In March 2020, Derbyshire police stalked dog walkers in the remote countryside with drones. They then used footage gathered from the exercise to warn people from taking non-essential exercise. The pandemic has pushed every nation’s capacity for common sense to near breaking point, but this still stands out as one of its most ludicrous episodes.
As with all overreactions, it probably felt perfectly commensurate to the police at the time. But one of the hardest tasks in a crisis is to work out whether you are acting with proportion. Hindsight may not be kind to many of our decisions, as coronavirus proved itself the perfect kindling for whipping up public outrage and mob justice. There is, however, one scandal where it seems people largely got it right.
Partygate has mired Westminster. And the news that more than 50 people have been fined, including the prime minister and the chancellor, for their attendance at gatherings amid the pandemic is causing ructions throughout the British political establishment. Of course it is terribly embarrassing for Boris Johnson and his chancellor Rishi Sunak. And the optics of a government partying away as it happily enforced isolation on the rest of the country for indefinite time periods is upsetting and hypocritical.
But there is a sense that much of the electorate and even Johnson’s most vociferous detractors in the Conservative Party have moved on somewhat. Whether this is true will be partially revealed in the upcoming local elections.
Until then the Conservatives are hiding behind a very convenient excuse. Now is not the time to dispose of Boris Johnson. There is a serious war under way, replete with accusations of war crimes, a growing refugee crisis, and distant threats of nuclear calamity. All of a sudden Schrödinger’s birthday party and questions of exactly who drank how many glasses of wine seem rather parochial in comparison. Ought the national priorities be elsewhere?
It may be a deeply cynical get-out. And Johnson is hardly a man deserving of the benefit of the doubt any more. Partygate has left an indelible stain on an already contemptuous administration. But it has also forced us all to consider our priorities, and to examine the proportionality of our behaviour. Maybe now is not actually the time to demand the resignation of a prime minister, no matter how hurtful and callous his wrongdoing.
It is hard not to be reminded of the furore unleashed over the Oireachtas Golf Society dinner in August 2020. The public reaction was largely the same: upset, outrage, righteous demands for justice and then ultimately a crowd who got bored and moved on to something else. But in Golfgate we lost all sense of proportion.
Partygate is the story of a government systematically disregarding the rules it was responsible for designing and enforcing every day. Golfgate was a singular incident deemed perfectly legal by a court. Partygate involves the prime minister, his closest aides, his wife and the chancellor. As has been pointed out several times, the Oireachtas Golf Society was hardly a gathering of the elite. It is already taking on a rather different tenor to Number 10’s indiscretions. But the public upset seemed no less potent because of it.
And when we turn our minds to the most high-profile and impactful resignation of the episode, that of the then European Union trade commissioner Phil Hogan, the foolishness of the response is thrown into even sharper relief. It is true that Hogan resigned as much due to his subsequent handling of the affair as due to his initial attendance at the event. But if the principle behind Partygate is that those who make the rules should not break the rules, then we might wonder if pushing Hogan off the ledge – a man who neither made the rules nor was ever charged with breaking them – was a rather inordinate response.
Lack of realpolitik
What Hogan did was in the very least misjudged. It is easy to see why anger was whipped up so quickly.
But Hogan was also one of Ireland's most powerful commissioners ever. He was capable of standing up to Britain's wanton disregard of diplomatic conventions amid Brexit. In effectively demanding his resignation Ireland took a hammer to its standing in the EU. The biggest problem with angry mobs is that they lack a capacity for realpolitik.
So they ought to be ignored. But coronavirus has engendered a public sphere dominated by moral inflexibility, an absence of nuance and no allowances for ambiguity. When Leo Varadkar attended a festival in the United Kingdom over the summer – in full compliance with laws and regulations – the reaction was as though he had been accused of serious criminal activity.
The pandemic has been a source of grief and seismic upsets to people’s lives. It is hardly surprising that the response of the crowd is to find someone to blame, and to turn the story into one of heroes and villains. Johnson probably deserves the political reckoning Partygate will bring.
But sometimes our best interests are not served by baying for blood. And when decency and charity leave the public discourse, everyone suffers.