Friday 28 January 2022

"What the public wants"


It was, as I recall, The Jam who sang that “the public gets what the public wants” before adding “the public wants what the public gets” in a subsequent verse. It was a reversal which always puzzled me somewhat, probably because I never really listened to much of the other lyrics. But hiding behind “what the public wants” is a time-honoured tactic used by politicians to divert attention from something they don’t want to talk about. It’s a phrase which has been working overtime recently as the PM repeatedly tells us that “what the public wants” is for the government to get on with the job which they were elected to do. In itself, it’s not entirely unreasonable – by and large, the public probably do want the government to govern. It doesn’t necessarily follow, though, that there are not other things that they also want.

We’ve also been told by his acolytes this week that the public really aren’t that worked up about Johnson eating a piece of birthday cake, even if the cake was lying in wait for him, or about the fate of a few animals. They may be right about the cake (although Jake may be pushing his luck a little in suggesting that people in the UK really don’t care about a few animals). It’s pure distraction, though – the issue is neither cake nor animals but honesty and integrity, and in particular the repeated lies told in response to every revelation. I honestly don’t know to what extent ‘the public’ are exercised about Johnson’s honesty and integrity, and I’m far from convinced that those being so dismissive on his behalf know that either. Many of those who voted for his party do seem willing to forgive any sins he commits, and no-one can reasonably argue that they didn’t know that he was a compulsive liar before electing him. It was a well-documented fact. For those who believe that the end justifies the means, Brexit and crackdowns on foreigners are cause enough to ignore wrongdoing, however egregious. And when people make a bad choice, even if they know it at a conscious level, there is always a tendency to rationalise it in order to overcome any feelings of cognitive dissonance.

It may simply be a degree of wishful thinking on my part, but I can’t help feeling that, on this issue, the tendency of top Tories to limit their definition of ‘the public’ to that category alone is taking them into a deeper and deeper hole. Whilst there are many other people who also ignored the rules during lockdown – especially after that eye testing jaunt – that isn’t much of an excuse in the eyes of all those citizens who tried their best to do what they thought they were being told to do in the interests of all of us. Not all Tory voters are unprincipled ideologues in my experience, and there will be plenty amongst those who gave them that majority in 2019 who will have seen friends and family die alone during the pandemic and who will be aghast at the antics in Downing Street.

The question is whether, or to what extent, the public who, as Johnson correctly says, want the government to get on with governing, also want the government to do so with honesty and integrity, applying the same rules to themselves as they do to others. According to the same people who argue that the public don't care, following the ‘rule of law’ is one of those Great British Values which make the people of these islands stand out from mere foreigners. Both things can’t be simultaneously true. None of us knows with any certainty, but opinion polls are certainly suggesting that the government’s assumption that people don’t care about such questions is misplaced. The Great Liar, and the sycophants around him, are placing an awful lot of faith in their belief that ‘the public’ really don’t care about honesty.

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