Photo: “Now we can look the East End in the face.” Buckingham Palace during the Blitz

Johnson and Covid-19: Can human suffering have political advantages?

A well-trodden Via Dolorosa is often an individual’s path to power, as many historical examples attest
May 3, 2020

Now Boris Johnson has recovered from a nasty bout of coronavirus he may well contemplate the political advantage to be gained from having shared the ordeal of so many of his compatriots. The key reward is that he will be able to say with quite unaccustomed sincerity, “I feel your pain.” Solidarity is forged in adversity and where leadership is concerned nothing succeeds like suffering, as many historical examples attest.

In 1871 Edward, Prince of Wales caught typhoid fever, described as “the pre-eminent ‘filth disease’ of the Victorian period.” It was presumed to have killed his father, and for over a month Edward himself, showing symptoms remarkably similar to those of coronavirus, hovered at death’s door. At the time the monarchy was in a parlous state. Queen Victoria, the Widow of Windsor, remained in purdah. Her eldest son had recently been embroiled in the scandalous Mordaunt divorce case and was widely regarded as (in Walter Bagehot’s phrase) a “debauched booby.” And there was an upsurge of republicanism, red caps of liberty being raised on poles in Trafalgar Square.

However, the prince’s illness provoked a tidal wave of sympathy that swept the country. Radicals sneered at “the great epidemic of typhoid loyalty” but, as the fervent public thanksgivings for his recovery demonstrated, it infected all classes of society. The republican movement subsided, a proposed enquiry into the crown’s finances was roundly defeated in parliament and the queen could express confidence in the future of her dynasty. In fact, the reprobate Prince of Wales did more for royal popularity by contracting typhoid than he had ever accomplished in the full bloom of health.

Coincidentally Edward’s grandson, George VI, provided another graphic illustration of the way in which experiencing a common affliction can bind ruler and ruled together. In the early days of the Blitz its victims occasionally booed the king and queen as they toured bombed districts, seeing the visits of these gilded folk as a show of slumming. But on 9th September 1940 Buckingham Palace was bombed. The queen famously (and perhaps apocryphally) declared that she could now look the East End in the face. Certainly the air raid was a huge propaganda coup for the king. It demonstrated that he was in as much peril as his subjects, who henceforth applauded his appearances. Despite the ill-disguised perpetuation of many royal privileges, the government could boast that in a People’s War there was equality of sacrifice, that the sovereign was at one with his subjects. Thus was born a potent myth that has helped to sustain the monarchy ever since. 

A well-trodden Via Dolorosa is often an individual’s path to power. Churchill and De Gaulle, who would respectively stand on rooftops to watch the Blitz and brush off assassination attempts during the Algerian crisis, both did time in the trenches during the First World War. Many future leaders of colonised countries personified struggles for national independence by participating in the afflictions of their fellows. Dodging martyrdom during the Easter Rising, Eamon de Valera forfeited his own liberty in the cause of Irish freedom, and, on becoming Taoiseach, made Éire a sovereign state. In India, Nehru and Gandhi exposed themselves to violence and spent many years in gaol, the former treated as a common criminal, the latter subjecting himself to the additional trauma of hunger strikes. They thereby acquired moral authority that fatally undermined the British Raj and placed Nehru at the head of a self-governing subcontinent. 

In Africa, prison was frequently a stepping-stone to palace. Kwame Nkrumah and his followers wore caps inscribed PG, for Prison Graduate, and he was thus able to establish himself not just as leader of an independent Ghana but as its Osagyefo, Redeemer. Jomo Kenyatta emerged from almost a decade of harsh incarceration to become both president of Kenya for life and Mzee, the father of his people. And of course Nelson Mandela’s 27 years’ confinement, incurred for opposing apartheid, elevated him far above the grubby political fray. It manifested his nobility of character and endowed him with an almost Christ-like aura. Aung San Suu Kyi also acquired iconic status during the 15 years she spent under house arrest resisting oppression in Myanmar, earning the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. But reputations won by enduring pain can be lost by inflicting it. Suu Kyi went from heroine to villainess by coming to terms with the Burmese military junta and defending it against well-founded allegations of genocide. 

So sinners as well as saints can climb to the top by facing communal hardship or, better still, by embracing danger. Stalin’s revolutionary activities earned him several spells of internal exile in Siberia, which he treated as a university, graduating eventually, of course, to the Kremlin. Having narrowly escaped a bullet during the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler spent a year in Landsberg Prison, dictating Mein Kampf and being hailed, even by the warders, as Der Führer. 

If leaders of every stamp can be more or less sanctified by suffering, Johnson must stand a chance of benefiting from being one among many victims of the pandemic. But sympathy may be extinguished by anger over his lackadaisical early response to it, his swing from accepting “herd immunity” to imposing total lockdown and his ideological resistance to extending the Brexit transition despite the risk of compounding the present economic catastrophe. The blame for NHS shortages might reasonably be laid at his door. So Johnson’s skin has been saved, but it may be harder to save his bacon.