On leadership, 'resurrection' and other flights of (syco)phancy
Updated: Apr 13, 2020
"He is risen", wrote Allison Pearson of The Telegraph. It was on the approach to Easter, but she wasn't talking about Jesus. She meant Boris Johnson, and the fact that he was up on his feet after spending several days in intensive care. It wasn't just The Telegraph that committed such blasphemy; The Sun and the Daily Mail responded with similar nausea-inducing sentiments, with the former describing what the PM was doing (playing sudoku, watching "Love Actually", receiving letters from his girlfriend) in the kind of minute detail that's only of interest to Johnson's immediate family.
Don't get me wrong: I may dislike the man, but I'm glad that he's feeling better. He had a 50/50 chance of dying, which would've been a blow to the morale of the country, not to mention devastating news to his girlfriend and an unconfirmed number of children. However, this in no way detracts from his government's woeful response to the Covid-19 crisis, with almost 10,000 dead to date and with the UK currently on track to potentially record to the most fatalities out of any European country, or the fact that Johnson got ill through his own recklessness and disregard for the rules that he asked the public to follow, thereby endangering not just him own life, but also those of his heavily pregnant girlfriend and unborn child.
While the Johnson government claims to be 'following the science', many questions remain unanswered. Why did the government largely abandon testing early on? Why were there no attempts at mass tracing, as there have been in Singapore, Germany, etc? Why do the government guidelines regarding infectiousness differ from that of the WHO, with current UK guidelines stipulating that if you display symptoms, you should self-isolate for 7 days, while the WHO is quite clear that people can be infectious for up to 14 days after they stop displaying symptoms? Why is the UK government ignoring the WHO instructions: "Testing, tracing, quarantine"? Why is there no screening of passengers at UK airport, while there are still flights coming in from epicentres of contagion? Why is Parliament on a month-long recess during the biggest emergency the country's faced in living memory? While the daily government briefings started out well enough, with attempts originally being made to level with the public, the Tory government now seems to be retreating to its familiar territory of waffle and obfuscation. Yesterday's Priti "Well, I'm sorry that you feel that there's not enough PPE" Patel's outing has gone down as well as a bucket of cold vomit, and I suspect we won't be seeing her again until the eleventy-thirtieth of Jultober.
Presumably, other countries have also been 'following the science' and we need to know how UK science differs from that of, say, Germany. For that to happen, it's not enough to have journalists ask questions at the daily briefing; Parliament has to be up and running, and it's completely unconscionable that it won't reconvene until April 21st. Why the hell not? Johnson and co have been able to meet virtually, so there's no reason to waste yet another nine days. The public needs to know exactly what the government's proposed strategy is, what data the government is basing this strategy on, what measures are being taken to address the unpardonable shortage of PPE and why the Covid-19 deaths in the community are not being counted.
I've seen a lot of "now is not the time to ask questions." What utter bollocks. Now is exactly the time to ask questions, given that after the event the government that already specialises in denials, cover-ups and obfuscations will call for the public to "move on". I'm deeply rattled by the attempted silencing of NHS staff, who are apparently muzzled against speaking out about PPE shortages by NHS England; by the insinuation from Matt Hancock that medics are misusing a 'precious resource' just as he fails to recognise that they're the precious resource and that it's his department's responsibility to ensure that they have access to the protective equipment they need; by the fact that the government turned down participation in the EU procurement scheme that would've given us vital PPE and ventilators. The British public deserves honest answers.
Fighting Covid-19 is as much a political matter as it is a medical one. It's useful to compare the example of Ireland, which has had as much warning as the UK, where the first cases and deaths were recorded at pretty much the same time, and where there's a comparable number of ICU beds per capita. And yet, as of today, there have been 6.5 deaths per 100,000 in Ireland and 14.5 per 100,000 in the UK. As of yesterday, there have been 320 deaths from the coronavirus in Ireland, and 9,875 deaths in the UK (not counting deaths in the community - nursing homes, etc). Why? Because Ireland acted early, and went into lockdown two weeks earlier than the UK, cancelling St Patrick's celebrations, closing pubs and schools. A month ago, Brits were still crowding pubs and attending the Cheltenham Races, concerts and football matches. Brits dying now would've got sick at around that time. The UK government only apparently acted after pressure from the British public, because people were beginning to panic at the lack of lockdown measures, as well as Macron's threat to close the UK-France border.
I'm concerned that, when this is over, the second-rate cabinet (picked for their loyalty to Brexit and Johnson rather than for any obvious talent) led by a mediocre former Telegraph columnist will attempt to blame Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Valance. We've been there before: biological warfare expert David Kelly committed suicide in 2003 after essentially being blamed for the government decision for the war on Iraq. Medical experts advise, but it's politicians who make decisions based on that advice and the buck stops with them, not with the advisors. Sadly, few members of the Johnson cabinet are renowned for taking responsibility for anything.
Any government would've had a hard time managing a pandemic, but the Johnson government has made a bad situation worse. Keir Starmer and other critics of the government have come under fire for rightly calling out the government for poor decisions made, with some pundits branding their questioning of the government "unpatriotic" because "we're at war". Seriously? It's a fucking virus. You can't negotiate with it, you can't sign peace treaties with it, you can't outsmart it and it's not listening in on your conversations. (Yes, I'm aware of what Trump said: "There's a whole genius to it...It's hidden, but it's very smart." Again: it's a fucking virus. It's not "smart" and it's not a "genius". But then, what can one expect of a man who still doesn't seem to know that antibiotics only work against bacterial infections and not viral ones).
I object to the war metaphors because I think that they are inaccurate, much as it's inaccurate and even unhelpful to describe those laid low by Covid-19 as "fighters" or claiming that they've "won the battle" if they recover, or that they've "lost the war" if they die, as if they're too lazy or not committed enough to live. You don't 'win' or 'lose' with a deadly illness; you're either lucky, and you receive good medical care and you survive, or you're not, and you don't. It's not your achievement per se. There is nothing heroic about survival. I speak as someone who very nearly did pop her clogs three years ago, and I can tell you that there's nothing quite like getting very, very ill to teach you humility. You're completely helpless and utterly dependent on the skill and compassion of others. I survived not because I had a greater will to live than others, but because I received wonderful care at the hands of NHS doctors. It's heartening to see that some newspapers today have printed that Johnson has said "I owe them my life" about the medical staff who looked after him, but it's too early to see whether the government will genuinely recognise the invaluable work of the NHS and perhaps not vote against a pay raise for nurses, the way Johnson and friends did in 2017.
It could be worse, I suppose. In the United States, the government response under Trump makes Johnson look like freaking Churchill. And not just the active covering up of the spreading of Covid-19, attempts to mute medical experts, and dismissal of the threat before it's too late, but also the attacks on proactive governors like Newsom and Cuomo who are actually trying to keep their citizens safe, the peddling of hydroxychloroquine - not because of any proven anti-Covid-19 properties, but because Trump has 'a gut feeling' that it'll be a miracle cure (and also has a small financial stake in its production), the refusal to use federal resources to manufacture PPE and ventilators that states so desperately need and the doling out of favours to vulnerable Republican governors who display nausea-inducing obsequiousness because Trump the Merciful has saw it fit to bestow bounty upon his loyal subjects and withhold them from governors who've been insufficiently 'nice' to him (which in itself is an impeachable offence).
I genuinely don't understand these cults of the personality with unpleasant mediocrities (Trump, Johnson) at their heart. It's not just that both men are hopelessly unfit for their respective offices, but I genuinely don't see what other people see as admirable or likeable about either. Trump's a complete moral vacuum with no redeeming features whatsoever, and while Johnson is miles better by comparison (articulate, occasionally witty, knows some long words), he's still a deadbeat father with an undistinguished career in journalism, who's been sacked twice for playing fast and loose with the truth. The qualities that I find admirable: moral courage, honesty, empathy, commitment to accountability, clarity, humility, decisiveness - are completely missing in both. Since when have cowardice, lying, and a complete absence of all of the above come into fashion? Is it that their admirers see them for what they truly are and are okay with it, or do they perform such impressive manoeuvres of cognitive dissonance that they could qualify as contortionists for the Cirque du Soleil? But then, why on earth would anyone think that a bad human being would somehow make a good leader in a crisis?
It's been interesting to observe how different leaders have handled the pandemic. I've admired Angela Merkel's calm and logical approach. I've admired the efficiency of Singapore's Lee Hsien Loong, and the mass testing and tracing and quarantine from very early on in the pandemic. I respect Leo Varadkar, who's reregistered as a doctor and will be doing his bit in hospital once a week, as well as running Ireland. I've also been impressed by New Zealand's Jacinda Ardern, who acted promptly and proactively, before Covid-19 had the chance to spread in New Zealand, shut New Zealand's borders and had anyone coming back to New Zealand quarantined. So far, they've had one Covid-19 death. It's true that something like that was easier to achieve in New Zealand, given its remoteness, but Ardern's leadership played a big part: "Herd immunity would've meant tens of thousands of New Zealanders dying and I simply would not tolerate that and I don't think any New Zealander would."
It's often difficult to act proactively in a situation like this, because humans are much better at linear thinking than exponential thinking, according to two pandemic 'tsars' that I've heard interviews with on my two favourite podcasts, Stay Turned with Preet (with Preet Bharara) and Recode Decode (with Kara Swisher). Meaning that, if a government is proactive and imposes many restrictions, the population gets annoyed because in a pandemic, they don't see the benefits of early restrictions, and think that the government is overreacting. However, if it under-reacts, by the time people are dying, and contagion becomes visible, it's already too late. Many governments, including Spain, the UK and the US, have acted too late.
I thought about leadership a lot last November and December, when I canvassed my socks off for ex-Tory rebel Dominic Grieve. I originally didn't think that, as a lifelong liberal atheist with socialist leanings, I had that much in common with a lifelong conservative (and a Conservative for 44 years) and practising Christian, but recognised that he is a decent and principled man, with a strong sense of duty towards the country, and that we need more MPs like him in Parliament. Through my interaction with him, however, I've come to see that while we may disagree on a great many policy specifics, he and I agree on the important stuff: the need for accountability and transparency on the part of the government, humility, empathy and vision on the part of leadership, strong national defence, and the need to use Britain's power as a force for good in the wider world. And I respect him, too. Since he had the courage to rebel against his life-long political home and to face daily death threats from rabid Brexiteers in order to do what he believed to be right, as opposed to what was easy - keeping his mouth shut and foregoing his principles in exchange for keeping his job - I felt that the least I could do was try and get him reelected, even though knocking on random doors and speaking to complete strangers (particularly strangers who aren't at all pleased to see you) took me way out of my comfort zone.
[I don't really understand the hero-worshipping of politicians or investing oneself emotionally in one, the way some Trump and Johnson supporters seems to choose those men as their hill to die on. It's not that I weren't prone to hero-worshipping (or strong admiration, rather) in the past, but always with people I knew personally, and those people were all possessed of admirable qualities.
I've had a niche interest in capital punishment since I was a teenager, and about 15 years ago, through a series of serendipitous events, I ended up working as a lawyer's assistant on a federal death case, along with a mitigation specialist named Scharlette Holdman.
Scharlette wasn't just a heavyweight in her field; she'd created her field, and changed the way capital cases were tried in the United States. Her job was to get to know her client and to provide mitigating evidence for the jury to consider so that their life may be spared. To explain how they came to be who they were and where they were; to explain but not to excuse. She told me that she believed that monsters were made not born. Part-psychiatrist, part-social worker, part-historian, she was very personable, and really good at earning the trust of her clients' families and friends and digging into often hugely traumatic family histories full of abuse. In the end, she only took on the most challenging, most high-profile cases: the Unabomber, the Boston Bomber, etc. She was a force of nature, with a temper to match, but she also told the best stories, loved her food, and had a raucous laugh.
One of my favourite Scharlette stories (told by a mutual friend) is about the time when a prosecutor was arguing that a mentally disabled client of hers was fit to be executed on the grounds that he won a game of noughts and crosses with the prosecutor (apparently that proved his mental fitness). Scharlette managed to find a prize-winning chicken that played noughts and crosses to demonstrate that even a bird-brain can beat the prosecutor. The judge wouldn't allow the chicken in the courtroom, claiming that it "degraded the dignity of the court". Scharlette retorted that executing a mentally retarded man would degrade the court more.
She wanted me to come and work for her, and I wanted her to train me as a mitigation specialist, but it didn't work out, though I'm glad that she saw potential in me worth nurturing.
I last saw her in 2013, when she was in London, working with Clive Stafford Smith of Reprieve on the Guantanamo Bay cases, and we stayed up late into the night in her hotel room, talking. She died of cancer in 2017, but I heard from her the year before, when she emailed me out of the blue and told me that she's converted to Islam and had just done her pilgrimage to Mecca. "Just call me Haji Scharlette!" She'd always made fun of organised religion, but figured that her Guantanomo Bay clients would only trust her properly if she shared their religion, and she never did anything by half. Her final year was spent riding around Saudi Arabia on the back of a motorbike in a burka, visiting the families of the prisoners to learn more about them. That is the sort of person that I feel is worthy of true admiration (though I wasn't blind to Scharlette's flaws; she was a short-tempered workaholic). Politicians? Not so much.]
Still, getting back to my original subject, if Grieve were Prime Minister right now, the country would be in safe hands; ditto - if Keir Starmer were in charge. Not because either man is particularly exciting; but then, I don't want excitement in a Prime Minister; I want competence. Nor is it because I see either one as a second coming of a Jewish socialist with a propensity for turning H2O into an alcoholic beverage, but because I trust both Grieve and Starmer to take the job seriously and to do it to their best of their ability. But for some reason, decency, integrity, diligence and competence are just not in fashion in the UK right now.