Robert Barnett, University of London, UK
The British government’s response to the coronavirus has been marked by a puzzling inconsistency. On 12 March 2020, the British leader, Boris Johnson, outlined his government’s pandemic policy. Only a few measures were needed, he said, primarily self-isolation for those with symptoms and hand-washing for the rest of us. His insouciance was explained by his advisers: it reflected the overall importance of achieving 'herd immunity'. They noted that this had a regrettable downside, the potential decimation of the vulnerable and the elderly. But Johnson had a plan to protect them: he advised the elderly to reduce family visits and not to go on cruises. That was it.
Ten days later, as pressure from centre-left media cascaded, Johnson and his aides appeared to shelve the herd immunity approach and pivoted to its opposite: a partial lockdown backed by threats of arrests and fines. It was a curious volte-face, but it was only the most conspicuous one. There was quarantine for 273 British citizens flown home from affected areas, but none for the 18.1 million others who arrived from abroad in the three months before the lockdown, and none since. Visits to the elderly were eventually banned, but patients with COVID-19 were then moved into care homes, often without resources to care for them, and 20,000 care home residents have since died. Public testing was declared unnecessary on 12 March 2020, but in April the government announced a target of 100,000 a day. As for the general public, the current policy is 'stay at home', but the advisory slogan has been changed to 'stay alert', apparently meaning not to stay at home, but only in England, since Johnson failed to get agreement from other national leaders within the UK. And in mid-May, people were told to go back to work, but not to use public transport — impossible for many poorer workers. In every government statement these measures are described as 'following the science', as if politicians had no part in them.
Identifying an ideological through-line to these boomeranging policies is difficult. Boris Johnson clearly shares some Trumpian impulses and like Trump leads one of the two countries in the world with the highest number of known coronavirus-related deaths. But the basis of Johnson’s ideological stance is elusive. It is neither outright populism nor neo-liberal rent-seeking, with no immediately recognisable political philosophy. Johnson is, after all, a 'soft Tory' — what Americans would call a cultural liberal — yet flirts openly with extreme nationalists like Trump and Farage. But if political philosophers struggle to explain the ideational foundations of such figures, we can turn to poets, such as those who have cited a surrealist drama from 1896, Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, as a guide to Trump’s thought. A deliberately incoherent, infantile play now seen as a precursor of Dadaist absurdity, it features an insane, amoral despot who blathers incoherently, whose vocabulary consists mainly of garbled swear-words, and who slaughters anyone to hand for no evident reason. The first performance in Paris (and with it the entire run) ended in a riot, leaving the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, who was in the audience, to comment presciently in his memoirs, 'What more is possible? After us, the Savage God'. Within a year of Trump’s appointment, the American poet Charles Simic had declared Ubu to be 'the only character I can think of in world literature who resembles Donald Trump', and the British poet Rosanna Hildyard had published a translation of Jarry’s play under the name Ubu Trump. And indeed the chaotic, childlike venality of Ubu’s urge for power tells us as much as any intellectual analysis about the core logic of Trumpian politics.
Similarly, we can turn to another radical and disruptive episode in theatre history to glimpse the underlying drivers to Johnson’s oscillation between responsible governance and an almost reckless libertarianism. In 1963, the British theatre world was shaken by a production called Oh What a Lovely War, a Brechtian satire by the radical fringe director Joan Littlewood of the British upper classes and their conduct of the First World War. It characterised the thinking of the British generals who led that war as 'the blinkered pomposity of this sclerotic social grouping', and the first performance was greeted by The Times as a work that, it implied, should have sent 'audiences storming out of the theatre'. Establishment figures reportedly tried to get Richard Attenborough to tone down the social criticism in his cinematic version of the play six years later, with limited success.
Set largely as an end-of-the-pier or minstrel show, as if the war were a summer frolic on the beach for the British generals, Oh What a Lovely War revolutionised theatre conventions in Britain with its combination of documentary sources and working-class music (the film version contains one of the most poignant moments in British film music history, the Welsh tenor Maurice Arthur’s rendering of the British soldiers’ ironic lament 'When this lousy war is over' set to the tune of the hymn 'What a friend we have in Jesus'). Its political critique was indeed reductive — some historians have since called for revision of its judgement of British generals at the time — but its main point remains influential: a certain form of self-belief among the British upper classes had a direct relation to the incalculable numbers of ordinary people who went unnecessarily to their deaths. It was, in other words, a statement about identity and class, and a bitter rejection of elite claims to represent British identity as a whole.
A century later, the upper class convictions satirised by Littlewood and Attenborough are still prominent in the political thinking of contemporary British leaders. Remarkably, at least one of those leaders has stated as much himself. In 2014, 61 years after the original production of Oh What a Lovely War, the British education secretary, Michael Gove -- now one of Johnson’s most senior ministers -- used a 1,000-word column in a right-wing tabloid to rail against the play. It had depicted Britain’s role in that war, Gove wrote, 'as a misbegotten shambles — a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite. Even to this day', he added, 'there are left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths', and then went on to name one. Gove’s real message was of course not directed to the past, but to the present. 'Britain’s role in the world has also been marked by nobility and courage', thundered the man in charge of rewriting school textbooks at the time -- almost a perfect characterisation of Littlewood’s point. The same thesis now appears behind much of the British government’s response to the coronavirus.
Johnson of course hails from Eton, the training ground of the British ultra-elite, and signals that affiliation every time he speaks or writes. He revels in the use of obscure phraseology — terms like trebuches, dubitation, liquidity, integuments, partitocrats and influorescence — as a mark of superior learning while interspersing them with elite patois exclusive to the upper classes, such as piffle, gung-hoery, bonkers, loonies, mumbo-jumo, bodge, bashing and lingo. When he said of the virus in an early television interview that Britain could 'take it on the chin', he was referring not just to boxing — a sport much hailed in British public schools of his era — but to the virtue of the stiff upper lip and imperviousness to sentiment, the value at the heart of Littlewood’s critique of those who led the troops to slaughter in the First World War.
Vocabulary and schooling are not reliable as tools for identifying a person’s values, however close they are to the dialogue of a general in Oh What a Lovely War. In fact, Johnson, Gove and their ilk are interesting precisely because they mix the dog-whistling of imperial-era privilege with the claims of modernist technocrats. Essentially they row with two oars, one churning the currents of jingoism among their more nationalist supporters, the other dipping into the tides of 'science', 'progress' and 'public health'; one pulling away from European modernity towards an island particularism, the other paddling in the wake of contemporary European democratic values. No wonder, one might say, that the boat turns round in circles.
Both elements of this bidirectionality appear to be grounded in the patrician belief in British exceptionalism that Littlewood had lampooned, whether in the glory of defending an island at war, beset by enemies on all sides, or in leading the world in science or global commerce. The cultural resonances of this claim have been described by the Irish commentator Fintan O’Neil and others, but it is more than a cultural affectation: it seems to be the intellectual basis to Johnson’s thinking, despite temporary deviations when media pressure mounts on him. This is most clearly shown by a speech on 3 February 2020, three days after Brexit, and four days after the first coronavirus cases had appeared in Britain. The speech was a triumphant declaration of Johnson’s commitment above all else to the 'fundamental liberty' of free trade. Its underlying ascription, however, was to a particular identity claim: the assertion of Britain as a uniquely wise leader of the world, and as the only government with true understanding not only of free trade but also of the coming pandemic and medical science in general. It is worth quoting at length:
'We are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other.
And here […] in the first week of February 2020, I can tell you in all humility that the UK is ready for that role. We are ready […] and we are limbering up to use nerves and muscles and instincts that this country has not had to use for half a century. […]'
Johnson’s reference was of course to that most lovely of wars — the one fought in the British imagination under the leadership of Churchill. At the end of his speech, Johnson lapsed into poetry himself: 'There lies the port, the vessel puffs her sail…the wind sits in the mast'. The unstated reference was nothing to do with maritime travel but to the final line of the poem by Tennyson from which it was taken: 'We are […]/Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will/To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield'. He concluded in high Churchillian mode: 'We are embarked now on a great voyage, a project that no one thought in the international community that this country would have the guts to undertake'.
That call to arms, ostensibly trumpeting free trade values, was in fact a discounting of a lockdown as a un-British form of surrender to the enemy and of its use by other governments as a form of cowardice. Just four days after the first coronavirus case in the UK, we can already see the working of the logic identified by Lovely War: where patrician assumptions of leadership lead via the conviction of national superiority to the regrettable sacrifice of a lesser social class or category.
A month later, on 5 March 2020, in a speech to the nation, Johnson give his speech about taking the virus on the chin. This, he said, was only one theory — we would only later learn that this was a code for herd immunity — but he would not be following it. Instead, we would 'take all the measures that we can now to stop the peak of the disease'. Yet six days later, in a national 'fireside chat' with Jenny Harries, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer and one of the more strident of nationalistic defenders of the government’s policy, the opposite position was laid out. Once again it was explained by Britain’s national clairvoyance and superiority. 'There are some countries', Johnson said, evidently following a script, 'where they’ve banned big sporting events [because] governments around the world are under a lot of pressure to be seen to act, so they may do things that aren’t necessarily dictated by the science'. By contrast, he and Harries declared with pride, the British were 'following the science and the evidence' and therefore knew there was no need to cancel mass gatherings, as they do not have 'a big effect'. A day later, Johnson advised that containment of the virus was no longer needed, that the government would 'no longer try to "track and trace" everyone suspected of having the virus'. That was when the term 'herd immunity6' was used by his officials in public for the first time, and when Johnson advised the elderly not to go on cruises. Britain was going to 'take it on the chin' after all, but with no protection for the vulnerable.
The government soon changed tack, but the theme of exceptionalism keeps re-surfacing. On 26 March 2020, Harries, speaking for the government, said Britain did not need to follow WHO advice on testing because it was aimed primarily at 'low-and middle-income countries', whereas 'we have an extremely well-developed public health system'. On 20 April 2020, by which time over 100 health providers had died seemingly as a result of inadequate equipment, Harries, speaking alongside Britain’s Health Minister, explained that Britain didn’t need to carry out testing because it is 'an international exemplar in preparedness'. Later that week, with deaths reaching the highest in Europe, she declared that Britain’s containment strategy had been 'very successful' and that one should discount comparisons with Germany.
Since then, British policy has reversed itself, modified its reversals, and recused itself from blame, bouncing from lockdown to its opposite and then back again. It has had successes — enough hospital beds and ventilators were arranged before the peak and the death rate is finally declining — but England’s excess death rate dwarfs the rest of Europe Johnson’s speechwriters have backed off references to national virtue and undying British glory, but the signs of that underlying conviction remain littered across the devastated landscape of Britain’s pandemic policies. If Brexit was an unseemly, costly rush to dress crude nationalism and xenophobia in the ill-fitting garb of economic liberalism, the curious weavings of Britain’s coronavirus strategy are an attempt to marry scientific modernism with the conviction of a superior national destiny. Boris Johnson is no Ubu Roi and surely has no wish to emulate the upper-class complacency towards mass slaughter depicted by Littlewood and Attenborough. But the flickering mentions of herd immunity, the failure to protect the vulnerable, and the endless claims to scientific certainty point to a residual belief by Britain’s leaders in national superiority and a concomitant reluctance to acknowledge the cost of wars fought largely by members of other, lower, social groups.
 'Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely; also, because the vast majority of people get a mild illness, to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission, at the same time we protect those who are most vulnerable to it'. Patrick Vallance, UK Chief Scientific Adviser, in 'Coronavirus: science chief defends UK plan from criticism'.
 PM statement on coronavirus: 12 March 2020. Gov.uk, 12 March 2020.
 Jamie Grierson. UK government under fire after 'big influx' of Covid-19 cases from Europe revealed. The Guardian, 5 May 2020.
 Andrew MacAskill and Stephen Grey. Exclusive: Review contradicts Boris Johnson on claims he ordered early lockdown at UK care homes. Reuters, 15 May 2020.
 The British poet and critic Arthur Symons described the response to the premiere as 'a house buffeted into sheer bewilderment by the wooden lath of a gross undiscriminating, infantile Philosopher-Pantaloon'. Quoted in Dan Piepenbring, 'An Inglorious Slop-pail of a Play', The Paris Review, 8 September 2015.
 Charles Simic. Year One: Our President Ubu. New York Review of Books, 16 November 2017.
 Derek Paget. 1990. Popularising Popular History: 'Oh What A Lovely War' and the Sixties. Critical Survey 2: 117-27.
 The play shows 'the view of the 1914-18 War as a criminally wasteful adventure in which the stoic courage of the common soldier was equalled only by the sanctimonious incompetence of their commanders and the blind jingoism of the civilians. […] This approach is unlikely to have sent audiences storming out of the theatre: The war is a sitting target for anyone who wants to deliver a bludgeoning social criticism' ('Group Panorama of the Kaiser's War', The Times, 20 March 1963). Quoted in Silvia Mergenthal, 'The War is a Sitting Target:’ The Theatre Workshop's Oh What a Lovely War (1963)', Anglistik: International Journal of English Studies 29.2 (September 2018): 51-59 at p. 54.
 See Gary Sheffield, 'The Western Front: Lions Led by Donkeys?', BBC History, 10 March 2011, and Dan Todman, The Great War: Myth and Memory, A & C. Black, 2014. The 'led by donkeys' motif of incompetent British generals in WWI was fuelled largely (and perhaps invented) by Alan Clark in his 1961 book The Donkeys. Clark was a right-wing politician, libertine, and publicity-seeking nationalist who sued Joan Littlewood successfully for a credit in the show once it moved to the West End. For a recent critique of Second World War British leadership, see Max Hastings, 'Botch on the Rhine', New York Review of Books, 28 May 2020.
 Michael Gove. Why does the Left insist on belittling true British heroes? MICHAEL GOVE asks damning question as the anniversary of the First World War approaches. Daily Mail, 2 January 2014.
 Additional examples are provided by Guy Kelley, From mugwumps to integuments: the glossary of Boris Johnson, The Telegraph, 17 April 2017.
 'One of the theories is, that perhaps you could take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population, without taking as many draconian measures. I think we need to strike a balance, I think it is very important, we’ve got a fantastic NHS, we will give them all the support that they need, we will make sure that they have all preparations, all the kit that they need for us to get through it. But I think it would be better if we take all the measures that we can now to stop the peak of the disease being as difficult for the NHS as it might be, I think there are things that we may be able to do'. Boris Johnson, 'This Morning', ITV, 5 March 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vOHiaPwtGl4&feature=youtu.be&t=237. For transcript, see 'Here is the transcript of what Boris Johnson said on This Morning about the new coronavirus', 10 March 2020.
 PM speech in Greenwich: 3 February 2020: Prime Minister Boris Johnson's speech in Greenwich. Gov.uk, 3 February 2020.
 PM and Deputy CMO on coronavirus. Boris Johnson Facebook channel, 11 March 11 2020.
 PM statement on coronavirus: 12 March 2020. Gov.uk, 12 March 2020.
 Mark Easton. Coronavirus: care home residents could be 'cocooned'. BBC, 11 March 2020.
 Denis Staunton. Unflappable confidence of UK’s health establishment about to be tested: Britain continues to diverge from WHO advice when it comes to testing and contact tracing for coronavirus. 27 March 2020.
 Coronavirus: Jenny Harries criticised for 'patronising' remark about 'exemplar preparedness'. Sky News, 20 April 2020.
 Mickey Smith. UK's coronavirus containment was 'very successful' says deputy Chief Medical Office. Daily Mirror, 24 April 2020.
 Janine Aron and John Muellbauer. 'Measuring excess mortality: England is the European outlier in the Covid-19 pandemic'. VOX CEPR Policy Portal, 18 May 2020.
Robert Barnett is Professorial Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.