Covid: Boris Johnson has launched a warlike blame game on the public to hide his failings – Laura Waddell

After a year in which the public has grimly got on with life amid the pandemic, Boris Johnson’s aggressive rhetoric is not helping, writes Laura Waddell.

Thursday, 24th September 2020, 7:30 am
Boris Johnson should stop directing warlike rhetoric towards the public and do more to help those in need, says Laura Waddell (Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Boris Johnson should stop directing warlike rhetoric towards the public and do more to help those in need, says Laura Waddell (Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

It has been a prickly week, full of fraying tempers. Frustration can be smelt in the air like the approach of the pumpkin spice latte. We are going into autumn feeling a little strained, and the messaging from Westminster doesn’t help.

With the turning of the season comes the acknowledgement that we’ve been living Covid-restricted lives since spring, and it’s not going away any time soon. The advent of autumn is a reminder that winter is just around the corner, and with it, a new year. We can not pretend, as was tempting at the start of the year, that it will all blow over in a few months. In all the talk of a terrible year has been the very quiet hope that 2020 was a freak anamony and 2021 will be better. But will it?

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This was a week of new restrictions. The most recent changes, both in Scotland and England, stop short of the full springtime lockdown we had before, and a second wave has long been predicted, but it’s still depressing to be confronted with the knowledge we’re slipping backwards in tackling Covid.

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Depressing also are the slipping masks. In his choice of words on Tuesday’s UK Government Covid briefing, Boris Johnson let show his attitude to the public. He said, “if we fail to bring the R below 1, then we reserve the right to deploy greater fire power, with significantly greater restrictions.”

Greater fire power against the public, rather than the threat to their lives? Did he really mean to sound so hostile towards a struggling citizenship? If in doubt, let’s look to the context. Ah. The police will be able to draw support from the military in enforcing Covid lockdown regulations. They will guard, armed with assault rifles, sites such as Downing Street and nuclear power plants to free up the police deployed to lockdown breaches. And neighbours are being encouraged to report one another. If the sound of spring was grateful clapping carrying on the Thursday evening air, autumn is the stomp of marching boots.

Is this heavy-handed, tension headache-inducing response really going to help the situation, or is it the most egregious use of borrowing the military for a spot of PR since Ruth Davidson straddled a tank for a photo op? When in doubt, Westminster leaders go gung ho. There is no scenario they are above pretending is a war – one in which Britain is still a first-rate superpower.

Only a fool would think a virus can be fought with militaristic bravado. He may have gone one step beyond bombastic language by actually bringing troops onto the streets, but Johnson is not a fool. He simply takes the public for one.

His address to parliament was only the latest bit of UK Government rhetoric aiming to put up a stern front and shed responsibility for responding to the virus by scapegoating the public.

The onus of his Tuesday evening briefing was placed very deliberately on lockdown breaches by citizens, while test access and waiting times have slowed down and many working sectors feel unsupported. Extending the furlough scheme or ever getting around to supporting the excluded workers who’ve fallen through the gaps has been shoved off the table in favour of a blame game.

So what was Labour leader Keir Starmer doing on Tuesday to show up this aggressive rhetoric? Perhaps making the case for a Universal Basic Income? Not quite. If you were to take a wordcloud from a Trump rally and feed it through an American to British English translator, what plops out the other side wouldn’t be far off. He loves Britain, and he wants us all to know it. “My vision for Britain is simple: I want this to be the best country to grow up in and the best country to grow old in.”

Best by what measure, exactly? By what tangible standard, or even recognisable sensation, such as happiness, security, or faith in our leaders? With far-right supremacism on the rise all over the place, might it not have been best to avoid a speech that isn’t a million miles off those nostalgic-cum-racist Facebook groups at their most sentimental? Finally, something that will bring working-class Glasgow back to Labour, said nobody in their right mind, although I can’t speak for whoever Starmer’s Scottish advisor is.

Not that things are less fraught on the international scale. Interpreted as a nod towards the tension between China and the United States, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the UN General Assembly “we must do everything to avoid a new Cold War”. Meanwhile, Britain is marching around in circles, pointing fingers at its own civilians.

It is all deeply depressing. In a year where we’ve grimly got on with things, some weeks are grimmer than others. How do we keep ahold of our humanity in the midst of all this? Perhaps with less Blitz spirit, and a bit more community spirit. Perhaps by moving away from Boris Johnson’s thick-headed, macho, aggressive rhetoric that Covid is a war to be won, and looking to the people who need extra help surviving these times while keeping a roof over their heads and feeding their families. Otherwise, what’s the point?

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