The Vice of Vices

Arianne Shahvisi

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.


  • 16 April 2022 at 9:01am
    Camus says:
    Here we go again, more "fluff" as Mr. Mogg called the uproar over a few drinks at the end of a long hot work day. Herr Gauland, leader of the AfD in Germany, described the thirteen years of Nazi rule as "flyshit" , so where is your loyalty and patriotism? This bold and vigorous plan will solve the migration invasion! It's a sensible and humane solution - perhaps the final solution to this invasion! The migrants will be dried out and given seats on a British aircraft to transport them to Ruwanda - no overcrowded trains and a snack on board. As our Australian friends have conclusively shown, several hundred prisoners (sorry, please omit that word, I meant illegal migrants of course) can be taken care of for a few paltry Billions and our brilliant leaders can get back to the business of leading the world in whatever's next.

  • 16 April 2022 at 10:40am
    Graucho says:
    How much was Mr. Johnson fined since these parties were held under his roof ? The full tariff one hopes.

  • 18 April 2022 at 4:09am
    Anthony Lorenzo says:
    This government is truly sickening. More sickening is that it gets away with such obvious and relentless mendacity.

    It is propped up by media organisations which call themselves 'newspapers' and their staff 'journalists'. In fact, the most wide-reaching of these, the Daily Mail and the Sun (and to a lesser extent, but with equal vigour, The Telegraph) are owned by billionaire propagandists for the establishment. They are not newspapers, or entertainment broadcasters; they are naked propaganda machines.

    You can see the systemic and considered way they twist facts and lie and omit in service to false narratives which demonise anything or anyone progressive while lionising the rich, capitalists, racists misogynists...anyone who would win Bigot Bingo. They whip up frenzied fear of mugrants and the poor.

    They work in unison, more than we could possibly imagine. It is as though the staff of each of these arms of state get together and decide the 'news' agenda (they do).

    This is because they are all the same people. Same families, friends, schoolmates, partners, siblings. They attend the same schools and the same universities where they do the same courses, which all teach the same elitist ideologies. Then they branch off. Some go into law, some politicsz some media, some academia. They easily flit between the professions, and they ensure, by this rareified monopolisation of key power systems, that the status quo persists except in one instance: when they can mske things even better for themselves.

    But it is the media propaganda that is most powerful and egregious, controlled as it is by frankly disturbing figures Stephen King couldn't dream up. For it is they who relay information to the people, who are mostly totally reliant on the media for knowledge. Fed a litany of lies, fear, and rightist rhetoric, the country becomes peopled by ignorant, bovine fools who continuously-not even continually but continuously- vote against their own economic interests, which curtails their ability-and right- to live a life with choices and options, and now more profoundly, heat and food.

    And you know what? The Tories eill win again, despite the parties, despite the track and trace and PPE provision corruption, despite the starving children and their starving parents, despite the deaths from pneumonia of the old who are still here, even after the sloth-like Tory responses to covid wiped swathes of them out. Why?

    Because 'look over there! See the brown and black migrant hordes nearly at the shore!' 'Look! See the scroungers with their giant televisions.' 'Oh, of course if you work hard enough you too can join the wealthy elite, in fact you are nearly there, and will you want to pay such high taxes when you arrive?'

    When there are people who complain about high taxes in brackets they will never, ever reach since they've worked in a supermarket for the last thirty years (nowt wrong with that-insert any low-paid, 'low-skilled' job), you know something is terribly wrong. That people have been brainwashed. That people have been purposely kept in ignorance.

    And when the very real prospect that someone who will upend this system comes along, they demonise, trash and denounce them to such a degree the very people whose lives would be improved ridicule them too, claiming unelectability because of rumpled shirts and 'antisemitism'(as though they think a lot about and care deeply for Jewish people).

    The mainstream media being a mouthpiece for governments may not even seem particularly shocking; maybe I'm naive. But when the government is as base, corrupt and, and I'm not being hyperbolic here, evil, that mouthpiece, supposedly justifying its power as necessary to hold governemntd to account (!) by corollary gets more evil too. And on they go, the arms of state, getting expontentially more evil until...until what? What the eff is it going to take for people to wake up and realise how they are played, how unjust and cruel it is, how much better it could be? I used to think that a government kept the people at a bare minimum, in food, because hungry people rise up and revolutionise. Civil unrest bubbles up initially, and heads eventually roll when it hits they tell us to eat cake. Now I'm not sure. I believe the most decrepit, starving zombied person on this isle would still vote Tory so long as they keep the slave statues up and say 'woke' enough times. It's hard to feel sympathy for bigots who would rather die than lose their sense of superiority, but I do nonetheless. The country is overtun by such people, who might actually just be getting the government they deserve. I started off blaming the media, but there is something about the ease with which people accept the lies that reveals much about what people want to be true.

    • 25 April 2022 at 12:58pm
      Rory Allen says: @ Anthony Lorenzo
      The example of Putin's Russia shows that when people are told the same lies over and over again by their favourite media source, they will believe them. I regularly check the Daily Mail's online version and have seen how they slant the news in favour of the party in power. With a little ingenuity anything can be spun in favour of Johnson and co.

  • 22 April 2022 at 7:45pm
    BrendanInCPH says:
    What these people lack is the Terror.

  • 25 April 2022 at 12:38pm
    Rory Allen says:
    I do not think hypocrisy is the problem. 'Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue', but Johnson does not even bother to pay homage to virtue. The man who said 'let the bodies pile up' is not concerned with pretending to be a good person. He knows that his ruthlessness will appeal to many. And in the meantime, the tame press can be trusted to ensure that middle England is not disturbed from its long moral sleep.

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