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We like sheep

May 29, 2022

“We like sheep” is one of my favourite phrases in Handel’s Messiah. Taken out of context, it’s gloriously ambiguous. After all, I love sheep, even though the chorale is about those of us who stray from the true path of divinely-ordained righteousness. Which is a bit hard on sheep, since all they’re interested in is the nearest clump of grass.

Up to now I’ve refrained from commenting on Boris Johnson, Partygate and Sue Grey’s report, because my voice feels superfluous given the barrage of criticism of a Prime Minister whom I’ve always considered unfit for the role. I’ve spent more than enough precious brain time excoriating someone who should never have left the dusty corridors of those media organisations foolish enough to employ him.

However, in case you’re not utterly sated with coverage of the sorry business (rather than the business of being sorry), a couple of thoughts occur.

First, much of the media comment seems to be focused on Johnson hanging his junior staff at10, Downing Street out to dry. They’re the ones who embraced the culture and picked up the fines, while Boris and his senior officials appear to have got away virtually scot free.

This line of thinking frames the junior staff as victims. I beg to differ. You would like to think that those who work in the Prime Minister’s office are the brightest of the bright – the leaders of the future. Surely anyone with an eye on a future in British politics or the civil service would give their eye teeth to be able to feature a spell at Number 10 in their CVs.

If that’s the case, would it not be reasonable to describe independence of thought as one of the qualities required of these future leaders? And if so, why were they not capable of passing up on the parties, no matter what the prevailing culture dictated? Were they so lacking in perspective as to think that while their friends and relatives outside government were sticking to the rules, they should not also exercise caution, no matter what their bosses did?

Perhaps I’m unkind to expect a bunch of bibulous twentysomethings not to behave like sheep, not (as Sue Grey reports) to leave party detritus for the cleaners to clear up, not to get into “altercations” and not to throw up in a place where Gladstone, Asquith and Churchill once held sway.

But then again, perhaps I’m wrong in my initial assumption. Maybe mediocrity breeds mediocrity.

The second thought concerns the toleration among both the ruling elite and those who voted for them of a shameless liar at the head of our government. Thirty or forty years ago Boris Johnson wouldn’t have got close to power, not only because of his lies but because of his private life and his chaotic incompetence.

So what’s changed in the meanwhile? Is it the availability of “alternative truths”, also known as fake news, that have desensitised us to Johnson’s outrageous, easily proven untruths? As a result, does the majority of voters, not just the perennially disgruntled, believe that all politicians are liars, that everyone else (except us of course) is a liar and that most of us can get away with it? Is the social media to blame, or those who exploit it, be they Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump or every jumped-up politician or business leader on the make? I don’t know, but what seems different is our willingness to believe self-evident lies or to dismiss them as unimportant.

Or is it because we’re more prepared to tolerate loveable rogues with whom we would be happy to share a few beers down the pub? Because their behaviour gives us licence to indulge our own worst instincts?

Again, I don’t know. But what I am sure about is that Johnson had crossed a line with Partygate. People will tolerate a hypocrite, but if their hypocrisy mocks the personal experience of all those who suffered during the COVID pandemic, who stuck to the rules and shed tears for relatives whom they couldn’t visit on their deathbeds and couldn’t mourn as they would have liked, he will not easily be forgiven.

For this reason, I’m pretty sure he will soon be gone. Even if he struggles on, his government will be brought down by the tidal wave of disasters that it currently faces. Which, for me, will be a source of considerable relief, even though I shudder to think of all the other mistakes said government will inflict on us in its death throes.

About the only thing that will save them is the sentiment expressed by an acquaintance the other day: “yes he’s a tosser, but I can’t think of anyone in politics who I would want in his place. They’re all tossers.”

Perhaps that’s what conservatism – in Britain at least – means today. Profound cynicism. What you know rather than what you fear. What you expect rather than what you hope. The least worst option. The trouble is, such political inertia often leads to some form of rupture. Let’s hope it’s not too violent if and when it comes.

From → Media, Politics, Social, UK

  1. Steve, another insightful post that conjures up images of those blameless (shameless?) sheep from Wallace and Gromit….

    Does mediocrity breed mediocrity
    Or perhaps just more hypocrisy?
    Or perhaps, sadly, it was ever thus?
    Some may say yes so what’s all the fuss?

    Politics as a model for right or wrong
    Is at best a hapless grunge like song
    How many start as a special adviser
    Become street savvy but never wiser

    Rabble rousing hooligans in suits
    Snouts in the trough and champagne flutes
    If they are not conscious about what they do
    Is it surprising they’re seldom true

    To themselves or those they’re meant to serve
    Soon they’ll stop even trying to swerve
    Instead they’ll adopt full condescension
    Then it’s game, set and match for misapprehension!

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