In a recent Twitter post from PoliticsJOE Peter Jukes, the founder of the Byline Times, talks about a speech Boris Johnson gave in February 2020. Jukes calls The Greenwich Speech the “smoking gun” of herd immunity. The disastrous idea touted by Johnson in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. Johnson has since distanced himself from the theory, but for a time he believed we should take COVID-19 on the chin. Let the virus spread through the country unchecked. Protect the economy by getting it over and done in one shot.
The Greenwich Speech is up on the government website for everyone to read. It’s a long and rambling thing. Full of bombast and big metaphors, but empty of concrete detail. The following chunk is the “smoking gun” that Jukes mentions. The bit that absolutely connects Johnson to herd immunity.
“Trade used to grow at roughly double global GDP – from 1987 to 2007.
Now it barely keeps pace and global growth is itself anaemic and the decline in global poverty is beginning to slow.
And in that context, 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 Greenwich in the first week of February 2020, I can tell you in all humility that the UK is ready for that role.“
PM speech in Greenwich: 3 February 2020
In the interest of my own pathological need for completeness, I offer the full Politics Joe interview with Peter Jukes, as seen on Youtube. It’s an interesting twenty minutes on the background and underlying thinking of the Johnson government. The relevant observations about herd immunity starts at 12 minutes, 45 seconds.
To be clear, when Johnson makes the argument for ignoring COVID-19, to give the country an economic advantage, he’s making an argument for killing huge numbers of people. There’s a soulless lack of humanity in his words. He just doesn’t realise, or worse doesn’t care, about the human cost of letting the virus rip though the country.
Jukes sums up the morality of Johnson’s choice by asking a simple question. “Would you take a 25% cut in your salary or loose a parent?” The instant response, from the overwhelming majority, is take the pay cut. From the available evidence I don’t think Johnson would. He is constitutionally incapable of accepting the loss.
So how does someone rationalise such a vicious choice?
We might find answers in the language he uses. If you look beyond the disaster that is herd immunity, and listen to what Johnson says, I think you can understand something of his mindset. Reading his words you quickly realise Johnson isn’t a person of science. His approach isn’t systematic, or logical. It’s entirely romantic. He thinks of himself as a hero. A man battling enemies and vanquishing foes. It’s as if he’s some kind of mythic hero, a modern day Achilles at the gates of Troy.
You can see this in the excerpt from The Greenwich Speech. When Johnson compares the country to Clark Kent, he paints his government as the heroic Superman, battling for “freedom of exchange”. He revels in the image of Clark Kent removing his spectacles, leaping into the phone booth, emerging with his “cloak flowing as the supercharged champion of the right of the population of Earth to buy and sell freely among each other”. Make no mistake, when Johnson portrays his government as the Superman of free trade, he sees himself as someone making the tough choices, the heroic champion of the market, a man capable of vanquishing others irrational panic, to save the economy.
While turning this thought over in my mind, I remembered an appearance Johnson made on The Jonathan Ross Show some time in July 2019. He was on there promoting The Churchill Factor, his book about Winston Churchill. If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, you can speed through the following clip. They start talking about the book at about 9 minutes, 40 seconds in.
Johnson explains he wrote the book because he thought we are in danger of “imperfectly remembering” Churchill and his achievements. Personally I’d say the myth of Churchill needs some work. His actions need to be reassessed. Looked at critically. Seen realistically. Not lionised the way Johnson does, but that’s the subject of another post.
As the interview progresses Johnson lists some of the things people have forgotten about Churchill. He helped to start the welfare state in the early part of the twentieth century. Was as instrumental in forming modern Ireland. Helped create the state of Israel. Wrote the map of the middle east. Had a hand in inventing the tank. Helped win the first world war.
The things on Johnson’s list are interesting because they expose his particular biases. For example, Churchill’s involvement in the middle east. It could be argued his involvement in the region is the bedrock upon which current conflicts are built. The same could be said of Ireland. Johnson doesn’t mention Churchill’s involvement in the 1943 Bengal famine, or him advocating the use of chemical weapons against Kurds and Afghans in 1919. I think Churchill’s legacy is complicated. Not all of it is good, or noble, or heroic. But instead of recognising this, Johnson chooses to “imperfectly remember” Churchill as a saint.
The most telling admiration, and for me a damning insight into Johnson’s thinking in the early months of 2020, is prompted by comments from Jonathan Ross. “I didn’t realise how crucial he (Churchill) was to us actually carrying on the fight against Hitler.” Johnson gleefully interprets Churchill’s resolve, his heroic decision to fight on. “Within a year 30 thousand British men, women and children were dead.” That’s not the most revealing remembrance. Johnson finishes his soliloquies with a chilling postulation. “You cannot imagine any modern politician having the guts to do that.”
I see this last statement as prophetic.
Johnson thinks of himself as a classical hero, battling enemies and vanquishing foes. He writes a book lionising Winston Churchill, admiring the most chilling and heartless aspects of his character and actions. A few months later he gives a speech arguing for herd immunity. Letting thousands of people die so this country can survive an economic disaster. His government, his supercharged champion, will admonish lessor nations for their caution, and make the case for freedom of exchange. In less than a year more than 60 thousand British men, women and children are dead.
“You can’t imagine any modern politician having the guts to do that.”
Just so no one misunderstands, I don’t think Johnson was or is heroic. His words are hyperbole. His actions hubris. His unchecked ego has killed thousand. He needs to be stopped.