A thought on Boris Johnson, herd immunity, and Winston Churchill

Did Boris Johnson embrace herd immunity because he wrote a book about Winston Churchill?

In a recent PoliticsJOE post on Twitter, Peter Jukes the founder of Byline Times, points to Johnsons’s February speech in Greenwich as the “smoking gun” linking him herd immunity.

Johnson has since tried to distance himself from the disastrous idea, but for a time he believed we should take COVID-19 on the chin, let the virus spread through the country, to protect the economy by getting it over in one shot.


Watch the Video

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. 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 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.

Peter Jukes | PoliticsJOE

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 with 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.

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 classical hero, a modern day Achilles at the gates of Troy.

You can see this in the Greenwich Speech, when he 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 Superman, he sees himself as someone making the tough choices, the heroic champion of the free market, a man capable of vanquishing others irrational panic, to save the economy.

While considering this, I remembered an appearance Johnson made on The Jonathan Ross Show some time in July 2019, promoting The Churchill Factor, his book about Winston Churchill. If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, speed through the clip. You’ll find the relevant bit about 9 minutes, 40 seconds in.

Boris Johnson | The Jonathan Ross Show

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 reassessed, looked at critically, not lionised the way Johnson does.

As the interview progresses Johnson lists some of the things people have apparently forgotten about Churchill. He helped to start the welfare state, was 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 list goes on.

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 thirty 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.

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 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. Instead of recognising this, Johnson chooses to “imperfectly remember” Churchill as a saint.

I see this last statement “imperfectly remembering” 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, admonishing lesser 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.


Political bias from The Guardian and BBC

This article by Mattha Busby presents a deeply confused piece of opinion conflating wrangles over Brexit with John McDonnel’s view of Winston Churchill. As if characterising Churchill as a villain could somehow negate any position, let alone the Labour position on Brexit.

The Guardian

Laura Kuenssberg injects a squirt of capsaicin into the conjunctiva with her comment on Twitter, “these remarks at @politic event could stir a lot of trouble”, especially when framed by partisan political editors.

Laura Kuenssberg

Both Kuenssberg and Busby misquote McDonnel. He actually said Winston Churchill was “more villain than hero”. A subtle but substantial difference. Yes Churchill was a great wartime leader, but there are many more situations in which his actions could, at best, be described as villainous.

Both Kuenssberg and Busby could do worse than listen to an episode from season two of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast, “The Prime Minister and the Prof”. They might also benefit from taking a few minutes to read Tom Heyden’s article for the BBC “The 10 greatest controversies of Winston Churchill’s career”. What are the odds both know Churchill’s history but choose wilful ignorance of the bad stuff.

Both Gladwell and Heyden offer a very different view of Churchill. Yes he did great things for this country, but he also had some very unsavoury attitudes, and took some “villainous” action. To wilfully ignore and misrepresent this aspect of Churchill is an act of “villainy” all of its own.

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