As Boris Johnson waffled and blustered his way through defending his bizarre new “stay alert” message this week, he has appealed for us to use “good, solid British common sense” in following the new “eased lockdown” guidelines.
In fact, as he has answered questions from MPs, the public, and journalists, the words “common sense” have come up again and again.
Despite the fact that he’s referring to a country where people called the police because KFC ran out of chicken, and where people were recently filmed doing a “socially distanced conga”, the main problem here seems to be that the new guidelines have been drawn up by people who don’t seem to have much common sense at all.
For instance, you can’t have any friends or family over to your home, but you can have a nanny or a cleaner round. So you can see your dad… as long as you’re paying him to clean your house? Or if you’re planning on buying your parents’ house, that’s fine too, because the housing market is reopening. There’s no news on when we can get haircuts, but thank goodness, our vital golf courses are reopening soon.
An exasperated primary school teacher summed up the mood when she asked the PM: “how is it logical that I can mix with returning school children, but not my relatives?”
He couldn’t answer directly.
In appealing for “common sense” while presenting something that objectively makes very little sense at all, Johnson is employing a trick that Conservatives have used for years to absolve themselves of responsibility for bad things that happen under their watch.
Positioning any idea as “common sense” immediately casts anyone who doesn’t understand or agree as an outsider.
In the case of the Conservatives, it’s often accompanied by the inference that they (the “clever grown-ups”) know what’s best for us and how things really work. It’s a sinister yet scarily effective form of gaslighting that frequently persuades people to vote against their own interests, while dismissing ideas that would level the playing field as pie-in-the-sky fantasies.
We saw a classic example of “common sense” blame-shifting in 2019, when Tory grandee Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested that people in Grenfell Tower who followed the fire service’s guidelines to stay in their homes lacked “common sense”. Although he later apologised, his remarks suggested that he, a very clever man who knows some Latin, would have known how to survive in that situation. The responsibility for innocent people being incinerated in a building wrapped in flammable cladding was, by his logic, partly their own.
Rees-Mogg’s remarks were extreme, but the language of “common sense” runs through the rhetoric of most Conservative leaders.
In the Cameron era of austerity that began in 2010, Brits were told to “tighten their belts” because “we all spent too much money”, when that’s not what happened at all.
This language echoes Margaret Thatcher’s completely ludicrous (but effective) message that running the national economy was just like a “household budget”. Theresa May too, long before she became PM, once described an unsuccessful attempt to repeal the cruel anti-gay Section 28 legislation as a “victory for common sense”.
The Conservative love for “common sense” makes total sense – their ideology of small-state individualism depends on us all being perfectly well-behaved cogs in the huge economic machine. It depends on enough people thinking, even if they don't say it out loud: 'Why bother having a welfare state when I can just look out for my own interests with my own money?"
It might sound like it works in theory, but falls apart when it encounters the fact that we're fallible, complicated human beings who don’t have anywhere near the same opportunities as each other. In fact, so many disastrous Conservative policies, from grammar schools to Right to Buy, are “common sense” ideas that worked on paper but in practice just exacerbated inequality.
There’s few better examples of the weaponisation of “common sense” than the language of Brexit.
Slogans like “get Brexit done”, “take back control” and “no deal is better than a bad deal” sold a huge, seismic change with potentially disastrous economic consequences to people in a way that made it seem like the rational thing to do. And although we won’t know the ramifications for some time, the Tory MPs and donors who campaigned for Brexit probably won't feel them as harshly as the most people who voted for it, who ultimately became responsible for it.
In a way, it’s fitting that someone like Boris Johnson, who brought us Brexit, would return to preaching about “common sense” during the coronavirus crisis.
There are plenty of signs that we’re being conned once again: the manipulated testing figures, the celebration of our NHS while failing to protect health workers, the weeks of inaction that almost certainly cost lives. And now “stay alert”, which really seems to mean: “if you get coronavirus, it’s on you”.
The Telegraph’s Brexit editor Asa Bennett even went as far as to say that “stay alert” is the new “take back control” (or the “epidemiological version” of it). And I think he’s right, because they’re both catchphrases designed to trick ordinary people into thinking they have agency, while people more powerful than them expose them to harm to satisfy their economic interests.
Right now, the new “take back control” sounds like the same old you-take-the-blame narrative.
It's Tory gaslighting 101: convincing us something harmful is "common sense", while totally lacking in common decency.