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Great British deference is dangerous in this time of crisis | Nesrine Malik | Opinion

 


There is a pious strangeness that infects the public and the media in times of national crisis. Overnight, our leaders are imbued with qualities they did not previously possess; in the case of Boris Johnsons, with qualities he is known not to possess. Its pandemic management plan, published with little scientific evidence to back it up, should not be questioned. It should be followed and, if you wish, praised. For those who are particularly likely to fetishize those who are in power in difficult times, it should be hailed not only as a genius, but as a kind of counter-intuitive genius. In Britain, this is how we love our outsider boffiny heroes who retire to their self-built labs at the bottom of the garden, and emerge with a panacea.

Under these conditions, a leader is whitewashed with historical carelessness and proven incompetence. Any minor adjustment in behavior becomes a major correction. There was a point towards the end of the governments press conference after Cobra when it became clear to me that Johnson was having a hard time passing by with a straight face without making a joke. He sniffed and said, fighting his compulsion by making vague noises. He nearly pulled it out, but fell to the very last stretch, saying that the goal of the plan was to flatten the peak of the infection, to crush this sombrero. He then left with an afterthought on a message to those affected: we will get through it.

This same performance was hailed by the Daily Mail as striking the right tone … Boris and his boffins won the day, we must trust their judgment and do what they say. This is the same organization including the head of HR sent an email claiming that the global position is changing so quickly that official government advice is no longer enough to protect our people. It seems that certain sections of the media see their role in lionization in wartime, rather than in protecting the public. Three amigos want to crush this sombrero, said Quentin Letts at the time in an article that contained the emetic observation that Johnsons' address was expressed with just enough tremolo to be agitated but not so much as to sound butch.

The hagiography of Johnson and his teams is already being written simply to come up with a plan, not because it works, but because in times of crisis, our exceptionalism is embodied in our leadership. We are keep the country open like the rest of the world does the opposite because we have cracked it.

Despite the fact that any reference made by Johnson to evidence to support his plan was a gesture from the hand of science, despite the fact that he clearly expressed his position on the prohibition of mass gatherings only to reverse it hours later, any questioning or request to show that the job is fired. We need to know our place because the government has spoken and its intelligence is based on science. We must be content with the government publishing extreme policies, such as quarantining the elderly for months, not in press conferences where they can explain and reassure, but through private briefings to journalists who then ventriloquizes rather than questioning. It is as if a reasonable need to understand such policies, and in fact, why we differ from all other countries in this regard, was a populist assault on the palace. No one demands that the public make the decisions, just that there is an effort to explain why this country takes such a different approach, whose success depends on massive public observation.

This should not be confused with disregard for specialists. It is actually a plea for the government to allow these specialists to guide us. But asking for this does not only become reasonable skepticism based on the previous form of government, or even a basic democratic exercise, it is now politicizing the crisis. Politicizing in this case means not having enough respect for authority. The fact is, it is political when our politicians do not reassure us enough during a health pandemic that the Prime Minister (with just enough tremolo of course) called it an event from generation to generation. It’s political, when politicians cannot convince the public of the reliability of their decisions, forcing people to take matters into their own hands anyway and start remote working protocols, cancel events, to avoid mass gatherings and remove their children from school.

It is a dangerous British trait to obediently comply with those in power when things are uncertain. When the chips are down, a redux class system comes into play. The laws of hierarchy must be observed. It is a kind of tyranny of politeness and deference that suspends judgment. Johnson is no longer seen as a transparent and unreliable man, guided by a crank. He is our leader in troubled times. His role and the circumstances, rather than his record or performance, demand respect.

In a way, Johnsons' previous lack of seriousness is playing to his advantage now, so desperate that we are desperate to believe that under clown makeup there is a serious person running the country, that it’s 39; was always an act. It is the same impulse that drives politicians and the media to declare that Donald Trump is finally become president when he manages to get through a single event or speech without melting away. Johnson may indeed have made difficult decisions based on serious consultations with experts on the correct answer. In this case, neither he nor the scientists who are much more comfortable with the uncertainty that politicians and their supporters should care to show us their work.

There is clearly no consensus on how to respond to the pandemic, even among the scientific community. Professor Neil Gershenfeld of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said it well when he said that building models is very different from proclaiming truths. All everyone wants to know is how our particular model was built and then we can all crush the sombrero together.

Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist and author of We need new stories: challenging the toxic myths behind our age of discontent



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