The Hancock affair shows the long tradition of the British upper classes’ mentality of arrogance and disregard for law continues
Just like their elite forebears, those who regard themselves as the natural rulers of the country do what they like, when they like. The laws they pass and the rules they prescribe are for others, not for them.
The exposure of Matt Hancock in the arms of an adviser when he was instructing the public to avoid hugging seemed shocking at first sight. But it is only the latest sad example of misbehaviour among politicians. Boris Johnson ended up in hospital with the coronavirus after boasting about shaking hands with people in hospital in the face of his own government’s advice to self-isolate. Robert Jenrick’s unwise decision to contravene official rules by driving 150 miles to Herefordshire and Shropshire and Dominic Cummings’s foolish excursions to Durham and Barnard Castle suggest a wider failing at the top of society.
In fact, we should not even be surprised by their conduct. It is better understood as a symptom of an established British tradition. Hancock, Johnson, Jenrick, Cummings and others simply acted as members of the British upper classes and those who regard themselves as the natural rulers of the country have always behaved. That is to say, while they pass laws and prescribe rules and regulations for the population at large they do not accept any responsibility on their part to obey them.
It is not surprising therefore that despite insisting that people must maintain a social distance the prime minister continued to shake hands with all sorts of people, some of whom obviously carried the virus and passed it on to him. To judge from the other leading ministers, civil servants and Downing Street figures who have also picked up the coronavirus, his attitude is not uncommon.
They get away with it largely because Britain has long been a very hierarchical and deferential society, and although her gradual adoption of a parliamentary tradition during the nineteenth century challenged these characteristics, it was never strong enough to sweep them away. Consequently, members of parliament and peers have routinely assumed that the legislation they pass and the rules they prescribe are designed chiefly to apply to the lower classes but not to them.
Certain areas of public life tend to highlight this mentality. A prime example is the spread of motoring during the 1920s and 1930s which brought out the anarchic element in British people at all levels. As motor cars were fairly expensive after 1918, most drivers were wealthy individuals, many of whom believed that driving a car was essentially an extension of riding a horse. This meant that as one rode one’s horse wherever one wished and as fast as one wanted, the same should apply to driving. But the horrendous death rates arising from motoring between the wars led governments to intervention and regulation, one form of which was the introduction of speed limits. However, speed limits were bitterly resented by upper-class drivers who blamed pedestrians for causing accidents by ‘dangerous walking’!
Nor did politicians have much idea of setting a good example by respecting the law. In 1924, when one MP, Viscount Curzon, was summonsed for exceeding the speed limit at Chiswick he had already acquired twenty-one convictions for motoring offences since 1908! He was fined twenty pounds but showed no embarrassment. Indeed, Curzon, who succeeded as Earl Howe in 1929, continued to ignore the laws that he himself had helped to make, so much so that one exasperated magistrate advised him to take up motor racing so as to satisfy his passion for excessive speed. He did so at the age of 44, continued to have accidents and almost killed himself on the racetrack in 1937.
But high-handed attitudes went right to the top. In May 1926, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill drove his car from Millbank to Whitehall around the new roundabout – then known as a ‘gyratory’ or ‘merry-go-round’ – at Parliament Square. Unfortunately, Churchill drove in the wrong direction and thus against all the other traffic!
On being stopped by one Constable George Spraggs, Churchill simply refused to be corrected, insisting on his absolute right to drive in an anti-clockwise direction. A heated argument ensued but, according to the Daily Mail, “Mr Churchill persisted and the constable took Mr Churchill’s name and address. The car was then allowed to go on”.
Although a summons should have been issued, Scotland Yard refused to take action against the Chancellor. Like Boris Johnson, Churchill got away with it. Motoring had exposed the strain of recklessness, bordering on anarchism, in the national character. But it also reflected the mentality of arrogance and disregard for law entrenched among the British upper classes which has survived to the present day.
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