“They are aiding the King’s enemies, and this … is treason of the worst kind. Their disloyalty to the country deserves the most severe punishment.” Remarkably, these are not Priti Patel’s words on Love Island influencers currently influencing away in Dubai – but the words of a 1942 Manchester MP on wartime black marketeers.
Even so, it is hard not to see similarities between then and now in what politicians thought people wanted to hear about those flouting mass restrictions. “Public opinion would support long terms of imprisonment,” claimed one MP in the same Commons debate, “and even the cat [o’nine tails], for the worst offenders.” “Is that all?” wondered another MP. “Put them up against the wall; that is the best way.”
Of particular sadness to the honourable friends, apparently, was the fact that this type of grifting had suddenly made its way from lesser countries to Britain, “where we thought such things could never be done”. To which the most period response I can offer is: lol do me a favour.
The adorable naivety of wartime politicians aside, true public opinion on the black market seems to have been rather more complex. There was – how to put this in financialese? – quite a market for the black market. Furthermore, whatever the difference between what people said in public and what they did in private, it’s notable that the most enduring postwar fictional portrayals of black marketeers have tended to be lovable rogues or fascinating gangsters rather than loathed and disdained leeches. People have had a soft spot for some of the most shameless spivs and rule-breakers, from the Third Man’s Harry Lime to Dad’s Army’s Private Walker. Even while they were still stuck under postwar rationing, audiences loved Passport to Pimlico – indeed, the plot of that hugely popular Ealing comedy turns on British people’s admiration for a tiny London enclave that had somehow found a way to escape the burden of rationing and restriction. The fictional British populace aids and abets them in their battle against government restriction, gladly throwing food and supplies over the perimeter wire to assist in their transgressions.
Is this good-luck-to-them spirit in evidence today, as third-tier reality stars scream “actually it IS work” into a ringlight in some Dubai eyesore built by exploited workers? One’s initial sense is that it is not. It feels hard to picture a 2025 movie hit in which lockdown Brits crowdsource ingenious ways to prolong influencers’ time in the sun while they themselves endure pandemic restrictions.
Certainly, our home secretary lives up to her parliamentary forebears by going in hard on anyone having the wrong sort of fun. “We see plenty of influencers on social media,” Patel thundered last week, “showing off about which parts of the world they are in.” I enjoy that use of the royal we, suggesting Priti’s going to get round to thinking about the Home Office cock-up of accidentally deleting police records just as soon as she’s finished scrolling through 23 influencer feeds and dropping the occasional “u make me sick” in the replies. I’m afraid I find it difficult to shake the conviction that anything that annoys Priti Patel should be encouraged in principle.
I definitely can’t take seriously the calls for the smelling salts by those who follow the absentee influencers. The revelation that the influencers are relatively self-interested people seems to have SHOCKED their followers, who’ve apparently been under the impression they’ve been hanging on the every brand endorsement of a troupe of Mahatma Gandhis.
In fact, I actively enjoy the fits of morality by people who would kill to be having a cocktail on a beach, but – failing that – would settle for threatening to kill the person who is having the cocktail on the beach. According to the influencers’ long-suffering agents, we have not yet flattened the curve of death threats currently being addressed to their clients. Then again I expect there’s a take out there explaining how death threats are to the influencer economy what money was to Gordon Gekko: simply a way of keeping score.
Anyway, far from undermining morale, our scattered influencers are arguably bringing the nation together. With so little TV comedy content currently being made, this new genre is a boon. I loved the fitness blogger who explained to This Morning that it was “essential travel” for her to fly to Dubai to film her exercise routines, particularly as far as her followers’ mental health and inspiration was concerned. To all the detractors who screeched that she’s only got 11,000 followers, I would say that Jesus had a mere 12 – and look what he built his brand into.
It was even greater amusement to me to learn that a Towie star had been sneakily posting old images of himself in coats and scarves in his Essex garden, while all the while his flesh self was actually in Dubai quietly enjoying the sunshine. Surely these people add to the gaiety of the nation.
But obviously, none of us wishes to see them add to the mutant variants of the nation. And so to the quarantine arrangements for their return to these dreary shores, which despite a lot of tough talk from Boris Johnson’s government have yet to be finalised. Soon, perhaps. The main lesson of the pandemic so far is that there’s no point rushing anything.
On the off-chance a decision is made, and given how much the influencers mind about our health – mental and physical – I know they will understand the necessity of their being transferred by secure vehicle to a two-star near Heathrow. This is when they graduate from opening posts with “A lot of people have asked about my skincare regime” to “A lot of people have asked how you fill this mini kettle in this mini basin, and I’m here to tell you it’s impossible.” This is when we learn they are “drinking instant Nescafe because there is #nofilter”. In short, this is when the true primo content kicks in – and it would take a heart of stone not to admire it.
• Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist