The word contempt, I learned last week, is derived from the Latin contemptus, meaning scorn. My 2008 edition of the Oxford English dictionary defines it as “the feeling that someone or something is worthless or beyond consideration”; a more recent article in the magazine Psychology Today says that “empathy and contempt are polar opposites”, and warned that the latter always has a catastrophic effect on human relationships.
I was researching the word because of its increasingly regular use in headlines relating to the prime minister. Last Thursday, a column in the Financial Times was titled “Carelessness and contempt are at the root of every Boris Johnson crisis”. Over the previous few weeks, a writer in the Daily Telegraph has scolded Johnson for his “contempt for business”, while the Economist has accused him of treating “checks and balances with contempt”. Johnson has also been accused of having contempt for NHS staff, former coalmining communities, his fellow MPs and the population of Wales: it is rare that a week goes past without some or other story about this element of his personality and politics, and the C-word being used.
There are two elements to all this: one is Johnson’s Trumpish disdain for some of the most basic components of our democracy – the rule of law, scrutiny of the executive, an independent BBC (which he is now lashing out at yet again). The other is bound up with the prime minister’s apparently dim and disrespectful view of his fellow human beings – which, as revelations about Downing Street parties pile up, is now at the heart of our politics. The latest story, broken by the Sunday Mirror, has its own specific details: Johnson on a computer screen, merrily asking quiz questions while his staff “huddled by computers”, “knocking back fizz, wine and beer” in defiance of restrictions on social mixing. But one very familiar element is present and correct: whatever privations the rest of us were enduring, says one source, “the PM turned a blind eye. He seemed totally comfortable with gatherings.”
This kind of contempt is there in Johnson’s serial untruths: lying, after all, often implies disdain for whoever the liar thinks can be misled. It is part of his strident ambition, and apparent habit of contemptuously using people and causes for his own ends. His Peppa Pig speech at the CBI was a case study in contempt for an audience. It is impossible, moreover, to separate this behavioural contempt from the disregard Johnson shows for conventions and institutions, because they ultimately boil down to the same thing, captured in the cliche of rules being for the little people.
Remember what a teacher at Eton wrote to his father in 1982: “Boris sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility … I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.” A justified retort, of course, would be that this is the exact mindset that Eton is designed to produce – but even in that context, Johnson seemed to be in a league of his own.
In ordinary times, a prime minister like that would be problematic enough. But in the midst of the apparently unending Covid crisis, the impression of arrogance and impunity that seems to have spread from Johnson to his aides and cabinet colleagues now feels actively dangerous. As evidenced by the government responding to the spread of the Omicron variant with what it calls plan B, people are still being told to follow unprecedented rules and guidelines; and a more stringent plan C may soon follow.
If politics and power were the right way up, those at the top would at least do an impression of being serious and consistent in order to rein in any irresponsible parts of the population. But in England, we seem to have ended up with the exact opposite: a dutiful public boggling at a clique at the top who are, to coin a currently ubiquitous phrase, “taking us for fools”: shallow, reckless, and apparently contemptuous of the sacrifices people are still making, which will soon enter their third year.
Even now, with Labour suddenly pulling ahead in the polls and speculation mounting about Thursday’s byelection in Shropshire, do Johnson’s colleagues really understand how toxic this is becoming? The idea of the government smugly ignoring rules and obligations that apply to the rest of us is surely starting to define perceptions of much more than Covid restrictions. What, for example, of “levelling up”? The prime minister’s broken promises about the future of high speed rail have been widely portrayed as a fatal blow to the credibility of the whole idea. So far, the most visible aspects of the policy have centred on haughtily insisting that places compete for relatively trifling amounts of money; when the delayed levelling-up white paper finally appears, it will reportedly include plans to create US-style “governors” of English counties, but no new spending commitments. The “red wall”, it is safe to say, is not yet aflame with excitement.
For all the hype surrounding levelling up, the absence of any emotional connection with, or serious plans for, the places the government says it wants to help is striking. Once again, the overwhelming impression is of contempt and condescension, and people being blithely offered something Johnson has no serious intention of delivering. Worse still, as proved by the national insurance hike, the end of the universal credit uplift and his regressive plans for funding social care, things that he actually has done will make lives in so-called “left behind” places even harder. As governments often do, Johnson and his colleagues doubtless thought such moves would cause momentary upset before settling into irrelevance. The problem with the “taking us for fools” narrative is that it provides a catch-all context into which these things – along with the controversies about Tory MPs’ second jobs – snugly fit.
There are presumably people in the cabinet – let alone on the Tory backbenches – who are starting to yearn for a style of government that might be more serious, substantial and mindful of the lives of ordinary voters. Their problem, perhaps, is that once their party decided to once again draw its top brass from the alumni of English public schools, the die was cast. David Cameron had his own version of the politics of contempt: what else was austerity? Like Johnson, he had a habit of saying whatever he thought would either get him out of trouble, or bring him more votes. Once he had left office, his work for the defunct finance outfit Greensill Capital suggested someone only too happy to wring money out of advantages that 99% of us could only dream about. But Johnson is surely something else again: so arrogant and thoughtless that he sometimes seems almost amoral.
I recently read Sad Little Men, the writer Richard Beard’s eloquent book about private schools and the kind of leaders they produce, which shines light on Cameron and Johnson via his own story of an elite education. In his experience, contempt for the lower orders began with the idea that “everyone else was less special and often stupid”, and blurred into indifference: “We saw from car windows the petrol stations and primary schools and Bovis homes in which less privileged lives played themselves out, but the hopes and dreams of these people didn’t meaningfully exist for us, nor their disappointments and pain.”
The story of a public enduring the worst effects of the pandemic while Downing Street partied on gives those words an awful potency: somewhere in that sentence, in fact, lies one explanation for both the mess this government is in, and the mire the rest of us have been dragged into.