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  • Alastair Cavendish

The Two Faces of Janus

The opening month of the year is a good time to consider the god of doors, after whom it was named. Janus presides over beginnings and endings, transitions and time, comings and goings, the past and the future. With so many responsibilities, it is unsurprising that he requires two faces and has therefore come to be associated with inconsistency and hypocrisy. Presumably the Prime Minister, still a Balliol classicist for all his obvious flaws, is aware of this, though he may not choose this particular point in his career to reflect on the matter.

There is something to be said in favour of hypocrisy, at least as a temporary position that might allow one to change one’s mind. The carnivore who decides to become a vegan, for instance, probably goes through at least a short period during which s/he continues to eat meat but cannot morally justify doing so. Such occasional inconsistency between principle and practice is intellectually superior to a stubborn refusal to change one’s views in any event.

Even where hypocrisy is less justifiable, it is worth thinking about the mechanics of being two-faced, and of being found out. The Bishop of Barchester preaches fire and brimstone sermons on the evils of homosexuality. Eventually, he is “outed” by a gay rights organisation which shows that he has himself been in a homosexual relationship for years. Assume that the relationship is with another consenting adult. Everyone now detests the Bishop, but there are two distinct camps who have two different reasons for hating him. Some think that he is a bigot for having preached against homosexuality. Others think him a sinner for engaging in it. Few will condemn him for both.

Suppose I fall into the former camp (as, in fact, I do). I have always disliked the Bishop because of his crusade against homosexuality. When it is revealed that he is gay himself, I have no new reason to dislike him. I do not care about his sexuality. What I do have is a new cohort of allies, eager to oust him from his post for different reasons. It is very tempting simply to team up with them to get rid of him. Our views are diametrically opposed, but we can all agree that the Bishop is a hypocrite.

The application of this principle to the current political crisis, the first such occasion which has looked really serious for the Prime Minister, is obvious to everyone except Priti Patel and a few root vegetables. Boris Johnson is a bad man who has done plenty of despicable things, but wandering into his garden for a glass of wine and a chunk of camembert is not one of them. The problem is not that the Prime Minister and his myrmidons threw a few parties, it is that they made a lot of insolent and unnecessary rules preventing others from doing so.

The rules the government made really were wicked. They undoubtedly killed some people, and created misery and despair for many others. Men and women died alone, without the comfort of their families round them. People retreated to their beds, pulled the covers over their heads, and slowly went mad with loneliness and fear. We should be careful, however, not to be manipulated, as we have so often been over the last two years, through the feelings these reflections are likely to engender. The tragedy is not precisely that these people were immiserated while others were celebrating. This, if you like, is the tragedy of life. In any street, in any town in the land, you could find someone whose heart is breaking while her neighbours are thoroughly enjoying themselves. The BBC, which has behaved despicably throughout the pandemic, has been very eager to find members of the public who will contrast their personal tragedy with the hilarity that was going on in Downing Street at the same time. This has been the narrative they push without ceasing: the gods on high Olympus drank wine and laughed and feasted, while below, on the ringing plains of windy Troy, men suffered and bled and grieved.

This contrast has awakened or exacerbated a strain of Puritanism in my fellow citizens with which I have no sympathy. Life is hard and one must seize the opportunity to enjoy it when one can. Let joy be unconfined, no sleep till morn, when youth and pleasure (or in this case, middle age and pleasure) meet. The pandemic and state overreach have given all too many opportunities for po-faced curtain-twitchers to stick their noses into other people’s business. It bears repeating over and over again, for the media invariably gets it wrong: there is nothing wrong with Downing Street staff enjoying themselves. The reprehensible thing is that they tried to prevent others from doing so.

In fact, the only real importance of all these parties is that their existence goes to prove what many of us realised at the time: the restrictions widely accepted by a compliant public were completely pointless. I do not have much faith in any aspect of Johnson’s character, but I do believe in his cowardice. I am certain that, if he thought for a moment that his browsing and sluicing would expose him to the risk of death by hideous plague, he would have stayed inside and hidden under the bed.

Johnson and his fellow ministers had all the data, which they refused to share with us. They knew that separating families and leaving the elderly to die alone were acts of pointless sadism. That is the scandal. The answer to those self-righteous people who begin their criticisms of Johnson with the words “We obeyed all the rules. We made sacrifices…” is simply this: “You shouldn’t have done. The first sacrifice you made was that of your own good judgement and sense of proportion. The second was the liberty of your fellow citizens.” Of course, many people were left with no choice. The staff in what are laughably called “care homes” or the police, or some other agency of government forcibly prevented them from acting decently and humanely. But those who failed their friends and family merely in order to obey the rules should be ashamed. Perhaps they are ashamed, and are now venting their shame in fury against Johnson.

There is still a lamentable failure in the mainstream media to join the dots. They scream about the hypocrisy of the government: one law for us and another for them. However, they are very bashful about pointing out that, since medical rules by their very nature apply equally to everyone, these cannot have been medical rules. Their only purpose was social control. If you were prevented from saying goodbye to your mother on her deathbed or spending Christmas with your grandchildren, it was because those who run the country were drunk on power and wanted to display their dominance over you. Let that make you angry. Who cares if they were drunk on Pinot Grigio as well?

It looks increasingly as though we are heading towards the biggest “I told you so” in history. It may be rather difficult for those of us who have seen the truth for two years now, and who have been quite vocal about it, and who have received plenty of abuse for pointing it out, to deal charitably with those who were slower on the uptake. What is truly essential, however, is that those who were wrong now understand the nature of their mistake and are compelled to admit it. In a recent broadcast for Novara Media, the perennially obtuse Dalia Gebrial doubled down on her refusal to accept the evidence. Those who obeyed all the rules should continue to feel virtuous, she said. They were acting responsibly. They were saving lives.

They were not saving lives. They were not acting virtuously. It may be difficult to accept that one suffered needlessly because one was duped and bullied and nudged and wheedled and fussed and bothered and bossed and coerced and dragooned and intimidated into compliance with some pointless rules, but truth is all too often a bitter pill. At last, the reality is clear, and the two faces of Janus, for once, bear the same expression.

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