Against Common Sense
On 11 May 2020, as Britain reeled from the first wave of the pandemic, Boris Johnson urged the public to use ‘good, solid British common sense’ to navigate the risks posed by Covid-19. One year and 120,000 deaths later, the prime minister’s advice to the nation was the same. ‘It’s about basic common sense,’ he said on 11 May 2021. Now, as Britain lifts all Covid restrictions while recording nearly as many cases as the entire European Union, the health secretary, Sajid Javid, who tested positive at the weekend, has told the Commons it is time to ‘start a new chapter based on the foundations of personal responsibility and common sense’.
Last September, Johnson said that ‘common sense’ is the ‘single greatest weapon’ against the coronavirus. In October, as cases soared in the second wave, he told people to ‘live fearlessly but with common sense,’ dismissing the case for a two-week ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown; he announced a four-week national lockdown a few weeks later. In late November, he assured us that a regional ‘tier system’ guided by ‘common sense’ would end the need for national lockdowns; in February, during a three-month national lockdown, Johnson said the tier system was no more. And on and on.
Most public health measures, from mandated mask-wearing in public places to social distancing, cease today: a policy of ‘moral emptiness and epidemiological stupidity’, according to a senior World Health Organisation official. But the dangers of reopening when the case rate is so high – vaccine-resistant mutations, young people who haven’t yet been vaccinated contracting long Covid, those with underlying health conditions still being at risk – can apparently be addressed with ‘common sense’. What could go wrong?
Given how poorly the British government’s ‘single greatest weapon’ has performed so far, common sense might suggest we try something else. But for the Conservatives, there is no cheaper defence at hand. The worse Britain’s situation becomes, the more ‘common sense’ must be invoked – papering over the gaping holes in the government’s pandemic strategy, and turning its withdrawal from responsibility into a twisted compliment: the British people are wise enough to look after themselves.
The devastating inadequacy of this logic in a pandemic – when people often don’t know if they are carrying the virus, however considerate they may be, and cases rise exponentially – hardly needs stating. Its convenience to the government is just as plain: if the pandemic is a matter of ‘personal responsibility and common sense’ as Javid said (a telling conflation), then the public can always be made to shoulder the blame when things go wrong.
As Antti Lepistö writes in The Rise of Common-Sense Conservatism, Conservatives have long invoked ‘common sense’ to ‘depoliticise the public sphere, to supplant legitimate intellectual conflict with a made-up moral consensus at a time of perceived moral chaos’. It wasn’t always this way: Sophia Rosenfeld’s Common Sense: A Political History (2011) emphasises the radical connotations of the phrase in the 18th century. But it’s now a key term of the Conservative playbook. William Hague spoke of a ‘Common Sense Revolution’ in 2001. Ten years later, as the Tories pursued austerity, David Cameron declared: ‘Let this be our message – common sense for the common good.’
The term has particular appeal to a British elite with nothing ‘common’ about them, a phantom thread that ties the likes of Johnson and Cameron (both distant relatives of the royal family) to the ‘common man’. Britain’s ruling class has long displayed a combination of faux-humility and anti-intellectualism that elevates instinct over expertise (despite the vast sums they spend on their education). When Arthur Balfour – like Cameron and Johnson, one of Britain’s twenty old Etonian prime ministers – was asked what his guiding political principles were, he replied modestly: ‘I suppose the principles of common sense.’
When Michael Gove declared during the Brexit referendum campaign that the British public were tired of experts – ‘I’m asking them to trust themselves’ – he was not betraying the Tory tradition but continuing it. ‘No lesson seems to be so deeply inculcated by the experience of life as that you should never trust experts,’ Lord Salisbury said in 1877. ‘If you believe the doctors, nothing is wholesome. If you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent. If you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe. They all require to have their strong wine diluted by a large mixture of common sense.’
In other words, the Conservatives’ empty invocations of ‘common sense’ and their indifference to scientific advice long predates the current prime minister. Yet to maintain the same posturing during a pandemic requires a recklessness and callousness that Johnson can call his own. The idea that there could be any such thing as ‘common sense’ in the face of a pandemic – caused by a new and unpredictable virus – is plainly a fantasy. But it’s one that the Conservatives, determined to relinquish responsibility, will keep on peddling.