Four years ago Michael Gove declared that the public had had enough of experts. Instead of trying to fix that disastrous problem, the leaders of our present government reveled in it – setting us up for Coronavirus disaster.
Expertise is unBritish
For four years in this country, expertise has not just been ignored. It has been ridiculed, attacked, hated and emasculated.
Experts – and people who listen to them – have been cast as unpatriotic, as unBritish, as undemocratic, as losers, as scare-mongerers, as cowards and as humourless. We have even been accused of causing the very problems that expertise predicted.
Meanwhile, the British public has been encouraged to trust bland platitudes like “we’ll get through it” and “we survived the war”, “nothing much will change” and so on – playing to a complacency that is inevitably popular when we would rather feel than think.
Johnson, Gove, Cummings
The ringleaders of all this are now the government precisely because they encourage hatred of experts. That makes them the absolute worst possible people to govern during Coronavirus.
Johnson has joked his way through no end of political failures and personal scandals during his career. He is Prime Minister precisely because he taught us not to treat governing the country as a serious job.
Cummings is the godfather of the anti-expert agenda, having disarmed expertise with, ironically, unparalleled expertise during the referendum. And Gove was the man who stated the anti-expert agenda up front on national news.
This government is the ultimate manifestation, and infectious supporter, of ignoring experts – so it has no chance whatsoever of convincing people to suddenly start listening to experts.
The public are of course complicit in this. We elected a joker to be Prime Minister rather than face more boring years of po-faced seriousness in charge of the country.
The public is also responsible for its actions on a personal level. Johnson can knock up as many women as he likes, get sacked from two jobs for lying, and attend orgies with Russian agents – without suffering consequences. This is because he has money and influence to make problems go away. Most of us don’t, so we should understand consequences better than him.
With politics, however, we have in recent years been encouraged by the people of this government – to ignore consequences. Everything is a price worth paying, nothing big will change even when something big will change, bad things are lies, etc.
So we are unaccustomed to real consequences in political matters now. It’s all just a jovial game and that means we can hang out with our mates during a pandemic if we like.
Why can’t Johnson fix it?
All of this has manifested in Johnson getting it all wrong.
Johnson boasted like a big man a couple of weeks ago about how he still shook hands in hospital (not being a coward like the sniveling experts who tried to discourage such things), and even last night he still encouraged the public to “enjoy themselves” while talking about going out.
This is disastrous but understandable. He makes his career not by telling unpleasant truths but by saying whatever his audience wants to hear. So he has strong motivation not to become a dour po-faced coward who listens to experts – because he has convinced the public to despise those.
And for the public, reinforcement of clear messages is key. Four years of “it’ll be fine”, “take it on the chin”, “blitz spirit”, “ignore the experts” and so on, can’t be undone with a couple of weeks of “but not right now please.”
Fortunately the press, the public, and companies can communicate too – and maybe we can drown out the government with better Comms aimed at the same outcome (containment). To do so, two emotions are needed.
Fear: In the UK, a million people are already infected. That means on every bus and train carriage, Coronavirus is right there with you. In every supermarket, in every park, on every beach, there are dozens of infected walking around you.
Love: Our country, our grandparents, our NHS need you. Coronavirus is crippling the country we love, and killing people we love. But you can help!
That is what might knock people out of complacency if we repeat it enough.
*An article will follow soon on communicating actions. I’ll try to be quick about it.