On a daily basis during the Coronavirus crisis, we watch the dispiriting spectacle of various British political leaders standing in an austere room behind a lectern to give off the impression of seriousness. But the only seriousness is the the seriousness of their own vacuousness. It is nothing more than a daily drip feed of empty rhetoric from the government to empty questions from many of our media on the COVID-19 crisis who should scrutinise better.
This vacuousness comes from the top and then drips downwards. Boris Johnson was sacked in his previous professional life as a journalist for lying. He stood in front of a duplicitous red bus during the EU Referendum campaign and has successfully reduced British politics to a grotesque circus that has disturbing parallels of Trumpism through disingenuous post-truth messaging. This has continued throughout the Coronavirus crisis, where the government have perfected the art of hindsight to stay behind the virus rather than having the foresight to get ahead of it, as seen in Denmark, New Zealand, Greece, Portugal, Germany and many others.
Dumbing down of seriousness
The dumbing down of seriousness has been gradual, but a Pandora’s Box of idiocracy was fully opened with the election of Trump in the US and the EU Referendum in Britain. Both were seismic events that shook the foundations of politics through the blatant manipulation of basic truths. Expert and nuanced opinions were routinely disregarded and replaced with simplistic, jingoistic sloganeering.
Brexit has been a bottomless pit of simplistic messaging that, over time, has been often proved to be disingenuous at best or downright lies at worst. High-profile Brexiters ranging from Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage and Owen Paterson have gone from a pre-EU Referendum positioning of stating that the UK wouldn’t leave the single market or advocating a single market Norway-style model and that frictionless trade would be maintained to a complete reversal of their previous statements.
Take back control
For almost four years, key Brexiters have been saying that we will be able to take back control of our money and that, after leaving the EU, we will save £350 million a week to put into the NHS. Apart from the fact that this figure has been repeatedly debunked, it also ignores the money that will actually be lost because of Brexit. We are still waiting for the money, and meanwhile the UK has been caught short in PPE supply provisions to combat COVID-19.
The rise of this type of messaging is the diametric opposite of what politics should be about. Politics should not be about inconsistent, fake slogans to frame binary, simplistic choices. Instead, politics should be about a fundamental understanding that big decisions require a knowledge of big details, a willingness to deal with the complexities and truth. Politicians should have the intellectual rigour and emotional capacity to master the brief.
Instead, we have two self-entitled and privileged leaders on both sides of the Atlantic who have been rewarded by the electorate despite their unwillingness to engage with detail and then a crisis happens, they react late rather than lead early. In America and the UK, we have exactly the wrong leaders at exactly the wrong time.
Basic-level political narrative
We are seeing a slide towards a basic-level political narrative. Anti-intellectualism has become the new political populism and politics has become a culture war against insight and knowledge. Idiocracy has become normalised. We now appear to be at a point in our society where we simply lack the political critical thinking to call out the falsehoods. We appear to be learning facts about what doesn’t matter, but not how to think about what really matters.
What characters such as Trump and Johnson have in common is a public profile far bigger than their actual record, plus an uncanny ability to attract crowds – usually with nothing more than the promise that every problem can be resolved by just being tough or optimistic and that all established politicians should simply be dismissed as being out-of-touch.
The damage that rewards the cult of the celebrity politician is considerable. Their activities discredit established political parties, dumb down our discourse, do not provide well thought-out, long-term solutions and simply provide an X Factor-style reality TV for political demagogues.
These political grifters have sought to destroy established political machinery and have replaced it with something much worse: nothingness – except simplistic messages that lead to dangerous decision-making by voters. Their pitch to a nation is for a new way of politics. But all that’s left is the grotesque emptiness of the emperor’s new clothes, which, in times of crisis, gets dangerously exposed for what it is – complete nothingness.