Boris Johnson’s lockdown is the latest target for the right’s angry culture warriors | Rachel Shabi | Opinion

For weeks we have heard that merely asking questions about the government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak is “politicising the crisis”. But now some people on the right are indeed making the pandemic political – firing up the culture wars forged in what now feels like the prehistoric age of Brexit.

Luminaries of the leave campaign have jacked up familiar themes to revive a well-worn narrative: of patriotic ordinary people set against “whingeocrat” metropolitan elites and woke leftists who hate Britain.

In the coronavirus edition of the culture wars, critics of the government’s slow, muddled response to the pandemic – who may overlap with the remainers of old – are cast as gleeful about Britain’s horrifying death toll, since it presents an opportunity to bash both the Conservatives and the conceits of exceptionalism. Complaints that coverage of Boris Johnson’s own illness overshadowed a nightmarish week of deaths and national suffering are scorned for failing to understand the public’s love for the prime minister. And damning revelations about the government’s lack of preparedness for when the pandemic struck are breezily dismissed. People will forgive Johnson anything, his cheerleaders insist, while critics – “remainer losers” – are foolishly obsessed with his misdemeanours.

But the key issue in the right’s current culture war is the lockdown, which is being presented as a freedom-sucking con – much like the EU. Mirroring the dynamics of climate denialism, those challenging the overwhelming consensus of global expertise cast themselves as lockdown “sceptics”. And cleaving to a rightwing populist script, these sceptics say their legitimate concerns are being silenced.

Writing in the Spectator, Lionel Shriver notes that no TV platform is offered to those outside the 89% who support the lockdown. The sceptics claim to be speaking truth to the overly frightened masses, explaining that a costly lockdown is more deadly in the long term and urging that we reassess priorities. As Toby Young put it: “Spending £350bn to prolong the lives of a few hundred thousand mostly elderly people is an irresponsible use of taxpayers’ money.” Failing the most basic moral test of any society worthy of the description, lockdown sceptics say that a recession may be more deadly than the pandemic, an idea already dismissed as nonsense.

Strikingly, these sceptics don’t engage with the actual issue with the lockdown: that it came too late, causing thousands of unnecessary deaths, even while many scientists and the World Health Organization were imploring swifter action of the like being taken by other countries. Swerving this debate, the culture-war narrative is, as ever, a rhetorical smokescreen, deflecting substantive arguments. And just as Brexit was a delivery mechanism for hard-right ideas, lockdown scepticism is about promoting an ideological agenda.

Tellingly, the Critic, a rightwing magazine, views the divide as “the ever-lockers vs the liberators”. But who even wants to stay in lockdown? Most would prefer release to come as soon as possible. Scientists signal that a test-and-trace strategy is the best way out, yet you don’t hear lockdown sceptics protest that the paucity of Covid-19 testing is obstructing their fundamental freedoms.

What’s really being contested is the kind of society that will emerge once this is over. And you can see why Brexit populists and big-state haters are worried. When Rishi Sunak unveiled an unprecedented economic bailout last month, one rightwing commentator told me it was infuriating: if the government could so easily pump money into society, how would the right ever again argue against state funding? And while the realities of lockdown vary considerably according to factors such as wealth, class, gender and race, some elements of it have been experienced as positive. Recent polling suggests only 9% of the population wants a post-lockdown return to how things were before: we’re enjoying the cleaner air, sightings of wildlife, stronger community and increased time to connect with some friends and family.

Already in Italy, Milan is attempting to emerge from lockdown into a city with less pollution by announcing an ambitious scheme to reduce the number of cars on its roads. According to one of the city’s deputy mayors: “Of course we want to reopen the economy, but we think we should do it on a different basis from before. We think we have to reimagine Milan in the new situation.” Lockdown sceptics commonly reject the green policies proposed by climate campaigners, but the recent closures have unleashed an appetite for them.

Despite speculation over the influence of sceptics within government, the prime minister is reportedly cautious over rushing to loosen the current isolation measures. But the hallmarks of lockdown scepticism can be seen in the government’s go-it-alone rejection of the EU’s bulk-buying scheme for essential equipment, and in its initial pursuit of “herd immunity”. Their power in the press and in the heart of government signals the battles we will face over the shape of our future society – and shows how existing divisions may be manipulated for political advantage.

The sceptics are currently out of sync with public opinion. But as we know from painful experience, we can’t assume this will always be the case.

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