At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK government often needed to address the British public directly to secure compliance with, and support for, its response to the health crisis. Alan Finlayson, Lee Jarvis and Michael Lister draw on recent research to argue that a close analysis of this discourse provides us with important insight into the ruling class’s understanding of its own power.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the UK’s shores in early 2020, the UK government was confronted with two primary challenges. First, and most immediately, it had to respond to the disease itself – not least by managing its spread and limiting its death toll. Second, no less importantly, the government also had to communicate its response in order to generate public acceptance of, and subsequently active support for, the measures that formed part of that response.
Set-piece public relations events were important here – most obviously the televised press conferences that saw government ministers accompanied by scientific experts. So too was the repetition of neat rhetorical messages: “hands, face, space”; “follow the science”; “Protect the NHS”, and so forth. Such events and tropes contributed to a wider communicative strategy in which the government worked to “sell” its evolving response to the public.
Tropes such as “Protect the NHS” contributed to a wider communicative strategy in which the government worked to “sell” its evolving response to the public.
In talking to the British public, however, the UK government found itself also having to talk about it: who they are, what they think, want, will and won’t agree to, and so forth. This also entailed talking, explicitly and implicitly, about the relationship between that public and the state which was imposing constraints and introducing new obligations in the midst of uncertain and often frightening times.
A public of many faces
In recent research analysing the UK government’s rhetorical framing of its response to COVID-19 (in the first six months of the crisis), we have found that the way in which the government spoke to and about citizens was not at all uniform and that it varied in ways which might tell us something about how the British State imagines the community it governs.
We identified four primary representations or conceptualisations of the public that emerged through analysis of government communications:
First, was via statistical representations intended to capture the virus’s development and impact. Here, the people appeared in government discourse through their numerical representation, as measures of casualties or indicators of infections. An example is then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove’s reference, on 4 April 2020, to the:
“708 people [who] have sadly lost their lives as a result of COVID-19: the highest daily total yet recorded. And that means that of those hospitalised in the UK, the number who have passed away now totals 4,313. Those numbers emphasise again the importance of maintaining social distancing measures to halt the spread of the disease.”
Second, the people were also, at times, represented as parts of suffering families, bereaved or otherwise harmed by the evolving virus. As Dominic Raab, then foreign secretary, reflected in the daily press conference held on 16 April 2020:
“Every time I come to this lectern, and I read out the grim toll of people who have so sadly passed away. I walk away from here, and I think about what their sons and their daughters must be going through right now. Their brothers and sisters. Their grandchildren. All the loved ones left with their unbearable, long-term, grief.”
Third, we found attempts to address the people directly as a collection of individuals each bearing some responsibility for helping the government overcome the crisis. As the prime minister, Boris Johnson, put it on 22 March 2020:
“You are doing your bit in following this advice to slow the spread of this disease. The more we collectively slow the spread, the more time we give the NHS to prepare, the more lives we will save, the faster we will get through this.”
The fourth theme was that of citizens naturally disposed to a certain political culture, centred on a love of freedom. As Boris Johnson, again, put it:
“I know how difficult this is, how it seems to go against the freedom-loving instincts of the British people. And I also know how much, right now, workers and business deserve the financial reassurance we are giving them. But we will get through this. We will get through it together, and we will beat this virus.”
How government discourse exposes its underlying conceptions of politics and power
These four interpretations – or constructions – of the public and its relationship to the British State merit reflection for two reasons in particular. In the first instance, they are evidence of the variety of ways in which governments can, and do, speak about their citizens in their efforts to construct and communicate government policy.
Political scientists often study how citizens think about their government: how much they trust it, rate its competence, and so on. Less common though is work on how – by what statistical, metaphorical and ideological representations – governments themselves imagine publics. Our research, we suggest, highlights the amount of work there is to be done around questions such as these.
Across the different depictions of the public in British Covid-19 discourse emerged the underlying theme that “government knows better”.
Second, across the different depictions of the public in British Covid-19 discourse emerged the underlying theme that “government knows better”. A reinforcement, in other words, of the Executive-focused, Westminster- and Whitehall-centred nature of British politics. There were, undoubtedly, elements of a populist “style” to central government’s political rhetoric in which the executive positioned itself as equivalent to, or as empathising with, its people. Yet these elements were subsumed beneath a very prominent view of British politics in which power and the responsibility to act was necessarily centred within the government itself, as the only body able truly to see and talk with authority about the crisis.
This attitude – that in a crisis “central government knows best”, that other stakeholders, alternative strategies and regional voices have no independent value – is a longstanding one, and characteristic of what has been labelled “the British political tradition”. That the tradition withstood the COVID-19 pandemic, that it perhaps became more prominent even as it adjusted to an increasingly populist moment in national and global politics, speaks to a significant resilience, and one that tells us potentially a great deal about the reflex outlooks of our political class.
An earlier version of these findings was published in the journal Contemporary Politics.
Image credit: Photo by Number 10, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.