15 July 2021
And its political consequences.
By John Watson
Those who study quantum physics will tell you that matter has a dual nature. Sometimes it is a collection of particles and at other times a series of waves. This wave characterisation is counterintuitive and makes the subject difficult to understand, a difficulty which is replicated in politics and which is likely to determine the success or failure of Boris Johnson’s administration.
Where are we now? A relatively successful strategy on Brexit (yes, I agree, only “relatively successful” but at the end of Mrs May’s government you probably wouldn’t have put money on things going as well as they have) and the relaxation of the Covid restrictions have left the government riding high in the polls, and the enthusiasm generated as the England team worked their way to the finals of the Euros has given a boost to the national mood. People are generally upbeat and looking forward to making the most of summer. The national mood is optimistic and the cheerful approach of the Prime Minister is well suited to that.
There is trouble coming, however, and it is in the waves. Just as the moods of a depressive individual fluctuate between highs and lows, so the national state of mind moves inexorably up and down. As the present euphoria begins to wear off (and the trigger for that could easily be the end of the sporting summer combined with bad Covid figures), the country will inevitably undergo something of a “downer”, the focus moving from what could go right to what could go wrong.
A political downer would have plenty to attach to at the moment. The environmental news from the west of North America is appalling. The political dangers in the Far East threaten to undermine the international order. The debt flowing from Covid will be hard to pay off. School closures have done much to undermine years of work to close the opportunity gap. Wherever you look there is potential for disaster, and before long it will be this potential which is uppermost in the public mind with the government being judged by the practical steps it is taking in response.
In the broader scheme of things this is no bad thing. Bread and circuses have their place but countries need to focus on real problems and only popular pressure will force through the constitutional and social changes which are necessary to confront them successfully. It does make things difficult, though, for politicians whose natural instinct is a laid-back laissez-faire or who are better at suggesting policies than they are at actually implementing them.
That poses a challenge to Boris Johnson. He is clearly a good communicator and there is no real reason, outside the usual bigotry of party politics, to doubt his commitment to environmentalism or to creating a more equal society. That isn’t just because he used to live in Islington and has probably been infected by the place but rather because he is an ambitious man and will want solid achievements by which to be remembered. The rhetoric of the government all points that way too and that rhetoric has carried a long way in the North of England, but as the public become more cynical he is going to have to rebut that cynicism by demonstrating that his policies will deliver in the key areas.
Can he “walk the walk”? That is the question and it is one on which the jury is still out. That he bulldozed his way through the Brexit knot is an encouraging sign, although it clearly owed much to Dominic Cummings, who is now at his throat rather than at his elbow. That detailed proposals for cutting emissions have been deferred does not really decide things either way. If the government felt that they were not really ready, then deferral is a sign of strength and not of weakness. Similarly, vacillation over lifting restrictions may be merely a sign of sensible caution in the mist caused by conflicting scientific and political advisers and commentators – or it might show a wavering the face of popular opinion. All readers will have their views and, sad to say, in most cases their views will be driven by their political prejudices rather than the other way round.
Still, with the downer will come the crunch. Serious-minded policy announcements will do much to keep the public behind its leaders. Bombastic policy announcements not backed by serious proposals will do the opposite. Which will we get? To be honest I haven’t the slightest idea but, as public attention swings from sport and holidays to more serious matters, we will find out and we are close to that point now. As Boris himself might put it “The ides of March are come.”