It seems like we’ve been hanging on forever for it to arrive, even though we were pretty certain we knew what it was going to say. Given that ex-Prime Minister Boris Johnson exploded in very public anger on getting advance sight of the document last week, it was obvious to all that the House of Commons Privileges Committee’s report was going to confirm what the country always suspected – that Boris Johnson did indeed deliberately mislead the House and the committee, and was “complicit in the campaign of abuse and attempted intimidation of the Committee.”
More fundamentally, a serving Prime Minister had lied and misled a country trying to understand its way through a once-in-a-lifetime health crisis that took some 227,000 lives, many of them completely unnecessarily.
The brutal demolition of Johnson today was about his false representations to his peers, and focussed not only on his defence of the six widely reported party gatherings that the enquiry focussed on, but also evidence of a further 16 similar lockdown-breaching gatherings at No.10 Downing Street and at the prime minister’s country home at Chequers.
For his part, Johnson relied on his well-trodden ‘buffoon’ persona, ranting on about kangaroo courts and insisting that his many breaches of his own laws was more in the nature of an innocent cock-up than any arrogant disregard for the pain, sacrifice and deprivation that the rest of the country was suffering.
No doubt the Covid pandemic, and in particular the UK government’s dubious mis-handling of it, will find its way into academic texts and exam syllabi over the coming years, and our grandchildren may wonder why no-one seemed to burn down the House of Commons over such a scandalously disrespectful Prime Minister, and those cabinet colleagues who ruthlessly and selfishly leapt on procurement and other contracts to line their own pockets with outrageous wealth. Questions too will be asked why politicians of other parties seemed to swallow the lie that because we were all in it together, it was a time for unity, not scrutiny.
If one looks back at the history of our UK parliament, and the fate of its various governments, the only surety is that governments try to govern in the expectation that certain beliefs produce required outcomes. Unfortunately for those who would seek to govern, society (in as much as the thing exists at all) is a complex and extremely fluid notion, and almost every government has been derailed by a lateral moment that no-one at all predicted.
Sadly, the Covid pandemic was no unexpected catastrophe, indeed it was quite the opposite. Looking back over the past 2,000 years of human history, global pandemics have actually occurred with unusual regularity and predictability – generally one every century. So, given that the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-20 (which killed some 20 million people) was the last big global health catastrophe, 2019 was bang on the money for the next. Of course everyone knew this, and many other countries were busily putting all sorts of measures in place, whilst Britain was busily running down it ability to respond to such a critical moment.
Given that we all had to go through the Covid pandemic it’s tempting to forgive the government, and ask if we would have acted any better if we’d been in charge. Unfortunately for Johnson and his cronies, most people believe – and know only too well – that we would have done; and frankly it wouldn’t have taken a lot to get it right. Whatever, it wouldn’t have involved displaying utter contempt for the public, for the law, and a tendency to pocket large wads of cash that ought to have gone to saving lives.
By a strange and tragic irony, the many unnecessary Covid deaths, the bitterness and resentment that has been left behind for so many, and the heart-wrenching first hand testimonies that have left behind by the many bereaved and by front line workers, are starting to create a framework of change in British society, which has become tired and exhausted with the disintegration of British politics.
After journalists, accountants and lawyers our politicians have ofttimes been the target of public discontent and mistrust, but this was counterpointed by a sense that however disreputable such professions might have become it was far better that they were there than not. What the Johnson years have brought us is the loss of even that belief, and sadly this has been detrimental for all politicians of whatever allegiance, who have simply become unable to carry out their functions. If you look back over the past 12 months, we’ve not really witnessed any meaningful programme of civic recovery from Covid, rather a highly damaging stagnation in which politicians have had to become preoccupied with irrelevancies and a tiresome trail of scandal and corruption.
What no-one anticipated – the lateral moment that crashes governments – was that, having become convinced that disinterest was at the heart of the decline of public participation in politics, the real root cause of disengagement was that the disrespected ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’ turns out to be far more concerned about truth and integrity than anyone in power had ever imagined.
It’s been a measure of the arrogance of a few recent prime ministers that they believed utterly in their own estimations of the zeitgeist. For instance Tony Blair was utterly convinced that moving Labour to the right and dismantling the unions was what Labour voters really wanted, just as David Cameron thought he knew that the British public would reject Brexit resoundingly. It was a trademark of Boris Johnson’s tenure that he would insist he was delivering on “the people’s priorities” – a mantra that Rishi Sunak has taken up with even more toe-curling exuberance, in between recounting his apparently regular zeitgeist-finding forays into the backstreet coffee shops of us ordinary folks.
Sadly, by nature of their upbringing, quality careers and personal wealth, few in positions of power can ever claim to be really in touch with the public mood, though it doesn’t take much to understand the basics. Whatever we might make of the streets around us, the underscript of the human family is love, dignity and co-operation, regardless of what the immediate circumstances of anyone’s life might indicate. As a human family we value and will always respond positively to integrity, believability and good behaviour and conduct, and we acknowledge the sanctity of truth as much as we have contempt for lies, hypocrisy and deceit. And to those politicians who say that it’s all about delivering on promises, well actually we value honesty far more than we do results.
Over the years I’ve always written pretty negatively about politics and politicians, despite numbering quite a few of them amongst my most valued friends. Some of that has been because we journalists have a duty to question, to challenge and to reflect the public mood, but mostly it has been because the institution itself has become dangerously flawed and lost, and no longer protects the wider public in the way it was founded to do.
On 28th May the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication issued a document called Towards Full Presence – A Pastoral Reflection on Engagement with Social Media, which I read with extreme professional interest. Throughout it was threaded with an edict to Catholic communicators to be positive and uplifting in their work, to avoid acrimony and division and – reflecting on the example of the Good Samaritan – strive to become “aware of the wounded on the side of the road.”
If one looks at the principles of integrity, truth and openness that have always been at the core of Catholic journalism – and in broader terms Christianity itself – there’s a real parallel to contemporary public morality and the principles that society in general clearly still holds dear. It’s increasingly common to see Britain as a country where faith and morals have faded, and self-interest, greed and a particularly destructive form of relativism has gotten a grip of the people – but nothing could be further from the truth.
The public is crying out for leadership grounded in integrity and honesty, and today’s ‘partygate’ report is a real and powerful opportunity to draw a line under a certain style of politics that has all but ground this country to a halt, and created a shamefully inanimate population. Solutions and changes of heart won’t happen overnight, but this really ought to be the moment of change.
Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and theologian