Is an alert civil society an effective antidote to the cynical manipulation that mars contemporary democracy? Those of us who have argued that it is will soon face a stiff test of our predictions. Not only are vast numbers of citizens deeply interested in the struggle against the coronavirus, but bonds of community and neighbourhood have been strengthened by our solidarity during the lockdown. Civil society has rarely been stronger. At the same time, the government’s management of the crisis has seen some major instances of post-democratic distortion. Once the crisis finally recedes, will people maintain their support for the government’s actions, or will they seek a reckoning?
I am here criticising the government’s communication strategy, not its substantive approach, which is more difficult to assess. Certainly, those of us who have long attacked the policy of austerity – including specifically the remorseless cutting back on spare capacity in public services in order to avoid front-line failures that would make headlines, the refusal to include care among the protected services – have every right to criticise the failure to prepare for the outbreak, which had been predicted. Everyone apart from Brexiters and Boris Johnson sycophants may justifiably complain that the prime minister was totally absorbed in sorting out Brexit and the complexity of his own personal life during those winter weeks when it had become clear that the imminent crisis needed attention. However, few of us can be confident that we would have managed the crisis better once it had arrived. The use of distortion and manipulation in communication is something that we can readily appraise.
In early April, Stephen Dorrell, who had been Secretary of State for Health under John Major, expressed surprise that the government was making unrealistic promises of what it could achieve in the fight against Covid-19. Surely, he said, it is better to promise little and achieve big than vice versa. It is a mark of how political communication has changed in the era of Trump-Johnson-Cummings that he seemed so wrong.
Today all that matters is the promise, the boast, the slogan. These can be uttered interminably and they undeniably exist. Facts about what actually happens are more difficult to discover. They are subject to claims of alternative facts and allegations of fake news. Facts often take a statistical form, which can be indefinitely disputed and redefined. The boasts and slogans stand above all this in their simple clarity. The lesson for politicians seems to be: promise massively, and then obfuscate the facts. We have seen much of that in the government’s management of communications about Covid-19.
A major example has been the setting of targets for tests of the virus. Failure to achieve a promise of 25,000 a day by mid-April was covered up in the promise of 100,000 virus tests a day by the end of that month. When people welcomed this, they probably imagined tests being delivered on a priority basis, with front-line health and care staff getting as many as they needed before those at the next level of priority could have access. However, given the logistical difficulties of getting tests to health and care workers, the Department of Health decided to get them to people who lived closest to the test sites, provided they had some sort of priority. Tests administered to lower-priority subjects would almost certainly have reduced those available for workers most needing them.
But the 100,000 promise achieved its true goal magnificently. Making such a strong announcement took everyone’s attention away from the continuing failure to deliver; and fiddling with definitions and respecifying goals enabled an outburst of boasting when the 100,000 figure was passed – even though it meant putting a batch of tests in the post rather than actually administering them. When, immediately after the end of April, the number of tests fell back well below 100,000, the prime minister grabbed the headlines away from that by announcing a target of 200,000 by the end of May.
On 10 May the prime minister, with much ceremony, announced a change in a key slogan. ‘Stay home!’ was to become ‘Stay alert!’ Critics objected that this lacked clarity and did not give helpful advice. But the core purpose of the change of slogan was not to give public advice, but to enable Boris Johnson simultaneously to satisfy two opposed groups: various right-wing lobbies clamouring for people to be sent back to work, and medical and other specialists and workers fearing that maximum caution was still needed. Such an action was doomed to be ambiguous.
Ministers routinely boast that the UK is leading the world in its response to Covid-19. It is difficult to find any evidence to support such a claim, given the early errors that were made and the fact that we are usually learning from countries that entered the crisis earlier. But that is the whole point: evidence is always difficult to find; claims are easy to make and grab the headlines.
Much of the government’s approach has been taken straight from the Brexit playbook. We hardly needed to learn that members of the Leave campaign participate in meetings of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE); their fingerprint is all over the communication strategy. There is the use of a brilliantly simple three-word slogan beginning with an imperative verb: Take Back Control! Get Brexit Done!, now turned to entirely benign purpose as Protect the NHS! This is then followed by refusal to engage in any serious public debate about what the government intends to do next. The Brexit campaign demonstrated that, once citizens had accepted the three-word slogan, they could continue to be treated like children and told: ‘Now shut up. We do not wish to hear from you again on this matter; we shall tell what we intend to do next once we have done it.’
Something similar has been attempted in the Covid campaign, but this is where the strategy might come unstuck. Unlike Brexit, the coronavirus does not just need a once and for all time vote: it requires continuing co-operation from a population that is following developments closely. Can the manipulative strategy beloved by the curious oxymoronic group of libertarian control freaks who currently inhabit Downing Street survive the scrutiny of a highly motivated, concerned population?
As the immediate crisis recedes, will most people continue to believe in the boasts and forget the distortions and failures? If this happens at a time of such alert citizen consciousness, then the battle to restore serious mass political debate will have truly been lost. Politicians will be justified in teaching themselves a new three-word slogan: Carry on Manipulating! But if enough citizens demand in future to be treated like adults, then cleaner air and stronger neighbourhood bonds might not be the only goods that the extraordinarily ill wind of Covid-19 will have brought us.