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COVID-19 Crisis Blog: Politics in Trying Times Democracy is Fragile

2 October 2020 - As we navigate a national and global public health crisis with the spread of Covid-19 Coronavirus, we hear from our research and policy fellows, and members of our research community in a weekly blog which reflects on these new societal challenges. This week we hear from Elspeth Payne, Beate Schuler Research Fellow, who discusses recent developments in the British political and media landscapes.

Dr Elspeth Payne, Beate Schuler Research Fellow at the Trinity Long Room Hub.

Here we go again. 

Monday 21 September. The most senior British government advisors are about to make a televised appeal to ask the ordinary person to do more. The British government is considering additional 'lockdown' measures to curb the spread of the virus at a critical juncture. The British public are facing potential mega-fines and being called upon to 'snitch' on those failing to self-isolate.

And people are confronted with the news that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson may or may not, in the previous fortnight, have been on a secret jaunt to Italy. 

The story was broken by the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, and mistakenly confirmed in a press release by the Italian airport in question, San Francesco d'Assisi.

This is not the first time the story of a holiday has caused a headache for the British PM. In August, an ill-timed Scottish break made the headlines. This is also not the first time that travel has been a source of scandal for the Tory government. Lest we forget senior political advisor Dominic Cummings' controversial journey to Durham at the height of the March lockdown.

These trips, alleged and confirmed, are certainly not the worst of the current British government's misdemeanours. They pale in comparison, for example, with its explicit willingness to break international law with its internal market bill. Having passed its third reading in the elected chamber, the House of Commons, the legislation is currently under review by the appointed peers in the House of Lords. Yesterday, the EU launched legal action against the UK for this breach of the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

Nor are they the government's worst, or most dangerous, failings in terms of the Covid-19 pandemic. The late initial response. The UK's relatively high infection and death rates. The disproportionate impact on minority populations. Confusing messaging. Contact tracing app failures. Testing inadequacies. The list could sadly go on. 

As we face into a difficult winter, it feels like there is an increasing drive on the part of the British government to absolve itself and blame the individual. It wasn’t the testing system that was the problem, but that people with colds were getting unnecessary tests. It wasn’t the 'Eat Out To Help Out' scheme or the push to get workers back to the office that contributed to the surge in cases, but that selfish people were socialising unnecessarily. Epitomised by the call to spy on your neighbours, it all feels increasingly nasty. 

And there have been fears, even within Johnson's own party, about the continued and unjust use of emergency powers to circumvent parliament. Rebellion was only narrowly averted by the introduction of new powers allowing MPs to vote on Covid restrictions.

Number 10 were quick to deny the Italy allegations, clarifying that Johnson could not have been in Perugia because he was selling his Brexit vision to 256 Tory MPs on Zoom. A spokesperson for Westminster Cathedral later confirmed that the PM had baptised his son in a private service on one of the days in question. This was a case of mistaken identity. Perugia Airport quickly retracted its claim in a statement reprinted by La Repubblica.

So Johnson didn't go to Italy. But after endless months of underhand tactics – and years of public school bravado – few would perhaps have been surprised if it were true.

What if Italy had been just the latest in a long line of scandals? It feels like, right now, it wouldn't really matter. In Ireland, 'golfgate' had consequences. A spate of resignations – some willing, some less so – followed. Johnson, like Trump, seems untouchable. Nothing sticks. We never reach the tipping point.

This wasn’t the only recent controversy involving Johnson and Italy. Last week, the PM brashly  dismissed claims that test and trace system disparities were to blame for the relative Covid infection rates in the UK, Italy and German. Johnson professed there to be a different fundamental difference at play: Britain’s apparent status as ‘a freedom-loving country’. Echoing whiggish narratives of Britain’s past, he proudly claimed ‘if you look at the history in this country in the last 300 years, virtually every advance, from freedom of speech to democracy, has come from this’.

But whatever achievements and merits can be associated with its historic development, the British parliamentary system no longer seems to be working.

What do we do when a leader commands such a majority that a bill explicitly designed with a willingness to break international law is passed? What do we do when an unelected official holds too much power? How do people have a real say beyond the ballot box? 

And you’d be forgiven for missing the Italy story. Not merely because it turned out to be untrue. Not just because of the fast turnover of news culture. But because many of the right-leaning mainstream media outlets in Britain are keen to brush such scandals aside. This is not a privilege extended to their political and ideological opponents. 

Although Johnson is coming under increasing scrutiny in this quarter, the situation could be about to get worse. The long-term accusations of left-wing bias levelled at Britain’s public broadcaster, the BBC, have escalated in recent months. It is now rumoured that that the Prime Minster plans to appoint Charles Moore, his former boss and editor of the Daily Telegraph and Spectator – as well as a notable licence fee critic – as BBC chairman. It is alleged that the new chair of the UK communications regulator, OfCom will be given to Paul Dacre, former Daily Mail editor and recipient of exclusive hospitality from then Prime Minister Theresa May. Under their leadership, criticism of the government and its actions may well be further muted.

When the once-shocking is increasingly mundane. When 'fake news' seems as plausible as a falsehood. When the freedom of the press is less certain. When trying times only further expose the fragility of our democracies. What then?

Elspeth Payne is the Beate Schuler Research Fellow at the Trinity Long Room Hub where she is working on the Institute’s crises of democracy project. She was recently involved in organising the Rethinking Democracy in an Age of Pandemic, a special five part series in partnership with the Society of Fellows and Heyman Centre for the Humanities at Columbia University in response to the Covid-19 crisis. She also participated in the CHCI-Mellon Crises of Democracy Global Humanities Institute (GHI) led by Trinity College Dublin in partnership with University of São Paulo, Jawaharlal Nehru University, University of Zagreb, and Columbia University. An online open access curriculum on the relationship between democracy and the trauma experienced by societies developed out of the GHI was launched in March 2020. Elspeth’s own research focuses on the British tabloids and Anglo-Irish relations in post-independence. Her article on the relationship between first Free State Governor-General, Tim Healy and British politician and press Baron, Lord Beaverbrook, is available here.

*Since this article was published, Charles Moore has ruled himself out of running for post of BBC chairman.

Recent posts in the COVID-19 Crisis Blog:

Deaf in a Time of Covid-19 (23 September 2020)

Dorothy Stopford Price and the BCG vaccination (16 September 2020)

Student Motivation and the Pandemic by Peter Gillis (8 September 2020)

The Happiness of Use-wear by Ellen Finn (14 July 2020)

Worship in a Time of Pandemic with Sahar Ahmed (7 July 2020)

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