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  • Mark Mardell

Boris bowed down before the Death Cult

Updated: Jan 29

Boris bowed down before the Death Cult


The counter has ticked up relentlessly until we reached a headline-triggering row of zeroes , each one a negation of life. One hundred thousand deaths. Sufficient to provoke brief introspection and apparently genuine shock, after months when much of the media seemed oblivious to the daily mounting toll. The truly shocking statistic was that the halfway mark came not long ago, just in November, at very time when alarm bells were being furiously rung by experts as anti-lock down enthusiasts stuck their fingers in their ears and sang bright carols about not cancelling Christmas.


Who should now hang their heads in shame ? Who will?


Boris Johnson is understandably unwilling. He says “There will come a time when we need to reflect, to learn lessons... But I don’t think that time is now.”


He’s precisely wrong. This isn’t some road accident, where the urgent need is to get the injured to hospital before apportioning blame and making arrests. We are still in the middle of the motor way, cars crashing all around us and the chaos will mount unless lessons are learnt very quickly.


This may seem like ancient history but is not too late to bring on some new, or rather old, talent.


This Government’s inadequacy is rooted in the fact it was deliberately forged for one task, “to get Brexit done”, and all those not loyal to Johnson’s vision of the task were purged. Job done; they should be welcomed back.


There are other lessons to be learnt from the early slow reflexes.


But the current terrible toll is directly down to the reluctance to take obvious steps, in late summer, early autumn last year. Not too ease too soon, later not to duck the hard choice. Obvious and urged by many. But Johnson was instinctively inclined to heed not the sotto voce scientific advice but the bellowed demands of his sometimes pals.


We all like to repeat past success, fight new battles with old weapons and Boris is very good at sunny optimism, and jolly encouragement. He’s not so good at sombre finger wagging and tough choices. He also wants to be loved and hates disappointing the crowd.


Don’t just think about what he’s done and is doing, listen to the chorus behind him encouraging him to take this Primrose path to perdition. Sometimes it seems like they must be members of a sinister death cult hoping the body count would mount high enough for them to summon an Elder God into this realm.


In reality their motives are more prosaic, if no less destructive.


Today’s conservative party is heir to its past, but it is a very different beast. Whereas in the past you might find enthusiasm for any authoritarian clampdown, now the watchword is ‘liberty’. In many ways this transition is a very good thing if it translates into actually individual liberty, to smoke what you like or marry who you wish. But in this instance, it is an atavistic horror of Government extending its reach and telling people what to do to benefit the whole community. Liberty in this case is not just the right to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre but the freedom to spray the audience with petrol and follow it up with a lit match.

This combines with a much more basic conservative instinct – to protect business and profit. This is important – on the same day that the death toll reached one hundred thousand, unemployment hit 5 %, the highest level for four years. There is a balance to be had of course. There’s no question that lockdown has strangled many futures and plunged many into poverty. But at the end of last year a short sharp shock would have been better than this prolonged misery.


Some newspapers were in the forefront of the anti lockdown fetish, demanding that Christmas be saved, ranting about ‘how much longer ?’ and demanding dates for an end to it all. They still at it. They are particularly worried about the loss of advertising revenue.


Johnson has continually misjudged the forbearance of the British public who seemed, last year at least, willing to put up with restriction a little longer. He saw an innate conservative desire to duck the challenge of change rather than the actually grudging flexibility. In misjudging the mood, he broke it. Whatever you think of Johnson he’s a skilled enough politician to know clarity in communication is all. But listening to the Daily Mail and the 1922 meant swithering and swerving away from anything that looked like another national lockdown.


His alternative was a variety of semi regional rules that were so confused that they invited ridicule and made rule breaking almost inevitable. Perhaps it was even deliberate. Debates about whether a Scotch egg constituted a meal, and if so how many minutes you had to scoff it teetered on the edge of parody: we seemed only two steps away from the sort of absurdist rules designed to provoke ire -- if you live Mansfield you could only see your step child inside a park, without a playground, if accompanied by a maternal grandparent but two miles down the road that only applied on alternate Tuesdays in a garden centre. There is danger all this nonsense will be repeated from the middle of next month onwards.


But there is another group who need to hang their heads in shame. Those broadcasters who enabled the Death Cult and continually promoted their chief cultists to question scientific advice. In the old days radio stations had cartridge machines – ‘carts’ – to play jingles or stings. For months I’ve been longing to hear one with a springing, boing - boing noise followed by a manic laugh, to warns us of yet another appearance by the nutty professor or the weird judge making varied arguments that there was no pandemic, or it was no worse than the flu or to ask what are tens of thousands deaths compared to not having to stay indoors for a bit?


They have a right to their view, and it is also right to explore alternative views. But here we meet up with our old friend ‘false equivalence’ – on the one hand here’s a scientist who say what most scientists are saying but in the interests of balance (and controversy) here’s the one person with some academic qualifications who will say the oppositive. I am ferociously in favour of exploring all sides of a story and putting minority views on air but there comes a time when it can look like a crusade, rather than a quest for fairness, and is every bit as damaging as Trump’s lies.


And so it came to pass that in the face of these screeching voices Johnson did everything but the plain, simple and obvious until her could avoid it no longer. Psychologically, if not clinically, it may be too late. Lockdown three is really grim and nerves are frayed after the dithering and all the false dawns. The Death Cult got its way. No dark elder god has risen but right now it has made the UK the most dangerous country in the world in this season of pandemic.


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