You might call it Churchill syndrome. How one person and their reputation can be transformed by a major event of global significance. For the pre-war Winston was not someone you would want to be emblematic of a country’s greatest virtues. Throughout his army career and his stint as Colonial Secretary, he was a racist who didn’t trouble to conceal the fact that he thought the Aryan race superior or that the indigenous peoples of lands Britain colonised were scarcely more than savages, whose loss through famine or war need be of small concern. Little wonder that Barack Obama, grandson of a Kenyan victim of these white supremacist adventures, decided that the Oval office could get along just fine without a bust of the former British premier.
And then came the twist of history which found Churchill elevated to Prime Minister to fight against another regime who fancied colouring the world a purer shade of white, but who posed a real and present threat to Churchill’s own countrymen and women. Cue the man most people now remember only as the great wartime orator and all round stiffener of national backbone. When truly international emergencies engulf us, the way in which leaders respond have the ability to make or break their careers, and forge the narrative of their legacy. Thus you can almost touch the agony with which many Americans regard the accident of timing that meant that Obama, your essential Mr Cool, was no longer around. Worse still, he had been replaced by Mr Bluster, a man incapable of not making a drama out of self imposed crises.
One of the more telling images of the last week was Trump standing in front of some time served experts in their field explaining that thanks to his uncle having once taught at MIT – a genius, by his way of it – Donald himself really got all this science stuff. Why all these experts were shocked about how much he knew. Actually all these experts were having some difficulty rearranging their features to avoid looking as if they had just found a live wasp to chew. The contemporary Republican Party, having veered rightwards off the edge of the political map, still apparently gives Trump overwhelming support. The next few weeks and months will decide whether that seemingly unshakeable devotion to the charlatan-in-chief will ultimately haemorrhage. In any event, we may rest assured they will shortly know that this crisis is neither a hoax nor fake news. Nor was it got up by the Democratic Party to stain the character of the dear leader.
It’s just possible to understand why under-educated voters, their news coming unmediated from the Fox Channel or the more rabid shock jocks, have not been given sufficient information to distinguish between reality and reality TV. But the behaviour of the political leadership of his party is beyond despicable. They know the man in the White House is a total stranger to truth and just about the least Presidential bloke in town. Yet almost none of them is prepared to go public with the self evident, intellectual nudity of the orange tinted emperor.
And what of the behaviour of our own leaders in this gathering virus induced storm? Boris the jester, flanked by his top science and medical advisors, managed to locate the gravitas his message required. Whether he can sustain this unfamiliar pose, whether he can channel an inner statesman, time alone will tell. At least he seems to have gleaned that corvid-19 is never going to be an acceptable cue for buffoonery. It is a time for plain talking. A time to share whatever information leaders have to hand, with those whose very lives depend on having as many facts as possible as soon as possible. People like Leo Varadkar in the Irish Republic and Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland have a temperamental advantage in as much as delivering plain spoken messages, however unpalatable, has been their preferred modus operandi. In Varadkar’s case his own medical training and being the son of a doctor and nurse, has probably imbued him with an extra sense of urgency.
In times of trial and terror there is no space for flapping or prevaricating. Gordon Brown, as suggested by Tony Blair’s spin doctor Alistair Campbell in his diaries, may or may not have psychological flaws. But no fair minded person could deny that when the solid matter hit the fan in 2008 he was the right man in the right place. His contribution to getting the then G20 to pull their financial markets back from the brink is not always acknowledged.
There can be no international co-operation on the same grand scale as then for the pandemic which is changing all our lives. Not when an American President is intent on pulling up every drawbridge, apparently unaware of how many thousands of his fellow citizens will already be carriers. Not the least of the current ironies is that China, which bore the initial brunt, has itself now indicated that incoming foreigners will be quarantined for a fortnight. Countries, like their leaders, respond according to temperament. There are viral videos of Italians taking to their balconies for some communal singing of favourite ditties. We have neither the balconies, nor the tambourines, or arguably the inclination to follow suit. (And you suspect the French are minutes from wholesale panic when they shut both their restaurants and their favourite galleries.)
Yet in a very real sense we ARE all in it together. No nation is likely to escape the ravages of this particular challenge. The fact that we are prevented from travelling does not make us less interdependent. We are not tired of experts, whatever Mr Gove might suggest. We need them more than ever to pool their knowledge and disseminate their findings. Most of all we need leaders who grow in their job when that job becomes ever tougher. And tell it like it is.
First published in the National 16.3.2020