Throughout this crisis, the Conservatives have been desperate for an enemy. Beginning in March, cabinet ministers have used language laden with military metaphors. The party feels comfortable with these ideas and images – Boris Johnson wants to see himself alongside Winston Churchill in the Second World War or Margaret Thatcher in the Falklands. He loved to use extensive international comparisons in his briefings and speeches, mapping the UK’s performance against other similar countries in Europe.
The nationalist rhetoric was dialled down, though, once it became clear that we are not ahead of the pack. As Britain’s relative performance dropped of a cliff, the UK a late bloomer when it came to the virus, international comparisons began to vanish from government communications. The UK has defied all our usual nationalist stereotypes by being bureaucratically overwhelmed, slow to adapt, and distinctly lacking in ‘Blitz spirit’.
When the vaccine was approved by the British regulator last week, nationalism again reared its ugly head
When the vaccine was approved by the British regulator last week, nationalism again reared its ugly head. Along with Gavin Williamson stating that the UK had approved the vaccine faster because “we are a better country”, Matt Hancock announced that the approval was only so quick because of Brexit. Now, to be clear, this is absolutely false. For all intents and purposes, we are still in the EU. The EU regulator still has authority in the UK (until 1 January), and any other European country could also have allowed their regulator to do this. That’s not to mention the fact that this is not a British vaccine – we’re literally going to import it from the EU. The government is seeking to credit their flagship isolationist policy with a pure achievement of internationalism. So, what does this piece of casual jingoistic government lying tell us?
Going forward, as the reality of Brexit begins to kick in, we should expect more of this. Over the next few months, the government are likely to attribute every positive thing that happens to Brexit. In some ways, it’s very understandable. The effects of leaving the European Union are going to be dire – whether or not Boris Johnson is able to deliver a trade deal. However, they’re going to be long-term and likely diffuse. Once we’ve got through the immediate (blockages at Calais) and the trivial (British fishing boats going out to catch more fish we don’t eat anyway) it will be very hard to distinguish changes, either positive or negative, to Brexit. An all-out messaging war will then ensue, with the Conservatives naturally trying to take the credit for any good things that happen.
Politicising the vaccine risks alienating part of the population, damaging the credibility of our regulators and lowering uptake of the vaccine
They’ll most likely get away with it. In among all the noise of the pandemic recovery, it will be very difficult to work out what effect Brexit will have. The negative effects will also likely be spread across many people – price increases on imported goods, lower demand for exports, and further weakening of the pound – whilst any benefits will be concentrated on vocal interest groups. We need to be alert to this, pointing out when their claims are false and when they ignore important downsides.
This government messaging has shown an absolute disregard for public health. Politicising the vaccine risks alienating part of the population, damaging the credibility of our regulators and lowering uptake of the vaccine. Given the gravity of the current situation, that the government has tried to exploit this for narrow political gain is a bad omen for the next few months. We can expect the government spin on Brexit to continue to be nationalist, misleading, and irresponsible. Whether their sleight of hand will succeed, we won’t know until 2024.