Accounts are finally being settled with those who have made the wrong calls during the pandemic, and none more so than the so-called lockdown sceptics.
Opponents of lockdown were highly influential for a time. As recently as September, they appeared to have the backing of the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who invited three maverick scientific advocates of an alternative herd immunity strategy to Downing Street to bend the ear of the Prime Minister.
The stock of the anti-lockdown crowd has fallen precipitously since then. Most thoughtful critics of the Government’s suppression strategy have melted away. Those that continue to push the anti-lockdown agenda exist as a stubborn, increasingly deranged rump, venting their impotent frustration on shock jock radio stations, obscure blogs and conspiratorial YouTube channels.
Various explanations have been proffered to explain what motivates those lockdown refuseniks. One explanation is the so-called culture war. An import from the United States, the culture war frames politics as a contest in which ‘liberal elites’ – educated, metropolitan lefties – square off against plain speaking, freedom-loving patriots who reject the diktats of political correctness and the overweening state. It is a clash of values between young and old, woke and un-woke, masked and maskless.
The left has been out of power in Britain for over a decade. However, the culture war is a right-wing narrative of victimhood that has emerged to explain why power – real power – still resides with the left. Thus, institutions such as the BBC and universities are said to be hotbeds of ‘cultural Marxism’. Black Lives Matter protests are ‘Maoist insurgencies’ led by ‘woke militants’. On the wilder fringes of the right-wing anti-lockdown movement, efforts to rid the country of the coronavirus are said to be part of a sinister plot to create a totalitarian society (though it is never explained why a right-wing British Government, itself a combatant in the ‘war on woke’, is going along with the plan).
The narrative of a culture war is partly driven by a populist right that is increasingly devoid of substantive politics. It spends most of its time trolling and ‘pwning’ the left within the online arena. If progressives come out in favour of something – in this case COVID-19 restrictions – commentators of this tendency (sometimes called the alt-lite) reflexively rail against it. This has seen even relatively minor health interventions such as mask -wearing marshalled as another weapon to taunt and assail the ‘snowflakes’ in public health who wish to protect the vulnerable from a deadly virus.
Yet back in the real world, the culture wars is the kindling that has failed to catch alight during the pandemic. Step away from Twitter and the comment pages of a declining print media, and the addlepated bellowing of the new cultural warriors is barely audible.
This is because class is a far better lens through which to understand life during the pandemic than any imagined culture war . Ordinary people have shown incredible fortitude since COVID-19 first arrived in Britain in early 2020. The public has consistently been ahead of the Government in calling for tougher lockdowns and people have for the most part abided by the rules. The NHS and the BBC – revealingly, two collective institutions despised by the new populist right – have held the line throughout: trust in the health service is extremely high and the BBC remains the most trusted media.
Juxtapose the behaviour of the British people to that of the establishment and the famous phrase ‘lions led by donkeys’ springs to mind. Having failed to lockdown promptly each time the virus has surged, the Government’s response to the pandemic has been marked by profiteering and cronyism. Lucrative PPE contracts have been handed to Tory donors; private sector test and trace consultancy firms have trousered up to a million pounds a day; and billion pound contracts given to favoured private companies have been doled out without a proper tendering process.
Meanwhile, as workers on the minimum wage have been shamed by an affluent media class for using the London Underground to travel to work (because our burgeoning ‘gig’ economy deprives workers of the sick pay necessary to stay at home) the Chancellor Rishi Sunak, himself worth close to half a billion pounds, balked at the prospect of giving the poor a £20 a week Universal Credit boost, only reluctantly caving in following a backlash from some Tory parliamentarians. The Chancellor’s philosophy might just as well be: rich people will only work if you give them money, whereas poor people will only work if you take it away.
While parsimonious Sunak has pinched the pennies, the lockdown sceptic movement (whose leading lights he once invited to Downing Street) has continued to misrepresent and fabricate the data at every turn. Boosted by an online army of armchair virologists and epidemiologists – and occasionally by pseudo-experts wielding impressive sounding but worthless ancillary credentials – in their twisting of the facts to downplay the death toll, the rabble of remaining lockdown sceptics increasingly resemble the obscure bloggers who lurk in dark corners of the internet denying war crimes.
A bit like Sunak himself, lockdown contrarianism – which has been significantly more influential than either its record ought to warrant – has substantial financial clout behind it. The Great Barrington Declaration, an initiative that in October demanded an end to lockdowns, featured such illustrious signatories as ‘Dr Johnny Bananas’ and ‘Dr Person Fakename’. It was pushed by a PR agency that received funding from the wealthy Charles Koch Foundation.
Lockdown scepticism has very often been driven by affluent celebrities. Washed-up actors and faded pop stars have flouted public restrictions while cosplaying as courageous political dissidents. Gurning for maskless selfies in public spaces, they have sought to portray themselves as contemporary versions of Vaclav Havel or Oliver Tambo.
Ironically for a movement suffused with paranoid ramblings about the influence of Marxism and postmodernism, the lockdown sceptics of the right have at times resembled both the postmodernists and the communist fellow travellers of the twentieth century. On everything from lockdowns, masks, and even vaccines, they have demanded that their ‘alternative’ facts be indulged uncritically. Moreover, they have scoured the world for utopia like the useful idiots of the past. Early on during the pandemic there was feverish talk of the ‘Sweden model’. Soon after, when the Swedish Government reversed course ignominiously amid a catastrophic death toll (more than six times that of neighbouring countries), South Dakota emerged as ‘the Sweden of the USA’. However that didn’t end well either: a month later the midwestern state was dealing with one of the biggest COVID-19 outbreaks in all of America.
When the pandemic worsened last December, there were lockdown-sceptic rabble rousers who scuttled off to holiday homes in the Caribbean – while nonetheless calling for restrictions to be loosened at home. As NHS hospitals bulged with patients and staff began to show the symptoms of PTSD, private members clubs sought to exploit loopholes to get around lockdown restrictions. Celebrities often ignored them altogether.
In stark contrast, ordinary people – frequently denounced over the years by populists for lacking the ‘stiff upper lip’ and ‘Blitz Spirit’ of past generations - have (some panicked toilet paper buying notwithstanding) embodied precisely the resilient, stoic, egalitarian spirit memorably alluded to by George Orwell during the Second World War. Indeed, the public has overwhelmingly rejected lockdown scepticism, together with more virulent, mutant strains of quackery such as anti-mask or anti-vaxx sentiment.
‘War brings it home to the individual that he is not altogether an individual,’ wrote Orwell as the Luftwaffe’s bombs rained down on London. The pandemic is undoubtedly the biggest crisis Britain has faced since the fight against Nazism. Moreover, Orwell’s point is as applicable to the virus as it was during the war. Stamping out the pandemic is a collective effort. Unfettered individualism has been temporarily choked off; our solipsistic personal narratives of ambition and ascent suspended so that others we will never meet – the old, the vulnerable, and the sick – may carry on living.
This coming together has been intolerable for some, as is clear from the frenzied denunciations of lockdown. It goes against everything that a powerful group in our society has always believed about human nature. But thankfully – and to the chagrin of privileged libertarian lockdown sceptics everywhere – liberty in Britain, to the great majority of people, does not mean the right to breathe deadly respiratory droplets on old ladies.
Editors’ Note: Splutter with outrage and laughter over our print magazines: the perfect lockdown reading material.