Prime Minister Johnson is a great admirer of Winston Churchill and wrote a book about him of which the publisher said, “The Churchill Factor is essential reading for anyone who wants to know what makes a great leader in a time of crisis.”
Johnson now faces two crises – one, Brexit, of his own making and one which every leader in the world has had to face. This enables us to assess objectively the extent to which Johnson can be considered a great leader in a time of crisis.
When we look at how the UK has handled COVID, in comparison with virtually every other country, we see that the answer is that the UK is saddled with an unusually poor leader in a time of crisis.
There are at least three reasons for this, all of which show a stark contrast between the governments of Johnson and Churchill:
- Johnson’s government has been consistently slow to recognise the threat;
- Johnson’s government has failed to understand the importance of collective responsibility;
- Johnson’s government has simply not been determined enough to defeat the virus.
Johnson’s government is consistently slow
Well before WWII started, as early as 1930, Churchill was raising the alarm about the risk of Nazi aggression:
“On October 19, 1930, he met with Prince Bismarck at the German Embassy to discuss current events. When the topic of Hitler and the Nazi Party arose, Churchill acknowledged Hitler’s declarations that he had no intention of waging a war of aggression, however, as the Prince noted, Churchill ‘was convinced that Hitler or his followers would seize the first available opportunity to resort to armed force.’”
Even when others were arguing against the need to prepare, Churchill consistently made a powerful case. While he was unable to overturn (until it had manifestly failed) the policy of appeasement, he was able to influence Britain’s re-armament:
“Churchill’s constant hammering on the lack of preparedness in the air and the importance of air defence supported what build-up did occur and provided much of the narrow margin by which Fighter Command won the Battle of Britain in 1940.”
In the case of COVID, by contrast, in early February, Johnson made a speech which strongly suggested his preference for just letting the virus rip. Here are a couple of relevant paragraphs:
“And in that context, we are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other.
And here in Greenwich in the first week of February 2020, I can tell you in all humility that the UK is ready for that role.”
Other countries might constrain their economies to tackle the virus, Johnson suggested, but the UK would be like Superman, championing humanity by continuing to do business undaunted – while the virus tore through our population unopposed.
For virtually every government in the world, COVID posed a difficult challenge. The advice from the World Health Organisation (WHO) was explicit:
“We can only say what we know, and we can only act on what we know. … We know that COVID-19 spreads fast, and we know that it is deadly – 10 times deadlier than the 2009 flu pandemic. We know that the virus can spread more easily in crowded environments like nursing homes. We know that early case-finding, testing, isolating caring for every case and tracing every contact is essential for stopping transmission.
We know that in some countries, cases are doubling every 3 to 4 days. However, while COVID-19 accelerates very fast, it decelerates much more slowly. In other words, the way down is much slower than the way up. That means control measures must be lifted slowly, and with control. It cannot happen all at once. Control measures can only be lifted if the right public health measures are in place, including significant capacity for contact tracing.”
And as Mike Ryan (WHO) pointed out in March 2020, delaying important decisions is literally fatal:
“Be fast, have no regrets… you must be the first mover: the virus will always get you if you don’t move fast…Perfection is the enemy of the good… Speed trumps perfection.”
Most countries took this advice (which is why their death toll is so much lower than ours). But at that time, Johnson had only recently made his superman speech and his comments that we should just “take it on the chin” and was still resisting the idea of lockdown. According to The Independent, SAGE (the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) had already told the government of the risks of the laissez-faire approach:
“Professor Medley also confirmed reports that the government was told in late February – long before the Imperial College study – that half a million people could die in the UK without a lockdown.”
In the face of public pressure, the government finally locked down on 24 March 2020 – several weeks too late. And this delay meant that the deaths in the first peak were at least four times larger than they needed to be.
Speed in recognising and tackling a potential crisis is invaluable. Churchill grasped this; Johnson did not.
Johnson’s government does not understand collective responsibility
During WWII, Churchill’s government clearly understood that collective responsibility was essential. To protect the population from air raids for example, the government did not say, “We are relying on British common sense and sense of personal responsibility to guide people in whether or not to blackout their houses during raids.” It recognised that one person behaving irresponsibly could cause the deaths of thousands of others and created the Air Raid Protection (ARP) service, a force of up to 1.4 million volunteers who helped to keep the population safe by, among other things, patrolling the streets during blackout, to ensure that no light was visible.
Johnson is taking a different approach. As he said on 5 July 2021, “What we’re trying to do is move from a universal government diktat to relying on people’s personal responsibility.” His Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, said that his notion of personal responsibility was to stop wearing a mask entirely “as soon as possible” after it is no longer legally required in England.
The concept of altruism as a competitive weapon is widely understood. As Evolutionary scientists David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson put it:
“Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary,”
That is the understanding that helped Churchill to lead Britain through WWII; and that is the understanding that Johnson has not yet developed.
Johnson’s government has not been determined enough to defeat the virus.
If Churchill is famous for one speech, it is surely this one:
“I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone.
At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of His Majesty’s Government-every man of them. That is the will of Parliament and the nation.
The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength.
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.
We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
It is inconceivable that Churchill would have made a speech, at any point short of final victory over Hitler, saying:
“We have to balance the risks: the risks of Nazi aggression which our Navy has reduced but very far from eliminated; and the risks of continuing with an expensive and hugely damaging war that inevitably takes its toll on people’s lives and livelihoods – on people’s health and mental health.
And we must be honest with ourselves that if we can’t demobilise in the next few weeks, when we will be helped by the entry of Russia into the War, then we must ask ourselves when will we be able to demobilise?”
And yet Johnson did say, in relation to COVID:
“…we have to balance the risks. The risks of the disease which the vaccines have reduced but very far from eliminated. And the risks of continuing with legally enforced restrictions that inevitably take their toll on people’s lives and livelihoods – on people’s health and mental health. And we must be honest with ourselves that if we can’t reopen our society in the next few weeks, when we will be helped by the arrival of summer and by the school holidays, then we must ask ourselves when will we be able to return to normal?”
And he has asked us to abandon all countermeasures and “learn to live with the virus.”
Churchill vowed to fight on if necessary for years, if necessary alone. Johnson has, uniquely among world leaders, decided to surrender, if necessary alone.
Fortunately, NHS leaders, SAGE, Independent SAGE and the wider scientific community – see, for example, The Lancet and The BMJ – are all becoming ever more vocal about the real-world impact – especially on children – of lifting all restrictions.
There is still time for the government to make a U-turn before the damage is irrevocable.