Since the prime minister was discharged from intensive care after his treatment for Covid-19, British newspapers, notably The Sunday Times, have carried critical articles arguing that the UK Government was too slow to deal with the pandemic.
Instead of taking prompt action to ensure social distancing, outlaw mass events, or implement appropriate testing, the government wasted valuable time. Given that we could see from China and Italy what was heading our way, why did the UK government fail to act? A failure which may unwittingly have already cost thousands of lives in the UK. Some experts now predict that the UK is likely to have the highest death toll from Covid-19 in Europe. It may already (April 28) be approaching 50,000.
The optimism factor
Critics of Johnson’s handling of the early stages of the pandemic overlook one important aspect of his personality and political brand – extreme optimism. He doesn’t simply look on the bright side of life. His views are distinctly rosy. His optimism was very much in evidence on March 18th when he told the country that we “can turn the tide (on the virus) within the next twelve weeks”. He was “absolutely confident we can send coronavirus packing…”
This was contrary to views of his expert advisers. At the same event Sir Patrick Vallance, UK Government’s chief scientific adviser, said it is not possible to put timelines on the course of the pandemic; in his view the UK would be in the grip of the virus “for the long haul”. Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said it was “improbable” that the virus could be permanently eradicated. Yet, when pressed, the ever-optimistic Johnson cleaved to the idea of “turning the tide” although, according to The Independent, he did admit he had been accused of being “unnecessarily boosterish”.
According to one cabinet minister, quoted on Channel 4, Johnson was worried that draconian action would damage his optimistic political brand, and he didn’t want to look “buffeted by events”.
Johnson’s optimism was particularly to the fore during the EU referendum, and one of the main reasons Tory Party members chose him as leader. No one can deny that Johnson projected an upbeat narrative about Brexit: the endless possibilities for the UK outside the EU. He dismissed those who saw problems with supply chains or tariffs as fomenting ‘Project Fear’. His opening speech in the new Parliament promised a good Brexit deal and took a swipe at ‘doubters, doomsters, and gloomsters’. When opponents raised genuine problems, such as the Irish Border, Johnson told them to ‘believe in Britain’.
The downside of Johnson’s optimism is that it’s untethered to reality. Belief is all we need; resolute optimism alone can secure the desired future. That type of magical thinking doesn’t have a place in contemporary government where solutions have to be found for practical problems. Like it or not we are all buffeted by events. The politician’s job is to deal with events skilfully, not pretend they aren’t there.
It is easy to see how, faced with a pandemic, and the threat it poses for lives and jobs, this optimistic mindset would underplay the problem. If those at the top of government had a history of routinely discounting worst-case scenarios, they would not willingly take the costly action necessary to mount a robust defence. They would rather cling to the notion that plucky Britons could put up a valiant fight and acquire herd immunity.
Strengths and weaknesses of optimism
So how appropriate is optimism in this crisis? I actively promoted optimism in the early days of the Centre I set up as we specifically focussed on positive psychology, (particularly the work of Professor Martin Seligman, an international expert on optimism). However, I came to see that, while optimism can be beneficial for us as individuals, it may be our undoing as a society if it stops us confronting and grappling with existential problems such as climate change and Covid-19.
At the individual level optimists may have a distinct advantage in this pandemic. As long as they take the necessary steps to protect themselves, their outlook will help reduce fear and negative feelings. And, as research shows, this will be good for their immune systems. But an optimistic style is inappropriate for leaders in a pandemic.
In his book ‘Learned Optimism’ Seligman argues that pessimism is vitally important – it keeps us alive. If we didn’t think the worst might happen and hence take evasive action, we might instead take unacceptable risks.
He writes: “If the cost of failure is high, optimism is the wrong strategy” and elsewhere: “If your goal is to plan for a risky and uncertain future, do not use optimism.”
That calls into question the wisdom of upbeat optimism in Brexit planning – the cost of failure is high. But it becomes potentially catastrophic in the face of Covid-19. What we needed in early January was a generous dose of pessimism. What we got was an over-optimistic prime minister squandering valuable time in the battle with Covid-19: the worst would not happen.
Undoubtedly voters are attracted to upbeat leaders presenting visions of a better future. But effective leaders must use that optimism skilfully – knowing when to give it free rein, when to temper it with caution. The optimistic political leader needs wisdom. Whatever adjectives supporters of Boris Johnson might use to describe him I suspect ‘wise’ would not be one of them.
Can-do didn’t do
In choosing his cabinet, Johnson was likely to select can-do optimists. If there had been more pessimists in charge in January and February would they have acted differently: stopping people flying into Britain from disease-stricken countries (or at least managing it better); preparing for a huge testing regime; prohibiting mass gatherings such as Cheltenham Races; discouraging people from shaking hands? Thinking the worst could happen, would they have taken as much evasive action as they could at the earliest possible time?
Instead, on 3rd March, our optimistic prime minister told the country that he was still shaking hands with coronavirus patients. As late as 15th March the UK government was still permitting mass gatherings.
Am I being harsh on our prime minister? Countries such as the United States have also been slow to act and much of this has to do with President Trump’s personality. But some have taken prompt action. Denmark went for total lockdown on March 11th before there were any recorded deaths. So did New Zealand when there was only one death from the virus. Portugal also took radical action when only one person had died. So too Greece. Ireland closed schools and pubs over a week before the UK. The UK did not take decisive action until March 23rd.
Interestingly, research shows that Portugal, Greece and Ireland are three of the most pessimistic European countries. Both New Zealand and Denmark have female prime ministers and numerous research studies show that women are much more pessimistic and risk averse than men. In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon mandated school closures before the UK government and closed building sites. I suspect that if she had been fully in charge of Scotland’s response to the pandemic, she would have taken action earlier than Johnson.
However, I don’t think that his delayed action is all about gender. Not all male UK prime ministers have been as off the scale on optimism as Johnson. It is easy to believe that John Major, Gordon Brown, and Tony Blair would have taken the dangers of Covid-19 much more seriously at an earlier stage than our current prime minister.
The optimistic brand collides with reality
On New Year’s Eve Johnson’s message to the nation brimmed with ‘confidence’ and ‘certainty’. This was going to be “an exhilarating decade of growth, prosperity, and opportunity.” The year 2020 was to be “the start of something special” for the “hard-working, ingenious people that make this the greatest place on earth.”
No-one foresaw what 2020 really held in store for all of us. Least of all a man who passionately believed the future could only be rosy. A man who, for the past few years, had been decrying ‘doomsters’ and ‘gloomsters’ for pointing out there may be trouble ahead.
Johnson is now back at work. After hospitalisation and convalescence from Covid-19, this skirmish with death may well have a profound effect and make him a better leader. It is clear that he is now unwilling to lift lockdown early for fear of a second peak. His statements show that he is putting the nation’s health before the economy: extreme optimism tempered by realism and a shift in values.
Our prime minister has discovered the hard way that cheery optimism alone will not protect us from this virus; the only certainty about the future is that it is uncertain. Bad things can, and do, happen. We are all ‘buffeted by events.’ I hope this reality check will extend to his view of Brexit.
I would also like to see our Prime Minister replacing optimism with hope. In the words of Seamus Heaney, “Hope is not optimism, which expects things to turn out well, but something rooted in the conviction that there is good worth working for.”
This is an edited version of an article which first appeared on Postcards from Scotland. Carol Craig set up and still runs on a part time basis the Centre for Confidence and Well-being. She is also the Commissioning Editor for Postcards from Scotland and has written a number of books.
Images of Boris Johnson (April 28’s minute of silence and March 3 news conference) by Andrew Parsons/No 10 via flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Read more about Martin Seligmann here