcher in an interview for Woman’s Own magazine, the Middle England-targeting Facebook campaign of its day — became the foundational text for British Conservatism in the decades that followed. Privatize the national utilities and buy them for yourself. Keep more of your money. Have your own company, your own private pension, your own everything. And by 2016, in their 60s and 70s, Johnson and his baby-boomer audience wanted something else. Their country back. Out of Europe. An end to free movement. Blue passports as in the 1960s when we were young. Walk away. Proudly independent. Splendidly self-isolated.
As we sit in our homes, disconnected from one another, from the friends and neighbors we no longer see, or the colleagues many of us suddenly no longer have, or the public spaces of the hometown we can no longer walk or gather in, or the shops and pubs that have shut their doors to us — from even the skies, no longer crisscrossed by jets coming from or going to anywhere — that marvelous isolation is complete.
Of course, the reality of being left to ourselves often turns out to be somewhat different from the dream. Recent days have also brought us the stock market crash, a run on the pound that has seen it sink lower than at any time since 1985, and the news that the government appears to have caused Britain to miss out on an E.U. plan — for which it was invited to participate regardless of Brexit — to provide extra ventilators to cope with the crisis, as cases begin to overwhelm hospitals.
“There is no such thing as society” is surely the apocalyptic graffiti that 2020 is crying out for.
But Thatcher’s famous quote is only half the rallying cry she issued that day in 1987, and only half of the formula that became the Conservative Party’s credo, and Johnson’s inspiration, in the decades since. “There are individual men and women and there are families,” she continued. “People look to themselves first.”
Last week, British supermarkets were forced to clamp down on panic buyers walking out with every single last bottle of hand sanitizer and toilet roll in the store for themselves. Rationing of purchases has been reintroduced for the first time since that postwar period that the isolationists recall with such fondness. History repeats itself, as tragedy and as farce.
But Thatcher’s mantra does not just illuminate our trajectory, or that of the party that has elevated them to a dogma so keen that, were she to appear now, those Conservatives would almost certainly dismiss her as a centrist Remainer with no place on the frontbench. It is also the key to understanding, specifically, Johnson’s handling of the snowballing coronavirus crisis.
The prime minister’s initial reluctance to introduce a lockdown, even as covid-19 spread and Italian authorities and National Health Service doctors warned that Britain was on a rising curve that followed Italy’s, was born of his fervid commitment to Thatcher’s credo. On March 3, as the World Health Organization warned people off shaking hands and other countries enforced lockdowns, Johnson responded to a question as to whether he would follow suit with: “I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were actually a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands. People can make up their own minds.” As late as last weekend, the Downing Street press office was forced to issue a “clarification” that when Johnson had breezily said he would still be “going to see” his elderly mother on Britain’s Mother’s Day last Sunday, he had actually meant he would “see” his mother on Skype.
And what of those other small-government libertarians? How are they faring? Well, Sir Richard Branson, the quintessential ’60s hippie turned ’80s yuppie, who in 2017 sued the NHS through his health-care company Virgin Care, which itself was revealed in 2020 to have paid not a penny in tax on tens of millions of dollars in NHS contracts, is preparing a demand for a government bailout of his airline Virgin Atlantic. Meanwhile, Tim Martin, the 64-year-old millionaire Johnson ally who owns Britain’s largest chain of pubs — who bankrolled a mass-mailed pro-“No Deal Brexit” magazine last year and rails against interference — first resisted the shutdown like Johnson, claiming that “No standing at the bar” signs would do well enough to stop the virus spreading in his pubs. Then, having temporarily closed the doors, he told all 40,000 of those pubs’ employees that, despite an annual turnover of more than $2 billion, he would not be paying them until the government gave a bailout to Wetherspoons. They should consider going to work at Tesco instead, he said, referring to Britain’s supermarket giant.
Strange times indeed. As the BBC’s Nick Bryant wrote of American political life last week, “As in 2008, ideological conservatives have overnight become operational liberals. Those who ordinarily detest government have come in this emergency to depend on it.”
But it is the prime minister — always a ready wit for all his faults — who has unwittingly provided us with not one, but two walking punchlines. The most libertarian leader in Britain’s postwar history has become the one to sign the most draconian curtailment of freedom in all that time. And the man who joked that he’d certainly continue shaking hands in hospitals, and that hand-washing was sufficient, has received his coronavirus diagnosis.
Now he has signed himself off and vanished, like some magician who, having stood before the cameras and made the historically strong pound, our international treaties, our European allies, our freedom of movement and our place in the ventilator scheme disappear, now pulls off his prestige trick, his piece de resistance.
This is a terrible pandemic, and a dark time. In Britain, it looks as if we’re in it for the long haul. Confirmed coronavirus cases have been doubling every three or four days — as of Sunday, there’d been more than 17,000 confirmed cases and 1,019 deaths. The story of the government’s shambolic deployment in the face of the crisis — Johnson’s failure to take the threat seriously, then his about-face; the confusion as to whether he meant do or don’t stay home (“We are taking away the ancient inalienable right of freeborn people of the United Kingdom to go to the pub, and I can imagine how you feel about that,” he joked) — is not really a story about a virus at all. It is about how a political model shapes our response to it, and our fate. Like Camus’s plague, the coronavirus is a way of finding out who we really are.
Everyone says we should look after ourselves.