Johnson’s message is very deliberate and very dangerous: here’s how to combat it
I wrote this piece on the day the message changed, 10 May 2020, and within a few days nearly 700,000 people read it. That was the trigger for me to write my book CITIZENS, which takes a much deeper perspective on how we can combat the Consumer Story and remake our society. You can find out more here.
The immediate response to the government’s new Covid19 messaging has been a mixture of confusion and outrage. Commentators and academics seem bemused, the only possible explanation being that the government is incompetent.
But actually, I think it’s very deliberate — and if their ultimate goal is to retain power rather than save lives — very smart.
What they are trying to do with this shift is change the way this crisis and the actors in it are framed. Until now, Covid19 has been an intentional attacker (witness the war metaphors and the comparison to “an unexpected and invisible mugger”); we have been the weak and hapless victims who need to be told what to do; and Johnson and his government have been the strong, all-knowing heroes who will save us. This is a version of what I call the Subject story.
But this story has been falling apart, and that is why they’re changing it now. This was not unexpected: a pandemic was widely expected. People are not victims: so many of us in so many ways have thrown ourselves into helping one another. Government has not been strong: they responded too late, and their “led by science” trope has been convincingly dismantled.
So here is why this announcement is happening today: not because we’re past the peak and ready to start lifting lockdown, but because the government’s framing is failing and they need to change it.
This is much more a political moment than a public health moment.
The new story is a version of one I call the Consumer story. Covid19 will now become an inconvenient hindrance to our lives, but one that each of us needs to take personal responsibility for dealing with, and getting back to normal as best we can. In this story, government steps back and gets out of the way, because people are best left to look out for themselves. We are individuals, there is no such thing as society. The dark corollary of course is that if you get the disease, it will be your fault — because you will not have stayed sufficiently alert.
The reason this is clever is because it sets a trap.
If Starmer, Davey et al take the bait and cry out that the message should not change, that government should be telling us what to do, then they will look like the elite who have no faith in the people of Britain. Johnson and his minions will say, we respect the British people and you do not. This will be a frame that will easily stick because in Brexit-y Britain it is already in place.
Instead, what opposition leaders must do is speak from a different story, what I call the Citizen story, and as such focus their message differently.
In the Citizen story, Covid19 is more like a force of nature, in the face of which we are all in the same boat and must all work together, than a war. We have all been part of a collective effort to adapt and protect one another, rather than government stepping in to rescue us. The right role for government in this story is to equip and enable us: to share as much information as possible and as much power as possible, so that we can work together where we live to find a new and sustainable normal.
This is what is happening in the countries that are working through this crisis with best effect, as I have described in depth for the case of Taiwan (80 miles off the coast of China, and 6 deaths to date), and the Centre for Public Impact have described more extensively in a whole range of nations.
The response from this story is not to say that the “Stay Home” message should remain in place but to say, “This government is failing because they have tried to keep all the power to themselves, like exclusive members of a private club, and now they are preparing the ground to blame you, the British people, for their failure.”
This response focuses on the government’s overcentralised approach, hoarding of information, and resistance to either scrutiny or ideas from anywhere else. It points out that they are trying to push responsibility for whether we live or die from themselves onto each of us, but without giving us any of the tools or information we need to make the right decisions — all of the responsibility, none of the power.
Do not be fooled, this message is not a mistake. It is the output of a government that is failing and has its back to the wall — with the result that they’re going to start fighting dirty. If opposition leaders and the media don’t recognise this, and respond with greater intelligence than was present in the Brexit debate, lives are quite seriously on the line.
For more on the research and thinking that underpins this piece, see Subject, Consumer, or Citizen: Three Post-Covid Futures.
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