A 200-Year History Comes to an End

The wages of hypocrisy are a Prosecco Party win in a 60 percent Leave seat.

Last week in North Shropshire—a Shires constituency never in its long history any colour other than deepest blue—voted to overturn a 22,949 Conservative majority and elect a Liberal Democrat on a 34.2 percent swing.

It did so in large part because Boris Johnson’s Conservatives and sundry hangers-on—as Professor James R. Rogers quips in this month’s fine forum lead—“voluntarily assumed risks” in Christmas 2020, holding parties in and around the Parliamentary Estate and Number 10. The problem, of course, was that they broke lockdown and feasted after they’d passed those rules into law. Meanwhile, the rest of the country endured a cancelled Christmas while old people in care homes died alone. Footage and photographs of smirking advisers have been circulating for the best part of a fortnight, with more emerging each day. As is the British way, the resignations have started; a trickle, I suspect, about to become a flood.

Rogers’s insight lights up the university, however, if not the universe. I did not know until I read his piece that “involuntarily imposed policy risks are weighted far more heavily by the public than voluntarily assumed risks—perhaps on the order of 1,000 times more heavily.” This not only explains widespread opposition to compulsory vaccination and other, more limited forms of compulsion (heavy-handed employer urging, for example) but the behaviour of various staffers and civil servants. What were they thinking? doesn’t even begin to cover it, because, of course, they weren’t thinking.

Thanks to Rogers, I finished up going down a Chauncey Starr rabbit-hole. Late of the Manhattan Project, Starr did original research in the field of risk perception, baffled as he was by widespread opposition to nuclear energy. Starr’s discovery is also closing in now, as we learn—too late—how hard it is to mitigate climate change without splitting the atom. As with vaccines, people struggle balancing voluntary and involuntary risks when it comes to constructing nuclear power plants.

North Shropshire is a reminder that hypocrisy is fatal in both religion and politics and those who rule over us simply cannot indulge it. No one bar a few of the most hardened Catholics or Muslims believes Roman Christianity a paragon of sexual virtue or Islam a religion of peace. This low regard warns that those who assert the power of governance, whether temporal or spiritual, need to live out the values of their creed. The Conservative Party may be better at managing the pandemic; Christian sexual morality may improve civic order; peace in the sense of unified, communitarian religious belief may be a good thing. But those who advocate and enact must also exemplify, or the jig is up.

Climate change, too, is part of Boris’s problem in very blue seats. Voters do not like him using his famous boosterism, humour, and charm in the service of sending ordinary voters’ heating bills through the roof or making paeans to feminism. Both of those affectations come via his latest trophy wife. Carrie Johnson is a posh girl feminist and environmentalist widely reviled as “Princess Nut-Nuts” on account of both her social class and the fact she looks a bit like a squirrel. As I noted in my last piece for this magazine, feminism is unpopular in these Islands and, when it comes to addressing climate change, people are glad to have it but sorry to pay for it. “Carrie Antoinette” and her high-cost net-zero policies facilitated Brexit negotiator Lord Frost’s resignation from the Cabinet. “Boris, led by his Johnson,” has become a sotto-voce gag all over the Tory shires.

If public health authorities in these Islands have blustered, Boris has bluffed. We are being governed by bluffers: people who don’t know what they’re doing, advised by people pretending to know what they’re doing. North Shropshire never sought to be a referendum on Boris Johnson’s leadership, his government’s responses to coronavirus, or his choice of wife, but fate ruled otherwise and here we are.

The LibDems, as they always do when there’s a by-election somewhere in the Tory Shires, bussed in canvassers from all over the country and painted the constituency orange. Doormats were buried under their campaign literature (complete with famously deceptive graphs, as per). They asked, sometimes shyly, sometimes boldly, the electors of this deeply conservative, deeply Leave seat to “lend” them their vote.

In this context, it’s worth recalling the LibDems cratered in December 2019, their campaign remembered (and ridiculed) for only two things. The first was a manifesto promise to reverse the result of the 2016 Brexit Referendum without a vote; the second was a leader who couldn’t define “woman” on national television.

Perhaps the darkest lesson drawn is the discovery that the United Kingdom is a healthcare system with a country attached.

The people of North Shropshire haven’t become transactivist Remainers on the sudden. They’ve engaged in classic British by-election hijinks and given the Tories a bop on the snoot in the traditional way, albeit to an extreme degree. Maybe, too, a glimmer of Gladstonian liberalism in 2021’s iteration of the Prosecco Party added to their appeal. Also last week, when Boris was forced to rely on Labour to get legislation mandating vaccine passports for nightclubs and large venues through the Commons, the LibDems voted against, along with large numbers of Tory rebels. Perhaps this is a sign they’re taking economic historian Stephen Davies’s advice and “simply return[ing] to being the Liberal Party.”

In that sense, the North Shropshire result is a reversion to politics-as-normal, at least temporarily. Angry Shire Tories have always been more likely to vote Liberal Democrat than Labour. The LibDems are both a brand and a bath of protest: you step in, stretch luxuriantly, and hop out when you consider yourself clean. This is a part of the world where you can abandon the Tories, vote Prosecco Party, and consider yourself a better Tory afterwards. I know this because, in the time (before Brexit), I did it myself.

Nonetheless—as Rogers describes in the US context—Britain has learnt uncomfortable things from COVID-19. We suffered not only from a lack of preparedness but what preparation we had was for an influenza pandemic. This hampered our response and led to reams of dud advice. All that handwashing while twice singing “Happy Birthday” was designed for flu, of no avail with something that spreads through the air.

However, perhaps the darkest lesson drawn is the discovery that the United Kingdom is a healthcare system with a country attached. It’s far from alone, too. Among developed nations, only some Australian states, Japan, and Taiwan seem to have avoided the same fate.

The traditional “positive externality” rationale for mass vaccination—preventing other people from getting infected and so achieving herd immunity—does not apply. The point of the vaccines is not to reduce transmission: vaccinated people catch and spread COVID-19. What the vaccines do is prevent serious illness and hospitalisation, thereby averting pressure on the NHS.

The need to protect the hospital system has driven policy: it’s the reason for both lockdowns and other controls. Even when mortality rates have been low, if the number of people in hospital put the NHS under stress, there have been controls. Britons are fond of the NHS; although ailing now, it was the world’s first example of universal healthcare. It’s a major reason for compliance with extreme measures like lockdowns. It’s why the Great British Public wore a stay-at-home order from none other than Boris Johnson.

He’s the least serious man the UK’s political system has produced in recent decades. It’s like being conscripted by Groucho Marx. You half expect to hear a ba-dum-tss at the end of each sentence, something the electors of North Shropshire have now supplied.