When I came to Europe from the United States in 2015 to walk the Camino (the 500-mile ancient pilgrimage through northern Spain), I had the good fortune to fall in with a genial group of Brits. I was planning to visit the UK after my pilgrimage to finish a novel and explore the world left behind by my grandfather. He was born a pauper in London in 1878 and came to America in 1903 to make his fortune and eventually send my father to Columbia University. As my new friends and I walked together, I wistfully described my vision of what life in the Land of Hope and Glory must be like, which they quickly dispelled as a delusion shared by most Americans: a strange amalgam of J. R. R. Tolkien, A. A. Milne, and Winston Churchill. “That England no longer exists,” they said—“except maybe in the Cotswolds,” one of them added, hopefully. When later I mused about how lovely it would be one day to meet a nice English woman—a schoolteacher or church-secretary type, perhaps—and settle down, their alarm intensified. “My God, man! Have you read no vintage British crime fiction? They are the ones who usually commit murder most foul!”
So much for preconceived notions. I did meet many charming and kind people in a land brimming with the history of western civilisation, but the Britain I encountered is indeed very different to the one of my idealized imagination. This first became apparent at a garden party in London when I found myself chatting with a school guidance counsellor. “So, how are kids doing these days?” I asked, intending only to make polite conversation and fully expecting to hear the kind of optimism that usually accompanies stories about children. But no, this woman told me that all was far from well and that kids in general were actually quite depressed. “Who could blame them,” she explained, “when the world will end before they reach our age?” As I listened, I was certain I was hearing some of that famous British dry wit. Not wanting to be caught out, I said nothing as I looked half-smirkingly at the woman and waited for her to break out into laughter. But she didn’t. She was talking about climate change, and she was deadly serious. I nervously excused myself to grab another drink before Armageddon.
I would have dismissed my encounter at the garden party to the admixture of gin and melancholy, except that I began to have similar encounters everywhere. Radio 4 daily sounded the same depressingly uniform tone of alarm over mankind’s bleak future. Even as American media were reporting historic levels of snowfall that were making roads to ski resorts in the Rocky Mountains impassable, one BBC reporter managed to find a community in Finland (or was it Iceland?) whose snowfall was (temporarily as it turned out) less than expected. With glum sobriety and absolute authority she informed listeners that this snowless wasteland was the Earth’s inevitable fate.
A ray of optimism shone through at one dinner party in Greenwich when the hostess announced that it would be another sixty years before all crops would cease to grow upon the face of the earth—at least allowing enough time, I secretly rejoiced, for the aforementioned guidance counsellor’s students to reach middle age. But hope was short-lived. Sitting in a pew at St. Luke’s Church in Charlton Village on Scout Sunday, I heard the vicar tell a squirming knot of terrified beavers the woeful news, recently announced by the Prince of Wales, that the world very well might end before their eighteenth birthdays—not from the rapture, mind you, but from global warming.
If apocalypticism is the new religion of Britain, the NHS surely is its God against whom no blasphemy may be spoken. I learned this the hard way. You may recall that the parents of the terminally ill infant Charlie Gard had privately raised millions of pounds to pay for a new form of treatment that had been tried with success by a highly-respected specialist at Columbia Hospital in New York. When I read that their child was being held hostage by the NHS and the European Court of Human Rights in Brussels, I lamented this sad fact in a post on my Facebook page. If a court in Montreal presumed to tell an American family that they couldn’t use their own money to seek treatment for their dying child at one of the premier medical research universities in the world, the Jefferson Memorial would spontaneously combust and there would be pitchforks and torches in the streets of Washington, D.C.
But this is not America, and I was unprepared for the deluge of opprobrium that would fall upon me from my British friends for daring to suggest that a decision of the NHS should be questioned in any way. The upshot of their comments was that the parents simply needed to get in line because the NHS certainly knew what was best for them. In a strange foreboding of the current lockdown culture, few Brits seemed to grasp that the issue in the Charlie Gard case was freedom—the freedom of parents to choose how long and hard to fight, at their own expense, for the life of their own child versus the power of the NHS to force them to give up on that life. The entire question for these social media scolds turned on whether the NHS could be trusted to make the right decision (yes), and whether that decision should be questioned (no), not whether the NHS had the right to make that decision instead of the parents. Sound familiar? I began then to understand that modern Britain has become exceptionally good at queuing up, shutting up, and doing as they are told. I understand that even better now.
Nigel Lawson, who served Margaret Thatcher as Chancellor of the Exchequer, famously said that “the NHS is the closest thing the English people have to a religion.” The COVID-19 pandemic combined Britain’s apocalyptic impulse with its religious fealty toward the NHS to create the perfect storm. So, it is unsurprising, I suppose, that the British public’s silent, abject submission to the government would persist well beyond the point where both the benefits of the lockdown policy and the perceived danger to the NHS ceased to bear any relationship to reality. Public opinion in Britain remains solidly in support of the lockdown even as information grows more discomfiting by the day that lockdown has achieved nothing so much as generational harm to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Whereas people in America suffering under lockdown have begun increasingly to do what Americans typically do, which is to demand their freedom, if recent polls are to be believed the British public seems to regard freedom as “dangerous” and to be begging the government to take more of it away from them. The Church of England, which in past crises has been a rock of stability and strength for the nation, now leads the pack of those who have decided to run for their lives. The Church closed its doors even to its own clergy as well as to private prayer and instructed clergy to refuse to answer the call of the NHS for volunteer chaplains to minister to the sick and dying. (Fr. Marcus Walker’s essay in the Times, pleading with the bishops to reverse this policy, and his lament that the Church of England could no longer call itself the national church if they failed to do so, was particularly painful to read.)
What on earth has happened to the Land of Hope and Glory?
The Sunday night speech the prime minister gave as his first address to the nation following his illness was one of the most transparently dishonest and condescending in recent political history. He spoke to the nation not with sober, measured reason but with an almost comically overwrought, infantilizing sense of urgency, strangely reminiscent of a football coach talking to a team of youngsters down in points at half-time. Only by speaking to the nation as children could he feel free to pretend as if reams of thoughtful analysis and weeks of data had not been published and read by his audience that flatly contradicted the projections on which he based the decision to plunge the nation into an historic depression. But as it turned out, Johnson gave his audience exactly the degree of respect they deserved. Hilariously, public reaction to the speech focused not on Mr. Johnson’s failure to come clean about the deeply flawed models that led to the lockdown but on his failure to explain more clearly the various new restrictions on public life that the public was all too eager to obey.
But the problem is both bigger and newer than the age-old sins of political dishonesty and cowardice. After all, it is not as if the British public doesn’t know the truth. They do. Instinctively, they do. A disease with an overall infection fatality rate, according to the CDC , of 0.26 percent and 0.005 percent for persons under 50 that as of today has killed fewer than 360,000 people worldwide is not “the most serious public health crisis in generations.” It was never going to kill 550,000 Britons if the government did nothing, as Professor Neil Ferguson and his team at Imperial College of London infamously warned. Boris Johnson surely knows this now, if he didn’t know it then. But by joining him in an elaborate pantomime in which we pretend that those fears were justified (and averted only by his swift action), we have left the real world.
In this new world, the weaving of the emperor’s new clothes from the brightly coloured cloth of an imaginary narrative will become a national industry to replace the thousands of actual industries shuttered by the lockdown. The care and feeding of this narrative, i.e., that our economic devastation and loss of personal freedom to the “new normal” are part of the sacrifice necessary to rescue the nation, is sure to keep us all busier than ever (along with, let us not forget, attendance at the weekly worship service of clapping for the NHS).
The 1.3 million who die annually from another deadly but strangely less newsworthy communicable disease—tuberculosis –dwarf the number who have died of COVID-19, as do the numbers of children who die each year of seasonal flu (or even lightning strikes, bizarrely), compared to those who die of COVID-19. Yet the British public, egged on by a cult of safetyism within the teachers union, is at the moment needlessly tearing itself to pieces over the decision whether to send children back to school. Many of us seem to prefer our fears or, more to the point, the feeling of safety and security that comes from looking to others to protect us from our fears—even imaginary ones. Like children, we huddle under the covers in terror of the monster that may or may not (but could, statistically speaking) live under the bed.
Unlike some, I do not kindle hope that the many able commentators who keep pointing out the continuing tragedy of the lockdown policy and the absurdity of the “new normal” of social distancing will eventually win the argument with their fellow Britons. There is no argument to be won. As the American cartoon character Pogo would say, “I have met the enemy, and he is us.”
We are the new normal. We are not the people our grandparents were. We are the ones eagerly participating in this extravagant charade that we are all about to die from shaking hands with our neighbours or walking outside without a mask. We have the power to choose the kind of society we live in by refusing to give aid and comfort to the scaremongers through our silence. Too many of us simply refuse to speak.
In one of those interminable, television binge-fests that lockdown has given us, I chanced upon an old movie filmed in England in the early seventies entitled “Swallows and Amazons.” The story recreates a young family’s holiday to the Lake District in 1929. With their mother staying in the cottage on shore and giving her blessing, four siblings ranging from 8 to 14 years of age pack their own supplies, sail their small boat to an island in the lake, make a campfire, sleep in tents for several nights, and live out various adventures as imaginary castaways on a pirate island. The story of children trusted with this much freedom (and the risk of harm that freedom brings) had to be real enough to seem plausible to the British audience that loved it in 1974, but it is the stuff of utter fantasy (if not criminality) today. Today, we are being governed, and our news is being curated and delivered to us, by the generations of neurotic helicopter parents and their children that followed the ones who lived in 1929.
Do you remember the massive, nationwide lockdown in the UK during the 1968-69 Hong Kong flu that took an estimated one to four million lives worldwide? Our grandparents don’t remember it either, because it never happened. Life carried on as usual, which is why if you were alive back then, you probably don’t have a memory that a disease as deadly as, if not ten times more deadly than, the current pandemic swept through the world around you. The BBC wasn’t broadcasting daily death counts and doing its damnedest to frighten the bejesus out of all of us. It never occurred to our grandparents to react to that tragedy by immolating the society we would inherit from them. As a result, today we look back at 1969 and remember not cowering in fear from a virus but swallowing our fears and putting a man on the moon.
We are not like our grandparents, and they were nothing like us, and that has made all the difference. The Britain of today is a health-and-safety culture that has largely abandoned the religious faith that once gave it a sense of transcendent meaning. As a result it finds itself obsessed with every threat—real or imagined—to its materialist world view and sees goblins of risk and impending doom around every corner.
Drifting off to sleep in front of the television and lying next to the English schoolteacher I married two years ago, I realized that I was taking a risk. The right to question authority, most especially where the NHS is concerned, is not one of the freedoms Britons, much less American interlopers living in Britain, can take for granted anymore. Who knows? Some might even say I have good reason to fear murder most foul. But life and love and the choices we make to give meaning to both are worth the risk. Here’s hoping that Britain remembers this before it’s too late.
(c) 2020 by M. C. Hurley