Few politicians achieve the dubious distinction of epitomising, in their hour of disgrace, the failings of an entire ruling caste at the precise moment those failings are engendering an exponential growth in public resentment. In this, at least, the former Health Secretary Matt Hancock can claim success.
As the government minister most closely identified with the imposition, and assiduous enforcement, of plausibly the most draconian but least politically scrutinised restrictions on our personal lives outside wartime, Hancock’s cavalier disregard, both privately and professionally, for the regulations which he demanded that we obey literally to the letter, has put rocket boosters under the hitherto latent but now openly expressed complaint of “one rule for them, but another for everyone else“.
It’s hardly as if other recent examples did not exist. A mere two weeks ago, delegates to the G7 summit were visibly guilty of double standards when, in contrast to the ostentatious elbow-bumping and social distancing in official photographs, pictures subsequently emerged of their later informal bonhomie and back-slapping with scarcely a mask or two metres’ separation in sight.
Soon after, and at a time when Brits returning from Amber-List countries must pay for at least two PCR tests and self-isolate for ten days either at home or in an insalubrious hotel at considerable cost, the government rapidly exempted thousands of UEFA officials, corporate sponsors and hangers-on from those same restrictions, in response to a crude threat to remove the final stages of the Euros 2020 tournament from London to Budapest.
And that’s before we even start to consider the string of ministers, MPs, scientists and celebrities who, over the past 15 months, have concluded that the regulations affecting the lives of millions of ordinary mortals clearly need not apply to themselves, but have been caught out.
Not only do members of the increasingly authoritarian politico-medico ruling elite appear averse to following personally the very same rules which they impose and assiduously enforce on the rest of us; they also seem, with a combination of arrogance and entitlement born of an assumed superiority, to expect to be personally immune from any consequences when found out and their hypocrisy exposed.
This development is arguably neither recent in origin, however, nor novel in nature. It is merely the latest “variant” – to use the currently topical label – of the ruling caste’s apparent growing distance from, and disaffection with, both the mass electorate as a component of democratic government and, by implication, with mass-participation universal adult franchise democracy itself; it is discernible, and documented, going back years.
In its contemporary form, the phenomenon emerged into more widespread visibility in the aftermath of the 2008-2009 financial crisis. The governmental bailout of failed banks at taxpayers’ expense, an egregious example of what would later be called crony-corporatism, had the unusual effect of uniting – albeit for very different reasons – both the free-market Right and the collectivist Left against it, creating a notable public backlash.
That backlash may have been articulated as condemnation of “privatising the profits but socialising the losses”, but the “one rule for them, but another for everyone else” narrative, that reckless bankers who had created the crisis mostly got off scot-free while taxpayers were being made to pay, was there.
It surfaced again in the explosion of public anger in the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009 as avaricious individual parliamentarians attempted to justify their venality to an outraged electorate outraged by claiming it “was all within the rules” – rules which they had themselves made. The public’s anger at their insouciant defence of behaviour which ordinary voters knew would, if perpetrated in their own lives, get them sacked and possibly prosecuted, appeared to mystify them. An undercurrent of “one rule for us, but another for them” was definitely abroad.
It intensified beyond the possibility of any further denial following the 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union and the overwhelmingly pro-Remain governing elite’s furious refusal, first to accept it, and then to implement it. Not only was the inability of over half the electorate to participate at all in deciding the country’s future confidently asserted as a given; democracy itself was questioned as an institution in its own right, if it was capable of delivering an outcome so uncongenial to those who considered themselves exclusively qualified to adjudicate such matters.
British politics between June 2016 and January 2020 was dominated by the democratically defeated Remain Establishment’s campaign to ignore, dilute or preferably overturn, using any parliamentary, legal or constitutional stratagem available, the biggest popular democratic mandate for constitutional change in UK political history.
It is not difficult to detect the antipathy to the mass of the electorate, which that eventually unsuccessful campaign internalised in the collective mind of our ruling caste, in the assumption evinced by some of our current cadre of overlords that Covid rules are for us to adhere to rigidly for but for them to ignore if inconvenient.
Judging by the immediate reaction of the Prime Minister to the Press exposure of Hancock’s gross political hypocrisy, namely, accepting hastily a lame ‘apology’ offered in a blatant attempt to cling to office and declaring the matter closed, the Johnson administration at present seems oblivious of or unconcerned about the extent to which the “one rule for them, but another for everyone else” narrative is gaining traction.
Such apparent complacency is unwise. The slogan expresses the kind of resentment which, if not addressed, can quickly acquire critical mass, leading to revolt either at the ballot box or, in extremis, in another less benign form.