Standing outside Downing Street on 27 April, his first day back at work, Boris Johnson characterised Covid-19 as ‘an unexpected and invisible mugger’. This is ‘the moment’, he said, ‘when we have begun together to wrestle it to the floor’. The coronavirus crisis has exposed the perils of political discourse – ambiguous, obscure, confounding, deceptive. Even such ‘master communicators’ as Johnson and Dominic Cummings have not been able to keep control of their messages.
The pandemic presents a genuine communicative challenge. The government has to tell people what to do, in unprecedented ways; represent multiple uncertainties; and explain the dynamics between the disease and treatment, public health, the economy and society. Figurative language has proliferated. The economy is in the deep freeze, or on life support. The virus is ‘weird as hell’, it plays with your mind.
The government uses numbers metaphorically, hoping to create a kind of numerical sublime that will overcome doubts about supply and the rising number of deaths. A lot was made of the ‘fifty’ pages of last week’s ‘roadmap’ to recovery, to signal the document’s weight and detail, trying to make up for the vagueness of what had gone before.
At the end of April, Johnson exploited the metaphorical possibilities of the ‘peak’. ‘We’ve come under what could have a been a vast peak,’ he said, ‘as though we’ve been going through some huge alpine tunnel. And we can now see the sunlight and pasture ahead of us. And so it is vital that we do not now lose control and run slap into a second and even bigger mountain.’ We are said to be all in this together, but the prime minister’s imagery seemed aimed at the few of us lucky enough to have been on a long drive through the Alps to a ski resort or Mediterranean villa. (‘It’s unlikely big lavish international holidays are going to be possible for this summer,’ Matt Hancock said on 12 May. ‘I just think that’s a reality of life’ – as if it weren’t already a reality of life for many people before the pandemic.)
One of the biggest ongoing linguistic challenges is finding ways of speaking to and about the people. Johnson has been profuse in his thanks, to colleagues but above all to ‘you the people’. Any ministerial appearance comes with thanks to the people, quite often ‘the British people’. I’ve never been thanked so much, so often, so effusively. And, for the most part, all I’ve done is stay at home. (Just so long as we don’t get ‘addicted’ to not working.) It is in some of the blandest formulations that the most political work is being done.
Writing in last weekend’s Mail on Sunday, Johnson commends ‘the phenomenal bravery, compassion and selflessness’ of various groups of workers:
The staff in our care homes and NHS doing all they can to bring the sick back to health. Teachers helping critical workers go to work by looking after their children, while still teaching those at home. Police and prison officers keeping order on our streets and in our prisons. Those producing, processing, distributing and selling food. Engineers keeping the lights on and our broadband connected.
‘Our armed forces’ and civil servants are also mentioned. The previous Sunday’s TV broadcast had listed others: ‘bus drivers, train drivers, pharmacists, postal workers’. No one must be forgotten, everyone in the ‘war effort’ must be acknowledged, whether they’re on the ‘front line’ or the (literal) ‘home front’. As in a war, the Covid-19 epidemic has led to calls for and expressions of national unity. ‘The health of Boris Johnson,’ Allison Pearson went so far as to write in the Telegraph on 7 April, ‘is the health of the body politic and, by extension, the health of the nation itself.’ But the virus does not kill indiscriminately: deaths are significantly higher among ethnic minorities and ‘low skilled’ workers.
The lists of people to be thanked are popular at the daily ministerial briefings, which have given up on their earlier lists of private companies, a kind of ‘thank you to our sponsors’. When the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, led the briefing on 6 May, he sounded like a headmaster on prize day as he offered up praise for the swift processing of business grants: ‘I’d like to congratulate Chichester, Ealing and Hyndburn councils who are the three highest-performing councils so far in England.’ Hancock, meanwhile, at the beginning of April had pledged to ‘fight the virus with everything I’ve got. And we will strain every sinew to defeat it’ – as if his efforts were on a par with those of the people actually risking their lives.
The lists serve another political function. In the Mail on Sunday, Johnson named care home workers ahead of those in the NHS, and teachers straight after health workers. On a weekend when the opening or not of schools was all over the media, Johnson reminded readers and teachers that he knows how hard they’re already working. On the same day, Michael Gove used the Andrew Marr Show to attack teaching unions: ‘If you really care about children, you’ll want them to be in school.’ Johnson, too, emphasised the emotional qualities of the workers rather than their skills and knowledge, their ‘love and kindness’, their ‘putting others first’.
It would be nice to think that such statements, like the weekly ‘clap for our carers’, acknowledged the value of affective labour. But when work is characterised as a set of exceptional actions or feelings – sacrifice, heroism, selflessness, going ‘above and beyond’ – the question of pay, or economic and social security, can be avoided. On Radio 4’s Westminster Hour on Sunday, Kit Malthouse, the justice minister, said that he hoped the crisis would foster the development of care work as a credentialised, ‘desirable, professional career’. Would there be more pay, he was asked. ‘Possibly,’ he replied. Like the ‘care badge’ proposed by Hancock (one of the most toe-curling government micro-responses to the pandemic), the great thing about praise and thanks is that they don’t need to come with guarantees of anything else, not even that an overseas care worker’s annual bill of £625 to access the NHS will be waived.
On Channel 4 News on 18 May, in a discussion of the upcoming Immigration Bill, the Conservative MP Caroline Nokes laid out the logic of the points-based system: entry will be granted, withheld or suspended on the grounds of Britain’s economic need. The labour tap of poorly paid sacrifice and generosity can be turned on and off as the economy requires. Gratitude and thanks cost nothing and promise less.