Public opinion and coronavirus: the sleeping giant the government is afraid of
by Ian Sinclair
1 May 2020
“All politicians recognize the force of public opinion”, Richard Gregg wrote in his 1934 book The Power of Nonviolence.
There is evidence this truism applies to the coronavirus outbreak in the UK. “Conservative backbenchers voiced concern in private about the government’s failure to roll out testing faster, saying there was anxiety that the public mood could turn against the government if it appeared there was no end to the lockdown as a result”, the Guardian reported on 2 April. “One senior MP said the party would be watching the polls closely and that he was ‘frankly amazed’ that Johnson’s popularity was holding up. A bit like the virus, there might be a two-week lag before the public comes to fully realise that the government is failing to get the testing issue under control, they said.” The source continued: “The death toll will become totemic. If we get thousands of people dying every day for several days, who knows where this will go. It is frightening, and the prime minister looks like he doesn’t know what to do.”
More explicitly, a “cabinet source” was quoted in the Telegraph on 18 April about the government’s so-called “exit plan” from the lockdown: “They [the government] are waiting for the public to change their mind. We didn’t want to go down this route in the first place – public and media pressure pushed the lockdown, we went with the science.”
So there you have it: according to a “cabinet source” the public played a key role in forcing the government’s hand in introducing the national lockdown on 23 March. A new Ipsos MORI poll suggests public opinion is shifting against the government on the timing of the lockdown, with 66 percent of people saying the Government acted too late in taking stricter measures, up from 57 percent two weeks ago.
Beyond the present crisis, recent history is littered with examples of public opinion and public pressure impacting the actions of government and corporations.
For example, last month the Telegraph reported Shell has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050, with its Chief Executive noting “Society’s expectations have shifted quickly in the debate around climate change.” The Tory broadsheet provided the crucial context: “Oil companies have been rocked by the pace at which climate activists have demanded action, forcing them to burnish their green credentials.” The early years of the Coalition government provided another inspiring example of people power, with a Guardian headline in February 2011 explaining ‘English Woodlands Sell-Off Postponed After Public Backlash’. Luckily government plans to sell off a huge chunk of the public forest estate had been leaked in October 2010. A huge movement quickly rose up in defence of our woodlands: 38 Degrees organised an online petition that gained 500,000 signatures, popular local campaigns sprang up in the Forest of Dean and other locations and public figures, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and Dame Judi Dench, spoke out. Victory was achieved on 16 February when Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons he was not happy with the government’s sell-off plans.
Going back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, many people continue to believe the anti-war movement was ineffective. However, there is evidence to suggest the unprecedented large-scale opposition, though it didn’t stop the war, was heard in the halls of power and inhibited UK foreign policy.
In the week before the US-UK attack on Iraq the Spanish Ambassador to the United Nations noted Britain was becoming “nervous” and “exclusively obsessed” with domestic public opinion, according to the Guardian. This fits with British historian Mark Curtis’s belief that in 2002-3 the British public were victims of “a government propaganda campaign of perhaps unprecedented heights in the post-war world.” Indeed, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was involved in a media offensive circa September 2003 – “aimed to convert the UK public to supporting the outcome of the Iraq war”, the Guardian reported. Leaked papers from a media seminar held in London reveal “the MoD’s main target is the UK public and media while [the main target] of Basra headquarters for British troops in the Iraqi people.”
The campaign was not successful. The British public continued to oppose British intervention, while Iraqi public opinion was strongly opposed to the British military occupation in Southern Iraq. In 2005 the Telegraph reported an internal Ministry of Defence poll had found 45 per cent of Iraqis believed attacks against the US and UK troops were justified (rising to 65 per cent in the British controlled Maysan province). Similarly, a 2007 Opinion Research Business poll for BBC Newsnight found 83 per cent of the adults surveyed in Basra wanted British troops to leave Iraq.
British forces pulled out of Basra in September 2007. Reporting from Washington DC in August 2007, the Telegraph’s Tim Shipman noted “the US military has no doubt, despite what [Prime Minister] Gordon Brown claims, that the pullout is being driven by ‘the political situation at home in the UK’”. The report quoted a “senior US officer familiar with [top US] General Petreaus’s thinking”: “Britain is in a difficult spot because of the lack of political support at home, but for a long time – more than a year – they have not been engaged in Basra and have tried to avoid casualties.”
This concern about domestic public opinion and casualties echoes what was happening in Afghanistan. With a UK general election looming, in November 2009 the Observer reported General Stanley McChrystal, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, “holds the view that Britain’s continued participation in Afghanistan will be more acceptable to an increasingly sceptical British public if troops are switched to less dangerous duties”.
The opposition of the general public to the UK’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, then, played a crucial role in constraining UK forces, almost certainly preventing them carrying out more aggressive operations in those countries.
We must not “forget our own influence, the innumerable times we’ve swayed outcomes”, US author Rebecca Solnit wrote in 2016. Highlighting successful examples of people power in recent history such as the gaining of civil rights for African Americans and how women got the vote, she notes “in all these cases, the people who we mislabel ‘leaders’ only followed the will of the people.”
Returning to the coronavirus crisis, the Guardian reports rightwingers in the government and wider Tory party are pushing for an early exit from the lockdown – due to concerns about the economy. Other news reports suggest the cabinet is split on the issue, with Michael Gove, Rishi Sunak, Priti Patel and Dominic Raab favouring lifting the lockdown sooner rather than later, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock favouring a more cautious approach.
As former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell recently tweeted: “Without mass testing & tracing & with a government that can’t even manage the supply of PPE” locking the lockdown “would be lethal, irresponsible & putting profit before people’s lives.”
So on the question of when to lift the lockdown, public pressure has the potential to leverage influence on government, strengthening the voices of those in government and on its scientific advisory bodies that are more hesitant about sacrificing lives at the altar of the economy. A new poll from Opinium suggests there is a broad public consensus on this, with 67 percent of respondents opposed to opening schools, 78 percent and 81 percent opposed to opening restaurants and pubs respectively, and 84 percent against allowing mass gatherings at sports events or concerts to resume.
It is no exaggeration to suggest the lives of thousands of Britons are hanging in the balance. After all a Financial Times’s analysis of Office for National Statistics figures estimates 48,100 people (as of 30 April) have died in the UK because of the outbreak, while epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson from Imperial College recently warned lifting the lockdown too early could lead to 100,000 deaths.
The question is will concerned citizens make their voices heard and force the government to take the most effective and humane action possible in these difficult circumstances?
Ian Sinclair is the author of ‘The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003’, published by Peace News Press. Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.