Doublethink in Downing Street

It occurs to me that the ongoing shenanigans in No. 10 might in due course provide rich material for a Hollywood blockbuster, a Broadway musical, or perhaps a Glyndebourne opera.  Working title: Allegra con brio!  Then again, the English composer William Walton pre-empted any such production, in 1931, with his uncannily prescient oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast, its text drawn from Psalm 137, and Chapter 5 of the Book of Daniel.  For Babylon, read London Town, the City awash with laundered money. 

Babylon was a great city,

Her merchandise was of gold and silver,

Of precious stones, of pearls, of fine linen,

Of purple, silk and scarlet,

All manner vessels of ivory,

All manner vessels of precious wood,

Of brass, iron and marble,

Cinnamon, odours and ointments,

Of frankincense, wine and oil,

Fine flour, wheat and beasts,

Sheep, horses, chariots, slaves

And the souls of men… 

In Babylon

Belshazzar the King

Made a great feast,

Made a feast to a thousand of his lords,

And drank wine before the thousand…

And in that same hour, as they feasted

Came forth fingers of a man’s hand

And the King saw

The part of the hand that wrote.

And this was the writing that was written:

MENE, MENE, TEKEL UPHARSIN

THOU ART WEIGHED IN THE BALANCE

AND FOUND WANTING.

In that night was Belshazzar the King slain

Slain!

And his Kingdom divided. 

Rembrandt vividly depicted the eerie interruption to the king’s feast in oils, and Walton’s musical evocation at this point is as spine-chilling as it is blood-curdling.  The expression “the writing on the wall” derives from this tale, and has slipped into common usage, depicting a person who has indeed been found wanting, but often who fails to realise that the game is up.  “He can’t see the writing on the wall.” 

I watched the Prime Minister deliver his carefully crafted apologia last Wednesday before the commencement of Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons.  He must have known he was going to be in for a rough ride, and he was clearly trying to get on the front foot.  But he still had to endure a series of blistering attacks, and calls for his resignation, from every opposition party.  He sat with bowed head.  He had to be contrite.  He had to take full responsibility.  He had to apologise.  Above all he mustn’t be petulant.  He mustn’t pick a fight.  To use an expression of his, once applied to a putative UK response to Covid 19, he just had to take it on the chin. 

He duly apologised, but he did not do so unreservedly.  In particular, he did not admit that he, and others who had attended a drinks party in the Downing Street garden, had broken the law.  Instead, he used language that you often hear from entrepreneurs, CEOs and captains of industry whose business affairs turn out to be of a dubious, not to say shady nature.  “We fouled up.  In retrospect, we should have done things differently.”  This is not a confession of wrongdoing, but merely an expression of regret over bad optics.   

Watching his performance, I had the impression of somebody who, deep down, felt he had done nothing amiss, but that it was incumbent upon him that he eat a substantial plate of humble pie.  It is often said that Boris Johnson is a serial liar, but I don’t think his expression of regret on this occasion constituted a lie.  Rather it was a mode of expression that is peculiar to the political world.  Effectively, his statement could be summarised as, “There was a party at No. 10, and there was not a party at No. 10.”  If you send out 100 invitations to guests for drinks and nibbles in the Downing Street garden, then you have just organised a party.  If you slip out of your office for 25 minutes to thank colleagues for all their hard work, then you are looking after your colleagues during a difficult time.  Ergo, you apologise for the way things must appear, especially to people who, because they stuck to the rules, were denied the opportunity to say goodbye to dying loved ones; and you simultaneously explain how such an event was, in good faith, permitted.  This remarkable feat of mental gymnastics was denoted by George Orwell and his neologism, “doublethink”. 

It seems to me that the Prime Minister is not so much a liar, as an exponent of doublethink.  For example, when Allegra Stratton was caught on camera admitting to another social gathering having taken place at No. 10, Mr Johnson expressed outrage at such a revelation.  He declared himself to be as furious as everybody else that such an event had taken place.  Yet we now know that he had attended a similar event himself, therefore his outrage must be faux-outrage; or, he is angry, not because a party took place, but because Ms Stratton told us about it.  He was angry, and he was not angry.  In order to hold these two notions simultaneously in your head, you must be delusional.  You must inhabit either an alternative universe, or a lunatic asylum.                       

Doublethink is crucial to political life, as it is currently conducted.  The Conservative Party is trying to decide what to do about the problem of Boris.  They have temporarily kicked the ball into the long grass by having a senior civil servant take time to establish the full facts.  But how long does it take to conclude that if you send a man with a suitcase round to the local off-licence, you are having a party?  Meanwhile the MPs have returned to their constituencies to consult the grass roots members as to whether Boris is an honourable, or a dishonourable man.   Yet everybody understands that a debate over moral rectitude is quite beside the point.  All that matters is whether Boris is an electoral asset, or an electoral liability.  Practitioners of doublethink hold these two concepts simultaneously in their minds.  There are four options open with respect to Boris: honourable asset; honourable liability; dishonourable asset; dishonourable liability.  He will not be discarded for dishonour; he will be discarded, ruthlessly, if he is perceived to be an electoral liability.  But the Backbench 1922 Committee will couch his dismissal in terms of the dishonour he has brought upon his office.  This is pure doublethink. 

I don’t anticipate that the Prime Minister will resign.  And I suspect that if he is dismissed, in Trumpian fashion he will not accept the decision.  That is because he cannot see the writing on the wall.  And similarly, the Conservative Party cannot see that public anger has turned into derision.  The Westminster Village cannot be taken seriously any more.  This is why Belshazzar’s Feast is so apposite.  No. 10 has become the setting for a phantasmagoric hallucination. 

The Tories might prop him up.  “Now is not the time”, they will say.  They won’t want the next PM to inherit such a nightmare.  But if they stall, I think the consequences will be far-reaching.  Take note of the last line quoted from the Book of Daniel. 

…and his kingdom divided. 

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