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  • Alastair Cavendish

A Matter of Instinct

Character is more important than brains. The first time I heard this assertion, it was uttered with exaggerated disdain by an Oxford history don. He went on to remark that this was a quotation from one of the leading generals of the twentieth century, a veteran of two world wars. This statement, the professor opined, clearly revealed the anti-intellectual prejudice typical of an upper-class military officer. I remember wondering even at the time whether it had occurred to him that the opposite assumption was equally typical of a middle-class academic.


The old aristocracy, the landowning military caste that governed Britain and the Empire for so long have almost all disappeared. The Duke of Edinburgh shared many of their attitudes, but even he was not really one of them, being, by background, a landless European prince. Much the same might be said of Lord Mountbatten, now more than forty years dead. One ought not to idolize such people. Some of their views on race and on women were unconscionable, for instance, and many of them were as ignorant as swans. Nonetheless, they tended to have character, backbone, and fundamentally sound political instincts. It is these attributes, rather than intellectual ability, which are most conspicuously absent in the entire governing class today.


There could be no more graphic illustration of the debased characters shared by everyone currently in power than the way in which they all reacted to a medical emergency at the beginning of 2020. First, instead of trying to instill courage and stoicism in the populace, as Churchill did, they created a propaganda machine to indoctrinate the public with blind panic. Second, they sought to enrich themselves as much as possible with a gigantic transfer of funds from the public to the private sector, and specifically to the cronies of those in government. Third, they sought an immediate and drastic increase in state power. The sickest joke of all was this: as they acted solely to increase their own power and wealth, they continually screamed that any member of the public who stood up to them was being “selfish.”


It should be evident by now that no senior figure in public life has a shred of public spirit. Unfortunately, this decay in character and instinct is not confined to politicians, though it is particularly conspicuous in them. Two fairly obvious examples will suffice to show that the entire British public has been similarly deficient in character and instinct over the past two years. The first is the near-universal acceptance of lockdown, at least initially. Support for this stupid, inhumane and unjustifiable policy has, thankfully been shrinking. What one keeps hearing from recently converted allies, however, is the refrain “I supported the first lockdown.” When you ask why, they invariably say that we did not know at the time what we were dealing with.


Forgive me if my main preoccupation here is not the practice of ending a sentence with a preposition. I don’t know about you, but when I am faced with the unknown, I do not reflexively jettison all my civil liberties and beg Matt Hancock to keep me safe. This is not a matter of data or analysis. It is a matter of instinct. If your instincts are normal, then your reaction to Matt Hancock instructing you to stay at home will be to rearrange the Hancock features into a more pleasing pattern with your fist. The notion that you might obey the petulant commands of this suet-faced adolescent is patently absurd. Millions of our fellow citizens, however, appear to lack sound instincts in such matters, which is why the wretched Hancock remains a Member of Parliament and, as yet, unsmote by the sword.


The second example of what I mean is perhaps rather more controversial. Sound instincts do not relish a pile on. In the spring of 2020, when Boris Johnson was behaving like a Nazi to widespread acclaim, I would happily have fed his overactive genitalia to a wolf. Now, that everyone is giving him a good slapping, however, I have no particular interest in joining the throng of his detractors. Several points seem obvious.


1. Many of the people who are now making sanctimonious noises about the Downing Street parties clearly knew about them when they happened. They could have spoken out, or leaked the information, and this would have saved lives, since it would have undermined the murderous and entirely pointless government rules. These insiders, politicians, civil servants and journalists, cynically chose not to do this, quite possibly so they could blackmail Johnson at a later stage.

2. This information is being leaked now in a highly controlled and deliberate fashion, in order to cause maximum damage to the Prime Minister personally.

3. It is probably not a coincidence that this is happening just as the Prime Minister has started to make some sensible decisions, and to remember that he ran for office on a libertarian platform, not a Stalinist one.

4. None of the potential replacements for Johnson as Prime Minister is particularly appealing, and several (Starmer, Gove or Hunt) would be disastrous.


Boris Johnson has never had character or spine, but he did once appear to have, if not the instincts of a gentleman, at least those of a fairly sensible populist. Whatever instincts he had seem to have abandoned him, but this does not mean that those of us with sounder and more generous instincts should abandon them. In this case, kicking a man when he is down is not only unsporting, it is stupid. Moreover, it is also exactly what the covid zealots who want to impose lockdowns and muzzles in saecula saeculorum are hoping we will do.

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