On the day government staffers allegedly partied in No 10, British hospitals were filled with the dead and the dying. There were 514 deaths announced that day, while 2,000 Covid patients were transported to hospitals, to be put on ventilators and comforted by the exhausted footsoldiers of a shell-shocked NHS. We have endured two years of personal sacrifice at a level not seen since the second world war. As 150,000 of our fellow citizens died, we have all taken extraordinary measures to prevent an even graver human catastrophe: not being able to hold the hands of dying relatives, separated from loved ones, educations injured, enforced solitude for the 8 million Britons who live alone.
The story of that single Christmas party – with its secret Santa, cheese and wine and all – is a lesson in how power works in this country. Among the general population, compliance with the most severe restrictions on our freedoms in the history of Britain far exceeded sceptical pre-lockdown predictions. Still, the state has come down hard on those accused of violating rules. There were nearly 6,500 prosecutions for lockdown transgressions in the first six months of the crisis, while Londoners have been forced to cough up more than £1m worth of fines. These punitive rules have not been applied equally.
In Scotland, fines were 12 times more common in deprived communities than in affluent areas. Black people in London were up to 11 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, while in the first lockdown, men of colour were twice as likely to be fined as their white counterparts. There were cases of homeless people being charged for being on the streets during lockdown and a carer being fined for eating a sandwich. More than a quarter of ordinary citizens were found to have been inappropriately charged with Covid fines – with fixed penalties being issued up to £10,000 – according to the Crown Prosecution Service.
Laws have always disproportionately affected poor and marginalised communities. As working-class citizens were forced to pay ruinously large sums of money, our top officials look to have been cavorting with “definitely no social distancing”, as the former prime ministerial spokesperson Allegra Stratton put it on the leaked tape. It is an exposé both of a crooked government and a rigged society, where the powerful often correctly calculate that laws and rules are for somebody else: often poor and often Black.
The lies, too: Boris Johnson is simply a more vulgar example of deceit and dishonesty than most of our rulers. The only consistency in his tawdry, always-falling-upwards career is deception: from making up quotes to lying to his former leader about affairs to, most recently, prioritising the airlifting from Afghanistan of cats and dogs over human lives. Whether he himself knows what is a lie and what is the truth is an open question, but ultimately irrelevant: what matters is that no rational human being should ever trust a single utterance issued by a pound-shop Trumpian administration.
There is another lesson about power, too, and that is the revolving door that links the British establishment. Allegra Stratton epitomises it: formerly a journalist at the Guardian, BBC and ITV whose job was to scrutinise the government, she ultimately joined it as a propagandist. She is married to the Spectator’s political editor, James Forsyth, who was best man at the wedding of Rishi Sunak, who himself is a former employer of Stratton. This is a story of incestuous political and media elites.
When Stratton was Newsnight political editor, she humiliated a single mother on national television, seeking to portray her as a benefit “scrounger”, erasing the fact she was in full-time work and was compelled to claim housing benefit; the programme was forced to apologise on air. This is no tangent: it is a story of how too much of a media ecosystem profoundly entangled in government fails to hold the powerful to account, while encouraging us to be angry at the powerless and the vulnerable. No wonder they are, like Stratton in that leaked video, laughing at the rules that bind the rest of us.
Indeed, note how the Sun newspaper today fails to splash on the biggest political scandal of the year. This rag’s deputy editor is none other than James Slack – a revolving door veteran who was the prime minister’s official spokesman at the very time the Christmas party took place.
A single episode can act like a flare, lighting up the true nature of power in ways that only those who deliberately close their eyes can ignore. So yes, Boris Johnson must go, and indeed much of the Tory party are themselves coming to this conclusion, perhaps in favour of Stratton’s former employer. But that is not enough. The ugly truth about our ruling establishment is right there before us. And the consequences must go far further than our deceitful, corrupt prime minister.
Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist