7 April 2020

C-19 Sensemaking

A nation trembles

Boris Johnson’s hospitalisation stirs up some of our most primal emotions – and fears

By Matthew d’Ancona

In 1997, not long after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, I had lunch with Boris Johnson at a Pizza Express near the Telegraph offices, where both of us worked at the time.

Late as usual, he apologised frantically, rifling through his jacket pockets for something that wasn’t there, before getting down to business – and the business, of course, was anecdote, gossip and ideas. As an aspiring Conservative MP, he was transfixed by the phenomenon of Tony Blair, still bathing in the glory of his first landslide victory a few months before.

But – predictably, I suppose – most of our conversation was devoted to the convulsions into which supposedly staid Britain had recently been pitched by the death of the princess. In that strange interlude, the nation had turned into a medieval grotto, a frantic scene of unrestrained grief and collective trauma. I can recall vividly what Boris said: “It’s tectonic all this stuff, tectonic.”

Almost a quarter century later, he is prime minister and, alas, in intensive care, laid low by the very pandemic against which his government and the NHS have been fighting. When I heard this awful news on Monday night, I was reminded instantly of that long-ago conversation. Once again, the plates of national life were shifting and buckling. Only this time, Boris himself was the wretched epicentre of the quake.

Like so many people, I was very upset indeed, and stayed up late waiting for more information – any information. On a professional level, Boris and I fell out years ago; over Brexit, Bannon and much else. Sharp words have been exchanged. And yet none of that seemed to matter now.

My impulse was straightforward: to wish with all my heart for his swift recovery and to think of his poor pregnant fiancée, Carrie, herself recovering from the virus; of his siblings, parents, and children.

Political pundits, by definition, analyse power, process and policy. In principle, the most important journalistic question posed by Boris’s move to intensive care was: who is in charge? Who will be chairing the key Cabinet committees? Who gets the nuclear codes?

And yet, such questions – important as they are – did not feel equal to the moment. What I sensed on Monday night and throughout Tuesday was a wave of profound empathy, matched by profound anxiety. It felt as though a medical event had become something of a national psychodrama.

Conventional politics, at any rate, seemed inadequate, irrelevant even. Jon Ashworth, the shadow health secretary – and often the object of Boris’s mockery – spoke with simple conviction on Radio 4’s Today programme, sending his best wishes to “the country’s leader”.

Keir Starmer, Labour’s newly crowned leader, tweeted that the PM’s deteriorating health was “terribly sad news”. And this seemed both decorous and accurate. Here, after all, was a fellow human being, laid low by an appalling disease. His misfortune showed, to devastating effect, the hyper-democracy of Covid-19, its indifference to status, power or prestige.

In a horrible twist of fate, Boris had come to personify the very affliction he has been tasked with beating. This most Tiggerish of politicians has always appeared to be irrepressible; coated in Teflon; able, somehow, to have his cake and eat it. But now – temporarily, one fervently hopes – he has been stopped in his tracks.

Politicians hate to be observed in moments of vulnerability. But, on this occasion, it is Boris’s very vulnerability that has spoken to people; connected him, on his sick bed, to them, confined to their homes. It has generated a sense of solidarity that breaks through the walls of the lockdown.

Yet this empathy is not the end of the matter, Lurking beneath it, I think, are deeper, primal emotions that are as strong as they are hard to articulate with precision. This is the collective anxiety not of an electorate but of a tribe under siege, which dreads the incapacity of its leader and the sudden absence of the mediating force between itself and the terrible wrath of nature.

As it happens, Boris, more than any other politician, would understand this. Yes, he rose to national prominence as a sort of P.G. Wodehouse for the digital age – a celebrity and wit whose authenticity depended upon an apparently shambolic refusal to take political life too seriously.

Yet I remember, when I succeeded him as editor of The Spectator in 2006, being told by one of his closest friends: “Boris basically believes in the Homeric world – quite literally. He feels that everything worth knowing about the human condition is in The Iliad.

And this pre-modern, pagan streak expresses itself in profound superstitions – a belief in numerology, for instance, that can make him fearful of a car’s number plate when you are walking with him down the street. Like Achilles, he has always feared the arrow that would find his heel.

Though he has long played politics for laughs, he is also an incorrigible self-mythologiser, writing his own story as a national saga in which he would, of course, emerge as the indispensable hero. Never forget that his ambition, as a child, was to be “World King”. That, at least, was not a joke.

Sigmund Freud would have immediately diagnosed the public mood in Britain today. Arguably his finest tract, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921) proposes that leaders speak to an elemental need in the collective psyche – a yearning for order and certainty that is especially strong in times of crisis. “His intellectual acts,” wrote Freud, are “strong and independent even in isolation, and his will need[s] no reinforcement from others…. Members of a group stand in need of the illusion that they are equally and justly loved by their leader.”

To speak of such primordial sentiments in the era of liberal democracy feels odd to the point of impropriety. History teaches us where such passions can lead, and whom, in the worst cases, they can empower. Yet if recent politics has had a principal lesson, it is that these emotions – weaponised now by social media – are very much alive and well. We ignore them at our peril.

In truth, they have never really gone away. They are the reason that Arthurian legend is still so potent in Western culture, why it was so easy for John F. Kennedy’s myth-makers to compare his administration to Camelot and to look back on his violently curtailed presidency as “one brief shining moment”.

These ancestral feelings are the reason that so many still remember Millicent Martin, struggling to hold back tears, as she sang “In the summer of his years” on That Was The Week That Was, the night after the president’s assassination in November 1963. They are the reason why the Arthurian myth of the Fisher King – the diseased monarch whose land suffers from pestilence and blight alongside his own illness – still resonates today.

What do such emotions ultimately reflect? Neuro-pyschologists today have developed the field of “terror management theory” (TMT), the premise of which is that most cultural systems – including structures of power and authority – are a means of staving off fear.

At the heart of this is a dread of mortality and a relentless human quest to cope with a single, all-consuming horror: that of personal and collective extinction.

The inspiration of the TMT school of thought is the late Ernest Becker and, especially, his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death (1974). For this cultural anthropologist, fear of death is the great explanatory force in human behaviour: and (Becker argues) we subconsciously but remorselessly seek out ways of keeping it at bay

“If the leader loses, they too perish,” writes Becker. “Without him they may feel just too exposed to reprisal, to total annihilation. Having been baptized in his fire they can no longer stand alone.”

Britain in April 2020 is not so traumatised. But Becker’s words still have the ring of truth in the cruel season of C-19. Consider how reassuring was the sight on Sunday evening of our 93-year-old Queen, promising the nation, disaggregated and frightened by a killer virus, that “we will meet again”.

The flipside of that reassurance is the anxiety spawned by the PM’s hospitalisation on the same day and, more acutely, by the news of his transference to intensive care. Both emotions disclose the innate human need for leadership – symbolic in the case of the Queen, operational in the case of a prime minister leading the fight against a deadly contagion.

At the time of writing, the news is tentatively encouraging. Boris has not required a ventilator and is mercifully free of pneumonia. We all hope for a swift and complete recovery, followed by full convalescence.

But we shall not forget. These days in early April have been a drama within a drama: the serious illness of one man, yes, but also a collective journey into the marchlands between life and death that has stretched the imagination, and made us fretful even as it has united us in a simple common hope.

What does this pandemic have in store for us next? We can only wait and see, for it is evidently far from finished with us. Far beneath the surface churns an engine of apprehension as well as of human decency; the forces at work could scarcely be deeper, or more powerful.

Tectonic, one might say.

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