When Voltaire on his deathbed was asked by a priest if he renounced Satan, he responded: “Now, now my good man. This is no time to be making enemies.” Britain may not yet be on its deathbed, but it is politically and economically sick and this might be a good moment to follow Voltaire’s example and avoid taking on new opponents.
Instead Britain is joining a US-led confrontation with China over everything from the future of Hong Kong to the treatment of the Uighur and future British business dealings with Huawei. Both the concerns over the Uighur and the citizens of Hong Kong are important, but there is a good dollop of hypocrisy here since Britain managed to rule Hong Kong for many years without showing much interest in the democratic rights of its inhabitants, and concern over Chinese mistreatment of the Uighur is in marked contrast to British reticence over India's ever-more oppressive rule in Kashmir.
Self-interest alone should argue that this is a poorly-timed moment for Britain to join a new Cold War against China or anybody else for that matter. Relations are already bad with Russia, a nuclear super-power whatever the state of its economy, and Brexit ensures enhanced rivalry shading into hostile relations with the 27 nations in the European Union.
The inevitable consequence of this is a greater reliance on the US under a uniquely dysfunctional and divisive President Donald Trump, when Americans are more at each other's throats than at any time since the Civil War. The very fact that Trump is president at all is evidence of an imploding political system that will take long to recover.
Skill in making alliances was at the centre of Britain’s rise to be a global power from the beginning of the eighteenth century onwards. The country was only isolated for brief and unwelcome periods, usually because continental allies had been defeated in war and could not be immediately replaced. Winston Churchill had his failings as a military strategist (witness Gallipoli in 1915 and Norway in 1940), but he made immense and successful efforts to forge alliances with the US and Soviet Union to win the war against Adolf Hitler.
It is this sort of Churchillian political realism that is so lacking in Boris Johnson and his government. They espouse a self-aggrandising populist nationalism that is provincial in its attitude towards the rest of the world and Britain’s position in it.
Many suspected that this might be the case during the Brexit crisis over the last four years. So much of what the Eurosceptics believed about Brussel’s iron, though incompetent, rule was demonstrably false that it was difficult to imagine them running the country. All the same, I wondered at the time if the Remain predictions of national ruin when Britain left the EU might be overstated.
This was what Johnson and right-wing Eurosceptic Conservatives and their media allies derisively dubbed "Project Fear".
But, as it turns out, the proponents of "Project Fear" were more correct than they could have imagined about the negative things that were going to happen to Britain, though wrong about one important aspect of the threat.
It has since become clear that it was not so much Brexit as the Brexiters themselves that were the true danger. This might not have mattered quite so much if it had not been for a terrible piece of ill-luck: on 31 January, the very day that Johnson and Dominic Cummings were congratulating themselves on taking Britain out of the EU, the coronavirus pandemic was hurtling towards them.
It soon emerged that jibes about the incompetence and poor judgement of Johnson and his lieutenants were all too true. Britain had more warning of the approaching pandemic than all East Asian countries and many European ones. Yet preparations were meagre, late and wrong-headed, producing one of the worst death rates in the world. Only the US and Brazil performed worse thanks to a similarly incapable leadership. As Ferdinand Mount wrote in the London Review of Books: “Bolsonaro, Trump and Johnson: these are men you wouldn’t put in charge of containing an outbreak of acne.”
The political style of all three is broadly similar, though adapted to differing political traditions. In common is the constant drumbeat of boosterism, mendacity and demonisation of opponents at home or abroad who are invariably blamed for anything that goes wrong. No mistakes are ever admitted and no apologies are therefore necessary. Their own achievement and that of their country are always “world-beating”, even when their performance has been catastrophic.
The manic self-confidence of the three is frightening. It recalls the last scene in the film White Heat when James Cagney, playing a demented gangster trapped by police on top of a giant gas tank, cries out triumphantly “Made it Ma. Top of the World,” just before the tank explodes into flames.
Despite weekly demonstrations at Prime Minister’s Questions of Johnson’s lack of grip and confusion of mind, many in Britain have still to take on board that their country is being run by a nincompoop during one of the worst crises in its history. Many others do understand this, which explains why the government, having once given the impression that the coronavirus epidemic was akin to the Black Death, is finding it difficult to persuade people that it is safe to go to a restaurant or a pub. Its lack of credibility is such that even when there is good news - such as the latest estimate by the Office of National Statistics that only 0.03 per cent of the population have coronavirus at present - people are still chary of taking a risk.
Such incompetence may be blurred at home by sympathetic newspapers. But it is glaringly obvious to the rest of the world that Britain has not only responded far less effectively to the epidemic than Germany and Denmark, but it has been outperformed by poorer places Vietnam and Kerala in India. A failure like this has political consequences within the British Isles as whole. A visibly blundering government in London strengthens Scottish separatism and, less obviously, has led Ireland, which until recently often pursued parallel policies to Britain, to move in different directions.
Britain is weaker because of its government's miserable response to the pandemic and it will be weaker still when Brexit becomes a reality. A problem of having leaders like Johnson and Cummings is that they not only refuse to admit their mistakes to others, but they do not admit them to themselves, and consequently never learn from them. They won power as propagandists and, like many politicians with same skills-set, they believe their own words.
Even so it is astonishing and depressing to see these same leaders, whose ineptitude has been so patent during the epidemic, confidently step forward to reorganise everything in Britain from the BBC to the civil service. Given their dismal record over the last six months, even coping with an outbreak of acne would probably be beyond them.