BY STEWART SLATER
Returning to Babylon from India, Alexander the Great marched his army through the Gedrosian Desert. Taking longer than expected, food began to run short, and water ran out. When it appeared that the glorious story of conquest would come to a tragic end under the baking Persian sun, some scouts returned to the army announcing the discovery of an oasis. As proof, they produced a skin of water and offered it to the king. What did Alexander do? Did he wash the dust off his face? Did he drain it to slake his thirst? No. He turned it upside down and emptied it over the sand, crying, “I will drink when the army has drunk!”. Not one to turn down the opportunity for theatre, he saw the opportunity to rebuild his bond with his troops, worn thin when they ceased to regard the expedition as the jolly jape he so obviously did. They were, despite everything, all in it together.
Monarchical displays of solidarity with their subjects are not confined to the ancient world. It is, for example, widely known that the Royal Family had ration cards during the War. They are, however, not universal. Napoleon retreated from Moscow by sleigh, while the remnant of his army walked, a prime example, surely, of “one rule for them, another for us”. And yet, he suffered no real consequences for what we might now see as his hypocrisy. On his return from his first exile, he was able to re-take power and field an army of over 70,000 men at Waterloo, a battle which was, as Wellington tells us, “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.”
For while we have applauded those in authority sharing the burdens of those who are not, we have also, traditionally, believed that there are limits to this. We have generally believed that, contra F. Scott Fitzgerald, the powerful are different from you and me and should, at the margin, be treated differently.
At its most serious, if a malign actor decides to initiate a nuclear conflict, Boris and the rest of the cabinet have a place in a bunker. You will be scrabbling for food in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. But even in more trivial areas, we are relaxed about a degree of better treatment for those in power. For example, if you require it, the British state will provide you with a house. If you are Prime Minister or Chancellor, it will provide you with two, a flat over your office, and an estate in the country. The U.S. President has Camp David in addition to the White House, while Emmanuel Macron can choose from two retreats in addition to the less than shabby Elysee Palace.
The rationale for privileging those in power was well stated by Sir Arthur Lee who donated Chequers to the nation when he realised that the decline of the aristocracy meant that political leaders were no longer certain to have country retreats. “…the better the health of our rulers the more sanely they will rule and the inducement to spend two days a week in the high and pure air of the Chiltern woods and hills will, it is hoped, benefit the nation as well as its chosen leaders.” The key determinant for privileging the powerful is if it ultimately rebounds to the advantage of the people by allowing them to perform their jobs better.
Nor is politics alone in this approach. Mariah Carey’s rider for a concert in Dublin included specifications for the temperature of her hotel room, the length of her dining table, and the size and number of the water bottles in her fridge. The promoters of her appearance decided that complying with her demands was in their interests because of the revenue it would generate. At a less starry level, the Lebanese thinker Nassim Taleb has recommended choosing the scruffiest doctor available as, given the ethos of the medical profession, the only way to get away with being disheveled is to be extremely talented.
The questions about the Downing Street Parties are, therefore, are the people involved of a level that we might wish to cut them some slack, and would doing so rebound to the national advantage?
The answer to the first question seems a pretty clear “Yes”. The Prime Minister is at the apex of the political system and relies on his staff to function effectively. The pandemic has led to them being forced to take a series of decisions which have affected the lives of the whole country. It is reasonable that we should wish them to be on top form when they take them. However, such an argument is not really available to Sir Keir Starmer, whose “beer and takeaway” is, apparently, completely different to the Prime Minister’s “wine and cheese”. The Leader of the Opposition is not, bluntly, important in this sense. He has no power, and takes no decisions which impact the nation. There is no way that making exceptions for him can reasonably be said to benefit the rest of us.
Can we say, however, that the activities in Downing Street did?
It has been alleged that, as he passed through the offices partaking in “Wine Time Friday”, the Prime Minister told his staff to “let off some steam”. We might reasonably imagine that Downing Street has, over the past 18 months, been a stressful environment. None of those involved have had to deal with a pandemic before and the impact of the decisions taken is of a different order of magnitude to the more run-of-the-mill arguments over French fishing rights. Added to the other restrictions placed on the population, such as not seeing loved ones, it is easy to imagine that life for many of the staff might have been rather difficult. In a culture which touts its awareness of, and concern for, “mental health”, we might be sympathetic to their plight and understanding of their attempts to deal with it. Self-medicating with alcohol is hardly unknown and, if it allows them to function better, probably forgivable in the circumstances.
Against this, it might be argued that doctors, nurses and those on “the front line” were also under pressure, and did not, to the best of our knowledge, resort to garden parties. However, the comparison is not exact. Those in the medical profession are taught to deal with death from early in their training. Those in politics might expect to go through their entire careers without being involved in “life or death” decisions. There is also a question of scale. Deaths in the U.K. peaked at 1485 based on the “date of death” data published by the O.N.S. which, with 1978 hospitals in the country according to Statista, works out at slightly less than one death per hospital per day. It is certainly important to individual patients and their families that individual doctors perform at their best, but it is not as systemically critical as those in positions of political power.
If, of course, the parties led to a general decline in compliance with health guidance, they could not be said to be to the nation’s benefit. However, it is not the parties per se which would cause such, it is their entry into the public domain. There was never any intention that they should be publicised. The frequently made comparison between the parties and the Queen’s obvious isolation at Prince Philip’s funeral is not entirely apposite as one was designed for public consumption, and the other very much not.
Moreover, it is far from clear how important so-called “elite cues” are to peoples’ behaviour. It might be comforting to politicians’ egos to believe that the populace is hanging on their every word to decide what to do, but equally, it may be the case that, faced with information from trusted medical sources that a new, highly transmissable disease is abroad which might be fatal, people have a strong preference for taking action to avoid it. In the latter case, politicians who break the rules are more likely to be seen as foolish than role-models. The recent “Plan B” voluntary restrictions were introduced against a backdrop of the initial “Partygate” revelations, but compliance has been strong as is shown anecdotally by any number of journalistic photos of empty London streets and, more significantly, by the hard data on transport usage and footfall from the likes of TfL and Google. Faced with 18 months experience of the pandemic, and briefings from Sir Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, people have chosen to do what the politicians have said, and not what they have done.
In an age which bends the knee to egalitarianism, we might expect our leaders to behave like Alexander, but he bore little cost from emptying his waterskin. He knew an oasis was nearby. The staff at Downing Street did not. Since it is not clear that partying in Downing Street, as Crown Property, was technically illegal nor that it has had any notable impact on public behaviour, if it helped the staff function during the pandemic, we should not begrudge them having a cheeky one on us. It is surely better than the alternative.
Stewart Slater works in Finance. He invites you to join him at his website.