News from Nowhere: Staying Alive
The British PM's superhuman faculty for political endurance currently seems catastrophic for the immediate future of democracy in the UK.
They say that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. But disinformation masquerading as fact is of course far worse.
A right-wing friend of mine recently informed me that man-made climate change was a myth – a myth propagated and perpetuated by a conspiracy of governments across the world. It remained unclear what the purpose of this conspiracy might be. Perhaps various prime ministers and presidents held shares in a multinational loft insulation company.
One thing, though, for my friend was certain. There was no such thing as man-made climate change. He had read this in some obscure corner of the internet. He told me that a properly qualified and accredited scientist had said so.
Of course, climate change deniers tend to rely upon a vanishingly tiny minority of scientific opinion. Ninety-nine point nine per cent of scientists understand that the carbon emissions of industries and technologies have for more than a century altered the chemical balance of our planet’s atmosphere, resulting in catastrophic shifts in climate systems. The remaining tenth of a percent of scientists tend to have their research funded and their credentials underpinned by the giants of the transnational fossil fuel conglomerates.
For once, however, the proliferation of my right-wing friend’s conspiracy theories was not the most obviously hazardous prospect for the global environment in public discourse that day.
At the end of last month, it had been reported in the journal Science that an international team of scientists had completed the mapping of the human genome by deciphering the last remaining sequences in our DNA. These breakthroughs offer not only opportunities for the development of radical new gene therapies but also the possibilities of targeting individuals with the most appropriate conventional medicines based upon the predilections of their genes. They also, of course, bring closer the chance of our civilization’s descent into a dystopian society populated by the designer babies of genomic eugenics.
But there are perhaps more immediate controversies to trouble the ethics of biomedical science. A week into April, another genetics story made it into the news. Scientists in Cambridge had discovered a technique to reverse the effects of ageing: to rejuvenate human cells. Using cloning technologies established a quarter of a century ago, these scientists had been experimenting with laboratory procedures developed to create human embryonic stem cells – cells which might one day be used to build organs to replace diseased or worn-out body parts – when they had stumbled an entirely unexpected result.
Like much of the best science, their discovery was accidental – or serendipitous, as such scientists like to say. They had found, quite by chance, that, by reducing the duration of the application of chemicals used to generate stem cells out of ordinary cells, they had managed to rejuvenate a set of skin cells by about thirty years. Their sample of a 53-year-old woman’s cells suddenly looked and acted like a 23-year-old’s.
It is also typical of much of the best science that their discovery has something of a downside. Some might call it a fatal flaw. Its practical applications are limited by the fact that the chemicals it uses tend to prove carcinogenic in human subjects. Yet (and please forgiving me if you feel I’m overstating this) this may eventually prove to have been one of the most significant moments in the history of human science and civilization.
The professor leading the Cambridge team declared that his project’s ‘long-term aim is to extend the human health span, rather than the lifespan, so that people can get older in a healthier way’. It seems clear however that this kind of anti-ageing therapy could be exploited to increase human longevity, and as such could prove priceless. There is no limit to what the wealthy might pay to extend their natural lifespans indefinitely, in an absurd and obscene extension of the medico-economic apartheid that already divides the health outcomes of the rich and poor across the world.
Then, as if all this weren’t electrifying enough, halfway through this month another Cambridgeshire-based group of scientists published research showing how the genetic mutations that take place during an individual’s lifetime impact upon the ageing process. Their findings, wrote a BBC science correspondent, begged the question as to ‘whether there are ways of slowing the genetic damage or even repairing it’. It was the second time in a week that British geneticists had raised the prospect of virtual immortality.
An old science fiction story once imagined how the future lords of time and space travelled back into the past to prevent humankind’s discovery of the secret of immortality. It was a secret which, if exposed, would unravel the geopolitical balance of the entire cosmos. Indeed, the dangers of the temptations of immortality have excited the imaginations of literary fantasists since well before Henry Rider Haggard’s She was published in the 1880s. In the western tradition, this notion can be traced at least as far back as the ancient Greek myth of Tithonus, granted eternal life but not eternal youth – all the way through to Harry Potter’s encounter with the philosopher’s stone. The beguiling idea of an elixir of immortality resurfaced famously last year in the success of the latest cinematic adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel of 1965, Dune, a film which last month won half a dozen Academy Awards.
Death, these writers suggest, is the price of progress, the price of evolution, the price of life. It is the price we pay for the luxury of procreation within an economy of finite resources on a crowded planet. The price we pay for our children is the sure and certain knowledge that we and they will one day die.
Our planet is already riven by social injustice, by the inequitable distribution of its limited supplies of habitable land, mineral reserves, fuel, and food. Add to that the possibility that the Earth’s more privileged peoples, the legions of the rich and powerful, might get to live forever, and to multiply exponentially, and the history of human civilization would look doomed to be overtaken by an escalating series of international and internecine conflicts provoked by dire shortages of the resources needed to sustain those burgeoning populations.
In his great play of 1953, Waiting for Godot, one of Samuel Beckett’s characters observes that the total amount of happiness available in the world has always remained ‘a constant quantity’. He adds, however, that ‘it is true the population has increased’. The greater the number of people, the greater the Earth’s despair.
The British naturalist and television presenter David Attenborough has for years controversially supposed that population controls represent the only viable solution to the threat of global ecological meltdown. The possibility that science might indefinitely extend human lifespans, although immediately attractive, might of course have disastrous effects. The increased duration of individual lives would undoubtedly result in the accelerated growth of human populations. This would almost certainly cut short the duration of the Anthropocene, the epoch of the Earth’s domination by the human race.
A week ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a clarification on a point made in a report they had published at the start of this month. The planet, they warned, has even less time left than previously thought in which to turn around its carbon emissions if we are to avoid complete environmental collapse. In short, it has no time at all.
The British Prime Minister’s failure to achieve any significant progress during COP26, the vital climate change conference which he hosted in Glasgow last autumn, has hardly helped the situation. His energy strategy’s recent capitulation to his backbenchers’ dislike of onshore wind-farming has only made matters worse. The literal immortalization of the ruling classes – the very people whose greed, arrogance and indifference have brought us to this point – is now the last thing the world needs.
Boris Johnson has however this month continued to demonstrate his own brand of immortality – an apparent political invulnerability, despite all the facts stacked against him, a preternatural capacity for political survival, a quality every bit as miraculous as the wonders revealed by the cutting edge of contemporary science.
Earlier this month, Mr. Johnson received a police fine – a so-called ‘fixed penalty notice’ – for having breached his own government’s lockdown regulations. He admitted that ‘people had the right to expect better’ of him – although most of the UK electorate would by that point doubtless have given up expecting anything very much of him at all. He claimed that ‘in all frankness’ (a phrase which sounded almost tauntingly sarcastic on the lips of this inveterate liar) it had not occurred to him that attending his own birthday party during a period of lockdown ‘might have been a breach of the rules’ which he himself had determined and announced. He confessed that in this he ‘fell short’.
Falling short seemed something of an understatement. Boris Johnson had fallen short in the same way that the French defense against Nazi invasion had fallen short in 1940, or that the clinical psychopath Harold Shipman had fallen short in his Hippocratic duty of care. As the BBC News noted, Johnson ‘became the UK’s first serving prime minister to be sanctioned for breaking the law’. The national broadcaster also provided a helpful showreel of clips of the many occasions on which Boris Johnson had in recent months denied attending these parties, breaking the rules, or doing anything wrong at all.
Mr. Johnson refused to resign, and his loyal ministers lined up to voice their support. Despite being found to have committed a criminal offence, and despite having repeatedly misled parliament as to his actions, Mr. Johnson proved himself fundamentally incapable of doing the honorable thing and tendering his resignation to Her Majesty the Queen.
In the immediate wake of this news, one member of his administration – a relatively junior justice minister – had resigned on the grounds that ‘breaches of criminal law’ had taken place in Downing Street and that ‘it would be inconsistent with the rule of law for that conduct to pass with constitutional impunity’. In other words, the minister felt that his ‘ministerial and professional obligations to support and uphold the rule of law’ meant that he had to quit, because his boss (lacking his own sense of ethical integrity) was not willing to do so.
By contrast, Mr. Johnson’s faithful Foreign Secretary had declared that the Prime Minister was still ‘delivering for Britain on many fronts’. This seemed to serve as a timely reminder that it was neither her diplomatic competence nor her professional efficacy that kept her in her job.
The headline which dominated the front page of the Dailly Mirror the following day, echoing the words of the Leader of the Opposition, was stark and uncompromising in its condemnation of this government, as it lamented the state of a nation ‘led by liars and lawbreakers’.
That same day, it was also reported that the country’s rate of inflation had hit a thirty-year high, exacerbating a cost-of-living crisis which – along with domestic energy tariff rises and increases to direct taxation introduced this month, as well as hikes in the price of petrol at the pumps – had made it increasingly difficult for ordinary people to continue to heat their homes, feed their families, take their children to school and travel to work. If Mr. Johnson is indeed ‘delivering for Britain’, then what he is delivering is deprivation and economic, environmental and social disaster.
Johnson’s capacity for political survival is nevertheless quite extraordinary. It appears to result from a combination of pig-headed tenacity and killer political instincts – an almost sociopathic ruthlessness in retaliating against those who cross him.
British newspapers had last month, for example, carried reports of his arguments with his popular Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, over energy and tax policies. The immediate threat of Mr. Sunak’s challenge not only to Johnson’s authority but also to his position has now however conveniently receded.
Downing Street had previously pledged that (although such details were private and would not be released by the Metropolitan Police) it would notify the media if the Prime Minister received one of those fixed penalty notices. In the event, it announced that both Mr. Johnson and his Chancellor had done so. This clearly did not boost Mr. Sunak’s chances of fulfilling his ambitions to succeed his boss.
The preceding week’s newspapers had been filled with reports as to the details of Rishi Sunak’s multimillionaire wife’s tax arrangements. These focused upon her non-domiciled status in the UK, which allowed her to avoid paying tax on overseas incomes. This confidential information had been unlawfully leaked to the press. Mr. Sunak has demanded an inquiry into this leak, and such an inquiry will take place. However, it seems highly unlikely that the chain of evidence will ever be traced all the way back to Number 10 – convenient though this leak has been for the Prime Minister’s political fortunes.
It is nonetheless clear that Boris Johnson will do whatever it takes keep his career alive. His is an extreme example of what the biologist Richard Dawkins once called the selfish gene. The great pretender is also the great survivor. He is never going to give up power without a fight.
Even if he were to be caught on live television defacing the walls of Buckingham Palace with obscene graffiti defaming the memory of the Queen’s late consort, high on crystal meth and resplendently bedecked in her Majesty’s stolen crown jewels, but otherwise as naked as the day he was born, exposing a set of Nazi tattoos across his flabby torso, the authorities would still no doubt have to drag him kicking and screaming and protesting his innocence out of Downing Street, with most of his senior colleagues rallying to support his absurd claims of mitigation, denial and excuse.
The possibility of biological immortality may one day prove calamitous for our species and our planet. Meanwhile, as we await this latest impending apocalypse, the fact of its Prime Minister’s superhuman faculty for political endurance currently seems catastrophic for the immediate future of democracy in the UK.
Eleven years ago, Boris Johnson wrote that when a government ‘has been in power too long’ and has ‘exhausted the patience of the people’ then it will invariably act with the aim of ‘self-preservation’ rather than in ‘the interests of the electorate’. Depicting the final days of the UK’s previous Labour administration, before his own party regained power, Mr. Johnson characterized that government as being led by a man prone to ‘long rambling speeches’ and willing to risk one ‘mad last roll of the dice’ in a desperate bid to remain in power. Boris Johnson now seems rather closer to that portrait of Gordon Brown than Mr. Brown ever was.
Following the news of his police fine, Boris Johnson’s government announced a scheme to deport asylum-seekers to the East African state of Rwanda. This improbable strategy, straight out of the Donald Trump playbook of looney-tunes-crazy populist plans, had been agreed despite concerns from Whitehall civil servants, including the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, who had questioned its prospective effectiveness. It was swiftly denounced by the Leader of the Opposition as a tactic to distract attention away from Downing Street’s latest embarrassments, and by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees as contrary to international law. The Prime Minister’s immediate predecessor Theresa May said she doubted its ‘legality, practicality and efficacy’. It was even condemned by the most senior cleric in the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, as ‘the opposite of the nature of God’. It certainly grabbed a lot of the headlines for a few crucial days. That is precisely what it was intended to do.
It is tempting of course to equate this gambit with what Mr. Johnson had portrayed in 2011 as the ‘last gasp from the bunker’ of a leader in his final hours still vainly struggling to survive. It is of course a lazy comparison, typical of Johnson’s own rhetorical style; and yet one cannot now help hearing in this Prime Minister’s capricious and erratic ravings echoes from that bunker beneath the streets of Berlin towards the end of April 1945.
Last week, Boris Johnson addressed the House of Commons to offer yet another half-hearted apology for his tendency to party while the rest of the country was in lockdown, to clarify that he had in fact been doing so despite his previous denials, to claim that he never knowingly broke the rules nor lied to parliament, and to argue that there were now far more important things to focus on, such as the cost-of-living crisis and the war in Europe. With a degree of brazen disingenuity worthy of a true sociopath, he insisted that it had not occurred to him, either at the time of subsequently, that such social gatherings ‘could amount to a breach of the rules’.
There were none on the opposition benches – and perhaps in truth few on the government’s side – who were persuaded by his latest blustering display of rhetorical legerdemain. The Leader of the Opposition responded that the Prime Minister was dishonest and unable to change. Local elections to be held near the start of next month will doubtless demonstrate whether the British electorate themselves have been convinced by this show of chutzpah, or whether it will at last be time to compose the obituaries on his apparently indestructible political career.
The following morning, the Daily Telegraph reported that Mr. Johnson had gone on, later that day, to complain, in a private meeting of his own MPs, and in a typical fit of pique, that both the BBC and the Archbishop of Canterbury were more critical of his government than they were of Vladimir Putin. It seems there is no limit to this Prime Minister’s shameless sense of righteous indignation and entitlement.
The eminent historian, and member of the House of Lords, Peter Hennessy declared this month that Boris Johnson would be remembered as ‘the great debaser in modern times of decency in public and political life, and of our constitutional conventions’ and that he had turned his exalted office into ‘an adventure playground for his narcissistic vanity’. It appears that it has become unimaginably difficult for Mr. Johnson to survive this ongoing scandal. The tragedy, however, may be that it is not actually impossible.