Anyone who understands extremism knows populist movements spread like a virus. You stop them early or not at all. Yet at every stage of the growth of the backlash against public health, the bad faith of our compromised prime minister has prevented effective treatment.
To stick with the medical analogy, the World Health Organization says humans barely notice a virus when it’s confined to animals in the initial phase. New extremist movements also grow in the dark. Half-mad men and women scuttle around the web, bawling out ideas so ludicrous serious people turn away. Covid had barely begun before David Icke and Piers Corbyn were simultaneously claiming it had been caused by 5G masts and was also a “hoax” – without a thought for the contradiction.
The government ought to have intervened with a vigorous public education campaign. The conspiracy theory wasn’t as niche as it seemed. Facebook and YouTube were spreading industrial quantities of disinformation – and still are. It is revealing how little attention politicians paid to the first crank terrorist attacks of the 21st century, when the provisional wing of the crackpot movement attacked dozens of 5G masts. The result of the failure to fight back is suspicion about a Covid vaccine spreading to millions and maybe undermining its effectiveness when it arrives.
The government chose to do nothing for the same reason it fails to lock down in time: a Conservative party purged by Johnson of its political talent cannot take decisive action. The WHO says that in the next phase a virus jumps species and infects “small clusters of people” or, in the case of Covid, jumps from QAnon to the Conservative right. A troupe of performing ignoramuses then dances across the pages of the Tory press. They assert that Covid is no more deadly than flu and don’t even pause for a blush of shame when it turns out to be five times deadlier.
In America, Brazil and England, denial of the health crisis finds its most profitable market on the right. I wish I could end an abuse of language and stop commentators saying the right resists because it is “libertarian”. True libertarians oppose the repressive apparatus of the state and believe that the government has, for instance, no right to tell us what drugs we can and cannot enjoy. When (and if) this is over, the imprisoned young will go on a hedonistic orgy. I guarantee the newspapers and politicians who say they believe in freedom will not be cheering them on but demanding that the police intervene. When today’s pseudo-libertarians complain about wearing masks, they are complaining about the loss of privilege, not of liberty. They hate the indignity of being forced to accept the same restrictions as everyone else. It offends their core belief that the fittest will survive while the unfit must take their chances.
Boris Johnson cannot stand up to them because he is one of them. No one doubts that, if he were not in charge of the government, he would be railing against the government in the Telegraph. His bad faith spreads like rust through his administration. It undermines public trust and wrecks public policy. Count how many times we have been told we face a choice between protecting health and the economy, when in fact we have protected neither.
Johnson and the administrations in Scotland and Wales presided over the highest rate of excess deaths in Europe in the first wave of the pandemic and the worst hit to economic growth. Johnson doesn’t know whether to keep the economy open or protect the NHS and so wrecks both. Now we are at the final stage of infection when the backlash breaks out of the Tory right into the mainstream. Large majorities favour a second lockdown. But if you watch Conservative MPs rail against the threats to prosperity or Nigel Farage launch an anti-lockdown party, you can see a new paranoid movement appealing to millions.
Many thought Covid would inhibit populism. In his latest book, Is It Tomorrow Yet? Paradoxes of the Pandemic, the political scientist Ivan Krastev makes a compelling distinction between the politics of anxiety and the politics of fear. Demagogues fuel anxieties with lies. If you don’t support Brexit, 80 million Turks could come to Britain. If you don’t vote Trump, Black Lives Matter will move into white suburbs. They offer a strongman who can assuage voters’ anxiety with simple solutions and get Brexit done or make America great. Covid doesn’t produce anxiety but the fear of death. The strongman finds himself redundant as the public heeds previously despised experts – epidemiologists, behavioural scientists and chief medical officers.
Even at the time Krastev wrote, you could already raise objections. Whatever you think of the reasons behind the Brexit vote, millions of east Europeans did arrive in the UK in the largest unplanned migration in its history. A material reality lay behind the anxieties that Johnson and Farage manipulated. Now Covid is turning from a brief crisis into a way of life, there is a rational basis for a backlash.
The locked-down world favours the rich over the poor, the south over the north, the old over the young and the white-collar middle class over the shop assistant, waiter, small business owner, artist and manual labourer. If you are young, the risk of losing your job may be more frightening than the risk of catching a virus that probably won’t harm you. You can find rational or at least understandable reasons to rally to those who pretend there is no need to take emergency measures. An efficient government would buy you off with a tracking system that could trace and isolate infected people and allow the rest to earn a living. Despite spending billions, Johnson’s government still cannot produce one.
Its one achievement is to disprove Ickean conspiracy theory. For who can believe this shambolic outfit can conspire to achieve anything? Johnson and his ministers are igniting paranoid politics, not because they form a conspiracy of elitists, but because they are a confederacy of dunces.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist