What a difference a few months makes. At the close of last year, all the talk in the United Kingdom was of a nation so savagely divided by seemingly endless parliamentary deadlock over Brexit that the damage to the body politic would take years – perhaps a whole generation – to heal. Even the decisiveness of December’s election was not thought to have been enough to end the bitterness. Today, the B-word, which until recently seemed to punctuate every sentence, is seldom heard and the nation has bound together with a unity of purpose which few can remember in response to the coronavirus crisis.
One person who does remember the last time Britain was so united is the Queen who, in her tone-perfect broadcast to the nation, subtly evoked the spirit of the blitz. (‘We will meet again.’) That she was able to speak of her own first broadcast to the nation eighty years ago powerfully reinforced her message of better times ahead. It also reminds us of what an extraordinary life of service she has given: I can think of no public figure, in this or any earlier age, whose public service has compassed so long a span. The words of the British national anthem – which is, of course, also a prayer – have never seemed so apt.
There was another remarkable broadcast, on Easter Sunday, when Boris Johnson, just discharged from hospital, gave an emotional message of thanks to the doctors and nurses who had saved his life. The country has been truly shocked by the thought that the prime minister, leading the nation’s fight against coronavirus, came very close to losing his own life to it. (The survival rate of patients admitted to intensive care with the disease is 50 per cent.) Yet, in a somewhat morbid way, fear for the prime minister’s health has had a unifying effect as well.
I spend this quietest of Easter weekends reading Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, his account of the great plague of 1665. The events in London he describes 355 years ago are eerily reminiscent of today: the empty streets and boarded-up shops, the collapse of trade, people shut up in their houses, the grim regular updates on the number of fatalities. Here is his account of the debate about lifting the ‘lockdown’, when the number of deaths and infections reported in the Bills of Mortality showed an evident decline and the public demanded an end to the measures which had slowed the plague’s spread:
The physicians oppos’d this thoughtless humour of the people with all their might, and gave out printed directions, spreading them all over the city and suburbs, advising the people to continue reserv’d, and to use the utmost caution in their ordinary conduct, notwithstanding the decrease of the distemper, terrifying them with the danger of bringing a relapse upon the whole city, and telling them how such a relapse might be more fatal and dangerous than the whole visitation that had been already… But it was all to no purpose, the audacious creatures were so posses’d with the first joy, and so surpriz’d with the satisfaction of seeing a vast decrease in the weekly bills, that they were impenetrable by any new terrors, and would not be persuaded but that the bitterness of death was pass’d… This imprudent rash conduct cost a great many their lives, who had with great care and caution shut themselves up, and kept retir’d as it were from all mankind, and had by that means, under God’s providence, been preserved thro’ all the heat of that infection.
Adjusting for the antique language, it could be Dr Fauci at a White House briefing.
Early on Easter Monday, the first of the special Qantas repatriation flights arrives at Heathrow. Knowledge of their availability will go a long way to ease the worry of the many Australians in the UK desperate to know that they can get home to Australia. Qantas has always been an outstanding corporate citizen; it is good to see that, once again, it has come to the rescue of Australians in an hour of need. It seems somehow appropriate that the aircraft that landed in London is called ‘Skippy’. I put up a notice on Australia House social media (with apologies to Neil Armstrong): ‘Skippy has landed’.
Last month, the High Court’s decision in Love – about the citizenship rights of indigenous people – brought forth a tirade of denunciation from the right-wing commentariat and warm applause from the Left. Then, last week, when the Court gave its decision in the Pell case, many of those who had cheered at Love suddenly forgot about the presumption of innocence and proof beyond reasonable doubt, while others who had denounced the Court only a month earlier rejoiced. The reality is that the High Court makes its decisions aloof from politics or popular clamour. That is precisely as it should be.
When I recommended to Cabinet the appointment of Susan Kiefel as Chief Justice, and the other three judges who were appointed on my recommendation (Nettle, Gordon and Edelman), I was concerned about one thing only: their eminence and ability as lawyers. Some right-wing polemicists – including, in these pages, the very excitable Professor James Allan – have recently demanded that judges be appointed not because they are the best lawyers, but because of their politics. Conservatives should never be so foolish as to try to ape the Gramscian tactics of the Left; they must protect the integrity of institutions, not corrupt them.
Applying an ideological test for judicial appointments – thereby politicising the one arm of government whose authority depends upon public confidence in its political impartiality – would be a deeply unconservative thing to do.
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