The Vice of Vices
When we were children, my sisters and I went through a phase of intense interest in the bubonic plague. It probably began when we passed around Berlie Doherty’s Children of Winter, in which a time slip conveys a group of siblings to 1666, where they must take shelter in a barn to wait out the Great Plague. Another favourite was Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. Prince Prospero, whose kingdom has been ‘half depopulated’ by a disease that causes ‘sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores’, holds a party for his aristocratic friends. Safely ensconced within the walls of his palace, he is determined to ‘bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think.’
The revellers assume that the sallow, corpse-like figure in their midst, strewn with blood, is an indecorous guest whose costume is in terrible taste. By the time they realise their mistake, it’s too late: they’re infected. Despite their pomp and their precautions, the haemorrhagic virus has slipped through the gates. With characteristic gore, Poe gives Prince Prospero and his guests, rollicking in silly outfits while half the country is dead, their comeuppance.
More than 170,000 people in the UK have so far died of Covid-19. That’s one in every four hundred people, and it’s far from over. Many took their last laboured breaths alone in a scrubbed ward as a masked nurse held up an electronic device so their relatives could try their best to say a goodbye that wouldn’t haunt them. Most of us stuck to the rules: out of fear of the virus, fear of the consequences of breaking the law, or fear of the kind of person it would make us to break the social contract at such a time, and thereby waver in our solidarity with others, not least the health workers whose hands might be the last our loved ones would know.
Through 2020 and 2021, Boris Johnson and his colleagues held at least twelve lockdown-breaching parties on Downing Street. The Metropolitan Police at first refused to investigate, on the grounds that none of the attendees would admit they’d been there. Good luck to anyone else who tries that excuse. The director of the Good Law Project said this ‘points to a Met that does not want to investigate potential criminality in government or is excessively deferential to those in power’. This week more than fifty people have been issued with Fixed Penalty Notices, including the prime minister, his wife and the chancellor. They must each pay £50 within a fortnight.
Johnson and Rishi Sunak have apologised, but the transgression is so layered that it’s unclear what exactly they claim to be sorry for. Some critics have focused on the importance of the ‘rule of law’, but the law is a poor proxy for morality. (Saving a drowning asylum seeker is, on any reasonable account, the right thing to do, but Johnson’s government recently made it illegal.) Breaking lockdown rules was immoral because there were real risks that doing so could spread the virus, causing illness, death and strain on the health service. High profile violations could undermine future public health measures whose efficacy hinges on widespread compliance. And Johnson has for months firmly and repeatedly denied any knowledge of the parties.
The public might have forgiven the carelessness and lies. It’s the hypocrisy that’s hardest to stomach. Johnson developed and enforced stringent rules which he and his colleagues then flouted when it suited them. About 120,000 fines were given to members of the public for lockdown breaches, and thousands of people have been charged and prosecuted. A woman in Caewern, Wales, was fined £2026 for having a friend over who wasn’t in her support bubble. A student in Nottingham paid £10,000 for hosting a party. The threat of such steep fines kept others away from deathbeds and funerals.
In On Revolution, Hannah Arendt called hypocrisy the ‘vice of vices’: ‘integrity can indeed exist under the cover of all other vices except this one,’ she wrote. ‘Only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core.’
Johnson’s defenders have said that he is ‘only human’ and was ‘letting off steam’. The Conservative MP Michael Fabricant went so far as to claim that the Downing Street parties were comparable to ‘teachers and nurses who after a very long shift would go back to the staff room and have a quiet drink’. (He also suggested that a bar be installed in Downing Street.)
Teachers work an average twelve hours of unpaid overtime a week. A third of nurses have been required to extend their hours through the pandemic, and 40 per cent have not been paid for the additional labour. Both commonly skip lunch breaks. After their very long shifts they leave work to go home. And, as many have pointed out, drinking alcohol at work would cost them their jobs.
The Tories have other unconscionable comparisons to fall back on. Rishi Sunak last week tried to use the war in Ukraine to justify asking the poorest to shoulder the costs of rising fuel prices, and Jacob Rees-Mogg has used it to excuse the parties: ‘There is a war on and the prime minister, supported by the chancellor, provides the leadership the nation needs,’ he said, overlooking the fact that there was a change of prime minister during both world wars.
Matt Hancock, who had to resign as health secretary after breaking Covid-19 restrictions to have an affair with a colleague, remarked on Twitter that Johnson and Sunak ‘got the big calls right during the pandemic’ and ‘are now leading the fight against Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine’. If Hancock were smarter, one might suspect him of trolling; in trying to take the heat off a comparatively minor set of misdemeanours, he directs attention back to more serious failings.
The big call during the pandemic was keeping people alive, which required that lockdown restrictions be imposed in a timely manner, and a rigorous system implemented to carry out diagnostic tests and monitor cases. Thanks to a combination of feckless dithering and callous libertarianism, the UK’s death count is among the highest in Europe.
The contract for the test and trace system, into which £37 billion of public money was sunk, was handed to the Tory peer Dido Harding, who had no previous health experience but lots of friends in government. The scheme was found to have made no measurable difference in slowing the pandemic or saving lives.
A report by Transparency International found that one in five of the contracts handed out by the UK government during the pandemic bore the hallmarks of corruption, mostly in the form of ‘opaque and uncompetitive contracting, combined with a suspiciously high number of awards to those with political connections’.
It’s still unclear what, if anything, this scandal will cost Johnson. The news cycle will have moved on before the local elections next month, and, true to form, the government has already turned the spotlight back on asylum seekers, reminding voters that, if nothing else, it can be counted on to ratchet up the cruelty of its border regime.
The hypocrisy meanwhile proliferates. Rishi Sunak raised taxes the same week it was revealed that his family withholds tens of millions from the public purse. He protested at the intrusion into his wife’s riches, yet the government readily demands that universal credit applicants provide elaborate details of their partners’ finances, and sanctions them zealously for the smallest error or omission.
A broader problem is how readily we accept that governments are corrupt and politicians lie; that grown-up, realistic politics is necessarily filled with scoundrels. It’s one facet of the myth, carefully nurtured by those who hold power, that we are by nature greedy, self-serving and dishonest. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt wrote that ‘the ideal subject of totalitarian rule’ is the person for whom ‘the distinction between fact and fiction … and the distinction between true and false no longer exist.’ There is something to be said for clinging to a transparent, straightforward morality, for resisting the idea that to do so is naive or hopeless. A person who lies is not trustworthy. We are not safe in the hands of a government that gambles our wellbeing to give backhanders to its friends. Those who scoff at the rules they expect us to follow are not like us, and they do not like us.