It’s hard to sympathise with all those social media influencers who’ve snuck out to Dubai to take photos of themselves in swimwear while the rest of us are stuck indoors, but Priti Patel and Michael Gove have shown me the way. This may mark my final submersion in the waters of contrarianism, but what the home secretary said to MPs about influencers made me see things from those poor, silly narcissists’ point of view. I’m talking about the influencers.
The government is clearly very irritated that, at a time when it wants everyone to stay still, a bunch of affluent young people have not only refused to do that but are publishing pictures of themselves not doing it. As always with this pandemic, there’s confusion over whether this is actually breaking the rules or just finding a loophole in them. But the government would rather we didn’t focus on that detail because what’s important is the “spirit” of the rules.
People who break the “spirit” of the rules are horrid, says the government, and we should be very cross with them and not with the people who drafted those flabby rules, with gaping loopholes between what they actually say and their “spirit”. It would be unhelpful for the public to think too much about whose job it is to turn the “spirit” of the rules into the actual rules and whether their persistent failure to achieve this while occupying high office isn’t an infinitely more nationally damaging form of parasitism than the influencers are guilty of.
Patel and Gove are like shoddy fence-makers, shaking their head at a fox who’s got into the hen house despite their feeble efforts. “What a nasty fox!” they’re complaining. “But no blame can be attached to us because the fox ignored the spirit of the fence.” We’re exhorted to buy into this rhetoric where corporate taxation is concerned, too, and expend energy blaming international corporations for only paying the tax they’re legally required to, rather than what they ought to be legally required to if our legislators hadn’t consistently let us down. In the rapacious corporate institutions’ defence, the idea of paying more tax than the law requires, out of a sense of the “spirit” of tax law in a notionally just society, is probably a tough one to pitch to a shareholders’ meeting.
“We see plenty of influencers on social media showing off about which parts of the world that they are in, mainly in sunny parts of the world,” Patel told parliament. “Going on holiday is not an exemption and it’s important that people stay at home.” This statement exemplifies the idiotic situation the government has got itself into. Patel criticises the influencers for showing off on social media, but it’s the showing off that makes their trips lawful. If they’d just gone on holiday on the quiet, that’s definitely against the rules, but you are allowed to travel for work if you can’t otherwise do it at home. Well, if your work – the way you make your living – is posting pictures of yourself scantily clad in exotic locations, then you have to travel to do it.
I realise the influencers look like they’re on holiday, but pretending to be on holiday is their job. Unless you disbelieve that they make a living out of it, you can’t say it isn’t work unless you define work as something you mustn’t enjoy. And, even then, what proof is there, unless they submit to brain scans, that these influencers do enjoy it? Perhaps all that sunbathing and oiling, constantly checking that the sunlight glances eye-catchingly off buttock and shimmering sea, gets wearisome after a while and some of them yearn for a living that could be made by working from home – they wouldn’t even need to get undressed in the morning.
Gove also struggled to define exactly what the problem was in remarks to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, which could be summarised as: “Grrr, why are these awful people so annoying?!” He said that international travel might be OK “if there is a powerful business reason” but that people “should not be travelling abroad to boost their Instagram profile, people should not be going abroad for anything other than essential reasons”. But a powerful business reason isn’t necessarily an essential reason. And boosting your Instagram profile might be a powerful business reason.
Does he want to put a figure on how powerful the business reason needs to be before it becomes essential? Is it essential if you’ll make £1m? Or should it be expressed in terms of the traveller’s existing wealth? If you double your net worth, is that essential? Or should it be based on need? If you have no money and make a little, is that more or less essential than if you already have a little and make loads? Or have loads and make loads and loads?
The authorities have leaned very heavily on the word “essential” during the various lockdowns without troubling, except by implication, to define it. For example, children going to school, it seems, is not essential and neither are academic examinations; the financial services sector and the functioning of the property market, conversely, are.
In general, enjoyment seldom seems to be essential, but economic activity often is. The essential point of pubs and restaurants, according to ministers, is for people to make money running them and working for them, not for people to have a nice time going to them. If there was a way of securing the former without the necessity of the latter, they’d jump at it – possibly even in the absence of a pandemic.
Even in the grip of this awful disease, which has led so many to re-evaluate what really matters to them, the depressing priorities of an unimaginative British government remain unchanged, lurking just behind the health emergency: profit and GDP are essential. We’re a country of ruthless zero-hours contracts, a “business-friendly” loophole-riddled tax regime, with easy access to planning permission, building sites everywhere and post offices closing.
The government defines money as our very essence. Well, it can’t acquiesce for years in a civilisation that is so vacuously mercantile and then suddenly get snooty about Instagrammers.