24 September 2020

Speaking vs sneaking – or what happens when you confront the maskless

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The Prime Minister is a tormented soul. His instincts – libertarian, even libertine – are at war with his prime ministerial duties to protect the people he rules. 

Last week, the Policing Minister Kit Malthouse said that citizens should report a breach of the rule which sets the limit of meetings at six His remark, in a radio interview, was later backed by the Home Secretary, Priti Patel.

Johnson, in an interview with The Sun, agreed: but, in a wistful evocation of his past life, added that he had “never been much in favour of sneak culture, myself”. It was, perhaps unconsciously, a throwback to his public school days.

Frank Richard’s Billy Bunter books, widely read in post-war years, featured fat boy Bunter of the Lower Fourth, or Remove who, in one episode, said he would report a classmate who had dropped a bag of soot on the form master’s head. Harry Wharton, the natural leader and moral centre, said sternly that “You can’t give a man away – we don’t sneak in the Remove.”

So Boris felt it necessary to show he was no natural Bunter: but being also Prime Minister, he added, that if there were “a huge Animal House party taking place…(with) hot tubs and so forth” then the authorities should know.

An Animal House party with hot tubs is a high bar for the justification of sneaking: what’s the recommended response to a more likely eight neighbours at a barbecue? And if sneaking is abjured, is an open complaint to one not observing a one- or two-metre distance, or not wearing a mask on a bus or train, preferable?

The latter would seem to conform to the definition of a “virtue of democratic life”, recommended by the Harvard moral philosopher Michael Sandel. “Community Solidarity”, he said, in one of his 2009 Reith Lectures, “trust, civic friendship…are like muscles that develop with exercise.”

In his Better Together (2007) Robert Putnam, another US public intellectual based in Harvard who seeks to influence public behaviour, writes that “the kind of social capital that is most essential for healthy public life in an increasingly diverse society like ours is precisely the kind that is hardest to build” – that is, reaching out to strangers, attempting to bring together divided groups or communities, confronting those who act anti-socially.

In a series of stories drawn from his research, Putnam describes at least partially successful efforts in that direction, often in poor urban areas hit hard by deindustrialisation. In all these cases, the coming together is hard won, its continued existence fragile. And in all, the beginning, the first approach to others, is one of the hardest parts of the exercise.

Among the enemies of the virtues of democratic life – as television, the Internet, the more demanding nature of work – is individualism. Individualism – the freedom to act as one wishes short of harming others – is now seen as an absolute good, shared across much of the political spectrum.

Measured opposition to it comes from the other side of the right to that libertarian area occupied by the Prime Minister: one of its most influential thinkers was the late James Q Wilson. Like Putnam and Sandel, he was a Harvard professor, an Ivy League public intellectual who for the most part disliked public intellectuals, seeing them as too attached to ideology, and to the destruction of the bonds which the mass of people create and on which they rely. Yet despite his steady conservatism, his Moral Sense (1993) was a favourite text of Gordon Brown, the most polymathic of 20th century prime ministers.

Wilson worried that “politically engaged Americans believe deeply in (the expansion of human freedom), and so resist any but the mildest legal restraints on public speech and behaviour”. Much more dramatically than Boris Johnson does President Donald Trump hold these truths to be self evident. Though Wilson did not live to be horrified by his president, he was despairing enough of relationships and actions defined largely or wholly in terms of rights. “They must be defined in terms of commitments,” he wrote.

In our relationship with government, we are committed, or should be, to observe the laws they pass and the prohibitions and actions they prescribe. It is our part of the maintenance of good governance. In the past few days, the Government’s appeal to that commitment has become louder – and sterner, in that failure to observe these prohibitions and actions will result in a heavier dose of both.

Good luck with that. Acting on some form of the Harvard Three’s exhortations on social virtue, I have, over the past few weeks, taken it upon myself to tell the unmasked on public transport that they should mask up. It’s been dispiriting.

A young woman, my first attempt, giggled when I asked her to wear a mask, and said she’d left it at home. In Italy to see my aged father-in-law, and on the train from Florence to Pisa airport, a group of young men and one woman laughed derisively at me and my wife when asked to wear masks, shouting “You think you’ll get Covid from us?” – prompting her to swear at them and us to move. Back in London, a man who, taking off his earphones to hear what I had to say, said “oh, f…” in a resigned way, put them back in, and remained mask-less.

On an overground journey a French woman, who had been talking on her mobile phone, shouted at me furiously to “mind your own business” and ran off the train at the next stop. On the overground coming back from my earlier destination, a middle-aged man swore at me violently, and said – “what the f*** business is it of yours?” I replied, high mindedly, that it was everybody’s business to be protected. I walked away from him in the carriage, as he shouted “Hey, d*ckhead, come back here!”: I didn’t – he was younger than me, and looked like he knew how to fight.

On a bus, a well dressed man, with a goatee beard, looked at me furiously for a few seconds, then shouted, “Look here, sonny, I’m exempt!” and brandished a card saying just that. In none of these confrontations did any other passenger, all with masks, say or do anything but look on. Though the “sonny” pleased me, I thought I had shown enough democratic virtue for one two-week period.

Unlike the Prime Minister, I’ve little problem with an elected government trying to shield me from Covid (we didn’t sneak in my comp. either). But I don’t know if I will have the will to challenge my irresponsible co-nationals again.

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John Lloyd is a Contributing Editor to the Financial Times, ex-editor of The New Statesman and a co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.