In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis writes from the perspective of an experienced devil addressing his young nephew on the most effective method for securing the damnation of a human soul. One of his shrewdest points is that human beings have learned to be proud of most vices, and will boast openly of their cruelty and licentiousness, but no tempter has yet discovered a way of making people proud of cowardice. This is because courage and cowardice are not so much qualities in themselves as the level of determination with which a person adheres to a moral position. Many people will be honest or generous when it is easy to be so. Cowardly people, however, will abandon these qualities as soon as they become dangerous. To be a coward, therefore, is really to be nothing, since whatever principles you say you have, you will never stand up for them.
It should therefore be obvious that the media-political class in this country is composed entirely of cowards. Both Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer are remarkable mainly for their absolute lack of principle. The media’s awareness of this was neatly illustrated by its blanket response to any expressions of scepticism about Johnson’s ostensible illness last year. Whenever anyone said that they thought the Prime Minister might be faking his condition for political purposes, the invariable rejoinder from media pundits was: “How dare you suggest that NHS doctors and nurses would collude in such an immoral procedure?” Not one of them thought to assert that Johnson himself was above such a shabby stunt, only that, if he tried it, the doctors and nurses who attended him would not be corrupt enough to collude in it.
Just think for a moment about how damning this is. I did not like Theresa May. I did not agree with her policies, or think she was a good Prime Minister. I didn’t particularly trust her. She could certainly be evasive, and showed a strong propensity to send Amber Rudd into the line of fire every time the questions looked like being too difficult. However, I would not simply assume that Mrs. May was given to feigning illness because she was too cowardly to do her job. In Johnson’s case, not only does everyone know perfectly well that he would do such a thing, but it did not even occur to anyone to pretend that he wouldn’t. The best anyone could do was to deny that NHS staff were likely to corroborate his lies.
This Prime Minister makes Billy Bunter look like Beau Geste, and has surrounded himself with a Cabinet of wimps, poltroons and milksops pathetic enough to provide him with some degree of cover. Anyone can look like a hero standing next to Matt Hancock. It is only natural that the preferred strategy of such a dismal shower would be to appeal to the cowardice of the British public. In March last year, their sinister cadre of behavioural scientists helped out with the following extraordinary advice:
"A substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened… The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging."*
Notice that there is no nonsense about elderly relatives here. The appeal is not to altruism, or filial affection, but simply to cowardice. This vicious cynicism should never be forgotten. When these maniacs are tried for their crimes against humanity, this statement of devious malice must stand alongside Neil Ferguson’s gleeful boast that he managed to “get away with” introducing the murderous policy of lockdown to the United Kingdom.
In a civilised society, the government knows its place, shuts its mouth, and gets on with running public services. The main argument for giving these tedious functionaries even the potential for emergency powers is that such powers might be needed in case of foreign invasion or similar threat. This argument falls rather flat when the government uses the most extreme powers it has ever assumed to terrify the country into something resembling a heavily muzzled blancmange. If some hostile power wanted to bring Britain to its knees in 2021, it would merely have to send over a regiment of pensioners with nasty coughs.
Cowardice is contemptible. Most people have suffered from it on occasion, and most have had the grace to be ashamed, and to resolve that they will summon greater courage in the future. A government which is altogether shameless has now spent the last year trying to drive the population mad with terror, and simultaneously attempting to persuade them that giving way to this terror is a virtue. A more loathsome and destructive strategy to destroy the spirit of the nation could scarcely be imagined.
A year of propaganda can do a great deal, twisting the psyche into pretzels, smashing to pieces families and friendships, but it cannot altogether overturn the eternal verities. Courage is good. You know this deep in your bones, where shallow rationalisations cannot penetrate. You know it through thousands and millions of years of ancestry. You know it through art and literature and music. You know it through every conflict you have ever experienced or seen. Courage is good.
The propagandists of cowardice will try anything to sell their product. They will dress it up as altruism, pretending to care for the elderly people they left to die in care homes, slaughtered by government policy and then sentenced to spend their final days in solitude and misery, far from the comfort of family and friends. They will say they are “following the science,” without showing the slightest regard for either data or logic, for the scientific method, or for the diversity of opinion among scientists. Most of the time, however, they will not even try to argue. They will use images and slogans to manipulate, to divide and rule, and to divert attention from their own corruption. Screwtape would certainly approve.
Marx and Engels said that the British troops at Sevastopol were “lions led by donkeys”. I shall not insult the donkey, a creature I have always found to be perfectly friendly and helpful, by comparing him to any member of the current British Cabinet. Chickens, rats, cockroaches and lice would all have a legitimate grievance if one were to suggest that they resembled Michael Gove. However, purely in terms of fortitude and steadfast purpose, Johnson and his cronies do bear a passing resemblance to a run full of headless chickens, if those chickens happened to be unusually low-achievers even prior to decapitation.
Contrast the lions and lionesses who have worked through the last year with a calm and dignity that is beyond praise. If the people who collect rubbish and work in shops had behaved as the government do, or even in line with their hysterical propaganda, we would all long since have starved to death amidst festering piles of filth. Those of us who have not heeded the siren call to hide under the bed and gibber with fear at the prospect of Indian variants or Brazilian variants or Tunbridge Wells variants may still be a minority, but we have one great advantage: our enemies are cowards.
*22 March 2020, Paper produced by the Independent Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B).