Saturday 19 June 2021 10:00 am

Saturday essay: Lockdown has entrenched tribal fault-lines. Is there still British common sense?

There is little doubt, now, that the widely misunderstood silent majority rarely benefits from taking the advice of tribal politicians. Typically it is the other way round. 

Why is it that so many politicians are often much more tribally unforgiving and prone to political exaggeration than voters? Because the need for political guidance will seem larger if society appears totally messed up. Political rivals can be easily cast as subversive radicals. This is why the following quote, often attributed to Groucho Marx, includes more than only a grain of truth: “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.” 

Take the deadly virus that created havoc in society. Meaning first, as an illuminating comparison, the yellow fever virus hitting Philadelphia in 1793. Ron Chernow, the biographer of Alexander Hamilton (the first US Treasury Secretary), described the situation in what was then the US capital: “By late August, twenty people per day were expiring from the epidemic, which was to claim more than four thousand lives, bringing government and commerce to a standstill. Coffin makers cried their wares in front of the City Hall. People didn’t understand that the disease was transmitted by mosquitoes but knew it could be communicated by contact with victims. People stopped shaking hands and stuck to the middle of the street to avoid other pedestrians. Some people covered their noses with vinegar-dipped handkerchiefs while others chewed garlic, releasing malodorous clouds that could be smelled several feet away. The safest course was to flee the city, and twenty thousand people did just that, thinning the ranks of government employees.” 

The leading physician in Philadelphia, the enlightened intellectual Benjamin Rush’s treatment was to bleed and purge the virus victims, as well as inducing mild vomiting two or three times daily. When Alexander Hamilton and his wife also contracted yellow fever they holed up in their summer residence outside Philadelphia. While moreover outside the remit of Dr Rush they were treated by another physician, Edward Stevens. His treatment, while no believer in bloodletting and bowel purges, included “Peruvian bark” (quinine), Madeira, brandy with cinnamon, opium as well as cold baths. 

The Hamiltons recovered swiftly and Alexander, the leader of the “Federalist” political camp, turned into a vocal proponent of Stevens’ methods. Doctor Rush, however, happened to be an open supporter of Hamilton’s political arch-rival, Republican Thomas Jefferson. Medical treatment for yellow fever quickly split down the political divide, with little recognition of what actually worked. “Evidence” was cherry-picked by both sides to prove that only their physician was on top of things. Even long before Facebook and Twitter tribal sarcasm faced those failing to play along with a favourite tribal narrative.

Today, notoriously, one camp tends to argue that it is outrageous that society did not lock down from minute one whereas the opposing camp is flirting with the idea that the coronavirus is a hoax, or at least, not as bad as we have been told, and that lockdown was never necessary. Even in areas with a high population density and major travel hubs. 

So, where are the more forgiving and therefore less tribally grumpy people? Luckily, they are everywhere. Even if, per definition, they are not particularly vocal since making up the so-called silent majority. As the “doers” of society – the key operators on the field of practical reality – they are typically less incentivised to demonise one side. Instead they focus not only on achieving actual results but also on moving forward. Their fluff tolerance has a time limit. As proven when deciding to leave the EU the sentiment was overwhelmingly: “The glorious EU promises – including the promise to respect voter verdicts – are not kept. Time to leave.”

When it comes to the coronavirus crisis the consensus is: Yes, of course it would have been better if Boris Johnson had taken more forceful action earlier on in the pandemic. But, as there have been few perfect examples of leadership over the coronavirus crisis, many are willing to give him a break for circumstances outside of his control.

For all his faults, Mr Johnson has managed to steer clear from the dogmatic cries to both his left and right. On one side, the Covid-sceptic tribe and on the other, the constant demands to close the borders, close the schools and sentence everyone to their homes. Now, however, when still not lifting restrictions fully, his judgment seems a bit off – out of character even 

Of course lessons should be learned and preparations made so society lockdown is never again necessary. But the coronavirus conclusions should be left to draw by those who, crucially, have no strong ties of any kind to any political and tribal camp. Simply because it is painfully obvious that tribal mudslinging can still be just as pointless – or even lethal – as when offering bloodletting or brandy with cinnamon. 

It was coronavirus, not lockdown, that temporarily “killed” the economy. As illustrated by “relaxed” Sweden’s failure to economically outpace its similarly advantaged Nordic neighbours (very low population density, no major travel hub). 

However, following vaccine success, the coronavirus is finally becoming less lethal. Meaning fully opening up society now really is the right thing to do – even if the infection rate goes up. Locking down previously, when the death rate was substantially higher, was also the right thing to do. Some right-wingers have done themselves no favours when fighting for non-intervention even during peak death. Instead of declaring the coronavirus circumstances exceptional. Some left-wingers do themselves no favours when now not seeing that enough is enough. 

Yet again only the silent majority appears to easily grasp the common sense need for a flexible rather than rigid approach. Society would benefit immensely if remembering, next time an issue turns toxic, the vastly underestimated political judgment and incentive structure of the, yes, silent majority.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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