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Britain is becalmed by apathy: Where is the rage?

Boris Johnson gestures as he stands on the flight deck during a visit to HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier in Portsmouth - Credit: POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The real divide in this country is between those appalled by the PM’s behaviour and those who just don’t care

We keep being told everyone is angry. Hence the rage, abuse and hatred that biles its way onto social media, every second of every minute of every hour of every day. I am beginning to think, however, that it is a myth, a mirage… all too believable if you live on Twitter, or listen non-stop to radio phone-ins, but meanwhile back in the real world, I’ll tell you what I am angry about… people aren’t angry enough.

An incompetent, morally corrupt, shape-shifting, truth-twisting, manifesto-promise-breaking, rule-smashing, gaslighting government full of right wing rogues and anything-for-power charlatans, daily breaking most if not all of the seven principles that are meant to govern public life; and while an angry minority rages incessantly and largely helplessly about it all, another minority rages back at them, while a majority shrugs its shoulders and mutters platitudes of becalmed complacency… ‘it is what it is … it’s Boris being Boris … they’re all the same anyway … could anyone else have done any better?’

The answer to that last question is simple: Yes, just about anyone with a good-sized brain, a genuine commitment to public service, the ability to lead a team, the ability to make rounded assessments, deliver calm, rational decisions in a crisis, and explain them clearly and honestly. The good-sized brain apart, those who know him best know that Boris Johnson has none of those qualities and, unreliable witness though he may be, that is why Dominic Cummings’ recent testimony should have struck home more than it did.

Instead, what we had was massive coverage, lots of tut-tutting but also lots of ‘is what it is-ery’, allowing the government to assume, as so often before, it will all just blow over, because ‘people don’t care about this stuff’.

We also keep being told the world is more polarised than ever. But that may be part of the same myth, the same mirage. Let’s run through the main areas for polarisation in this great yet all too rapidly diminishing country of ours:

Rich v poor? Yet many among the working poor have helped put a bunch of rich and entitled public schoolboys in charge of the country, with full permission to smash their shopping trolleys into any aisle they want, destroying values, standards and institutional checks and balances as they go.

Those who got a good education v those who didn’t? So why the appeal to those without qualifications of an elitist born with a silver spoon in every orifice, schooled at Eton and Oxford?

North v south? Ditto. You can’t get much more Southern metropolitan elite than a Bullingdon Boy who learned his journalism with the Telegraph and the Spectator and his politics as London mayor. Yet he it was who persuaded many in the north and Midlands not just to vote for Brexit but to give him a majority which he now exploits to govern with minimal scrutiny and maximal contempt for the parliament for which Brexit was supposed to be taking back control.

Remain v Leave? Would that it were so. Would that it were still possible to fight and win the argument that when a country has made an error as catastrophically self-harming as Brexit, that country could revisit the error instead of sleepwalking from one disastrous unintended consequence to the next? Would that the liars who led us there could be held properly to account for the lies on which they won, instead of being allowed to slide on to the next set of lies to explain or excuse the latest disastrous unintended consequence? Seven hours of Cummings lecturing on truth and fact-based decision-making – did anyone even ask him about Brexit?

The government having claimed to have got Brexit done, and the Labour opposition having voted for the deal that supposedly got it done, the gigantesque Brexit elephant now sits in the corner of the room and even when it drops gigantic dollops of elephant poo, Labour looks away, leaving the government to insist the poo smells of roses, and what’s more, it would actually be a bouquet of real flowers coming from the elephant’s arse were it not for the horrid Europeans feeding it roughage.

Nationalist v internationalist? There is an argument that Brexit was fuelled by English nationalism, and there is little doubt today’s Tory Party is more the party of Nigel Farage than of Ken Clarke, of England than the UK. Yet this one is complicated, not least by that fact that among the fiercest opponents of Brexit was the SNP, whose driving purpose is nationalism, albeit stated now in terms of the pursuit of the internationalism that the EU represents.

Left v right? That is the one those of us who grew up in the Cold War, and learned our politics in the Thatcher-Kinnock era, feel more at home with. But that too is complicated when Johnson steals some of the language and symbols of the left in his populist authoritarianism. It is complicated further by the inability of the left, including its main party, to unite around a clear set of principles and a policy agenda capable of challenging the ragbag of ideas set out in the thinnest Queen’s Speech in decades. So two of the contenders to succeed Len McCluskey as the general secretary of Unite threaten to withdraw financial support for Labour if Keir Starmer so much as moves a millimetre from the Jeremy Corbyn policies that apparently won an argument but lost two elections and helped gift Johnson his 80 strong majority.

Given all that we know about the afore-mentioned incompetent, morally corrupt, shape-shifting, truth-twisting, manifesto-promise-breaking, rule-smashing, gaslighting government full of right wing rogues and anything-for-power charlatans, I have concluded with sadness that the new dividing line in British political debate is this: Giving a toss v not giving a toss.

If you don’t think it is important that the prime minister is a proven and brazen liar, you really don’t give a toss about whether our democratic systems work or not.

If you think it is OK that the same prime minister lies not only to parliament but to the Queen, and acts as judge and jury on the code designed to prevent misconduct of ministers, then you have gone into full-scale not giving a tossery about standards in public life.

If you work up sufficient rage to tweet angrily about Meghan Markle but are cool with 128,000 Covid dead, and willing to dismiss any and all suggestion that Johnson did not take the virus seriously, or was too busy sorting out his private life to focus on it, or was finishing a book to recoup the advance because he doesn’t see how anyone can survive unless on at least ten times the national average salary, then you are so far gone into the Land of Not Giving a Toss because ‘Boris is a character and Starmer’s a bit boring’ that you may as well not bother having a passport to come back.

If you are so becalmed as not to be bothered that the Indian variant which may yet threaten further freedom was ushered in by Johnson not taking control of borders, and by his doing everything possible to go on his Global Britain fantasy trip to see Modi, but happy the passport you can’t use is blue not burgundy, then I hope you enjoy its stamp-free pages.

If you are a journalist who cares about truth, but who does not pursue it with vigour when it comes to the words or deeds of the prime minister and his cabinet, I’m afraid your lethargy, and the ease with which you take proprietorial orders or a Number 10 line, moves you from giving a toss to not giving a toss. You are the Fifth Column for the Not Giving A Tossers.

Cummings may be a narcissist who, as his evidence showed, sees himself as the star of a never-ending goodies v baddies superhero movie. He may be a total hypocrite in helping to install in Number 10 someone he thought then and thinks even more now was unfit for the role. So Cummings is and always will be a villain, no matter how many times he rewrites the script. But the picture he painted of utter deathly dysfunction created by Johnson’s chaotic and immoral character rang all too true for anyone who has known him at any stage of his remarkable rise to power.

The Tory MPs who elected him knew it. They, therefore, qualify as fully-fledged Don’t Give A Tossers, provided they have the letters MP after their names.

But now nobody has the excuse that we didn’t really know what he was going to be like. So when I see polls suggesting the Tory lead is growing, or that people still favour Johnson ahead of Starmer as PM – bear in mind Johnson was considered so useless and dangerous by Number 10 officials they kept him out of crisis meetings – I fear the Don’t Give a Tossers are winning. Britain is the loser from that while for Johnson, the game and the jolly japes go on.

Stop Press. I wrote this on Sunday morning in the Lake District, before going outside to do an interview with Sky News. As it ended, I was approached by a 52-year-old man who lamented simply: “What on earth has happened to rules and morals under this government?” We were joined by a GP who was close to tears as she told of the pressures she was working under, how undervalued she felt, how Brexit had fuelled a nursing shortage, and how she feared the government was “destroying primary care”. “Trouble is people don’t care,” said the 52-year-old.

They were as angry as I am, yet felt powerless. That fuels the anger. Will there come a point when the people who really give a toss outnumber becalmed Britons? And will Labour be able to give them the hope, the policies, and the leadership, to win them over? That question, and how it is answered, is the key to Britain’s future.

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