12 August 2021

Will Covid be the Game of Thrones of politics, or the Little Britain?

By Will Havelock

Do you remember Game of Thrones?

The final episode of the final series aired a little over two years ago, by which time it was one of the most watched shows on television. Everyone followed the political intrigue at court in King’s Landing, the mysterious goings-on beyond the Wall and the bloody battles for dominance in Westeros.

During the equally bloody 2016 Tory leadership contest, the Metro newspaper published a front
page comparing that contest to the fantasy series. Michael Gove even called Game of Thrones character Tyrion Lannister his ‘soulmate’. You can tell how deeply a TV show has embedded itself in national culture when even MPs are talking about it.

Fast forward to today and Game of Thrones is no longer the cultural touchstone it once was. By contrast, some shows continue to live on well after they stop airing. Catchphrases like “I have a cunning plan” from Blackadder or “computer says no” from Little Britain are still used and understood today. Indeed, culture vulture Michael Gove compared the Liberal Democrats to Matt Lucas’s Vicky Pollard in his speech defending Theresa May’s government against a no confidence motion. Which shows will linger in our cultural consciousness and which will fade into obscurity is difficult to predict and has very little to do with how good they are – as the deathless Little Britain proves.

The same phenomenon happens with political events. Some retain much of their potency decades after they happened. As the Prime Minister recently found out to his chagrin, Thatcher’s role in the closure of coal mines in the 1980s is one example. MPs still get pilloried for claiming expenses , even though the scandal was in 2009 and the rules have been tightened up considerably since then. In the Commons, MPs readily compare the Covid pandemic to the Blitz, showing how large the Second World War still looms in our national psyche.

On the other hand, there are countless events which were important at the time but which do not figure on the political landscape now, save for a handful of enthusiasts. The Suez Crisis brought down a Prime Minister and confirmed the end of Britain’s global pre-eminence, but does not resonate today. There was a huge national debate on the UK joining the Euro in the early part of Tony Blair’s premiership which now seems like a quaint historical anecdote.

As with TV shows, it’s impossible to tell what political events will influence national debate for decades and which will fade from everyone’s minds once the newspapers are put in the recycling bin. So which way will the pandemic fall – will it be a Game of Thrones or a Little Britain?

Unlike most political events, everyone in the country has had their life radically altered by the pandemic. We were all subject to lockdown (to a greater or lesser extent), and millions tuned in to watch Johnson, Whitty, Hancock and the rest of the cast at the Downing Street press conferences. As the pandemic has had such a direct impact on our lives, and for such a long time, it does seem likely that we will be referring to the events of the past 18 months for years to come, just like the Second World War. The future public inquiry into the pandemic response will certainly keep it in the news for a while yet, much as the Chilcot Inquiry did for the Iraq War.

On the other hand, maybe we will all want to forget the pandemic as soon as we can. The 1918 influenza outbreak did not stick in the national memory. Some people only know about the “Spanish flu” from the Twilight series. Perhaps life will go back to what it was like in February 2020, and we will find that we will want to talk about anything other than mask wearing, hand sanitising and vaccinating.

I would guess that Covid has infected our national culture so deeply that we will go on and on discussing it. But I do hope that one day we can look back at 2020-21 as we do on Game of Thrones – remark on how important it seemed at the time, and then promptly forget it again.

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Will Havelock is a writer.

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