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Fit for Purpose? Prime Minister Johnson’s Two Bodies and the UK Better Health Strategy

This article is part of the series:

Amongst the UK’s current Conservative Government, rhetorically invoking the body politic is common practice. For example, in 2019 Number 10 Special Advisor Dominic Cummings argued that a European reformist faction within the Tory party “should be treated like a metastasising tumour and excised from the UK body politic” while UK Prime Minister (PM) Boris Johnson deployed the metaphor as a means to characterize Parliament during Brexit as “a blocked artery at the heart of the British body politic.” In the same speech, Johnson suggested that said blockage was preventing the democratic delivery of  “the will of the people.” Neither Cummings nor Johnson is a medical professional; yet they each speak knowingly of the body and its workings. In fact, they seem to share between them a common (mis)understanding of bodily health that they mobilize with dangerous effects as they do the work of international politics. In this blog post I demonstrate how particular, exaggeratedly masculinised, and outdated, enlightenment era and dualistic knowledge about bodies – internalised by British elites and PM Johnson – has reverberated around the body politic and materialises as policy responses to COVID-19 which individualise and ‘blame’ particular bodies for ‘failing’ to stay strong and protect the NHS to the very detriment of the health and thriving of the community of bodies comprising and indeed materialising as the collective body politic.

As a metaphor, the body politic is a rhetorical device used to make political communities knowable and intelligible as a particular kind of human being. In this way alone, the thinking and practice of national and indeed global politics is already profoundly embodied, with the international system populated by these bodies politic and littered with body parts. As Stefanie Fishel has already highlighted, “one can find bodies in the very words of IR: organs of the United Nations, the family of nations, and head of state” (2017: 25). To add to the list of limbs we referred to regularly in international politics, did you know the word “parliament” refers to the feet? Then of course there is the “public eye” and the “armof the army while, during the COVID-19 pandemic the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has been (re)constructed as the “heart” of the British body politic. Bodies politic have all of these things and more and beyond; their limbs and organs are uniquely collective and profoundly embodied in the form of human beings.

However, I expect Cummings and Johnson are unaware of metaphoricity: the power of metaphor through which the body politic entails the physical body underlying the body politic [1] [2] performatively materializing as such. Thus, what is written and ‘known’ about the physical body in general, as common sense, plays out at the level of the body politic[3] [4] . Rosemary Shinko has made this connection well and explains clearly how particular this common-sense bodily knowledge comes to matter at this ‘higher’ and collective level of embodiment:

“the body is the site around which and on which meaning is made and attached. This meaning reverberates throughout the entire body politic and thus the point is to provoke a struggle over the meaning and import of bodily enactments because writing the body is writing the ethico-political history of our present.” (2010: 17)

From Shinko’s and indeed my perspective, the metaphor of the body politic comes to be with material effects according to the particularities of the body on which the materialising metaphor is based; thus, the particularities of the body at the source of the metaphor the body politic really matter.

In 2005, Johnson, then editor of The Spectator magazine, referred to himself in a news article as “a mere toenail in the body politic.” Johnson was paraphrasing Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, wherein Shakespeare mobilizes his own “background notion of a hierarchy of body members” through an insult dished out by the character Senator Menenius at the end of the Act I (Mussloff, 2020: 26). Johnson called himself a “toenail” in response to criticism that he was combining politics and journalism by sitting as Member of Parliament (MP) for Henley upon Thames and being lined up for a front bench position while still sitting as editor of The Spectator.

Certainly, as PM, Johnson’s public and globally-facing body and image are imbued with state power – coming to symbolize the formal institutions of the state he presides over as PM – playing a vital role in re-shaping national identity and with material effects at the personal-local-national and international levels. State leaders’ masculine bodily prowess is a well examined trait of 20th- and 21st-century fascism and J.A. Mangan (1999 2014) has extensively chronicled the fetishization of the intensely masculinized body as a hallmark of the fascist state and governance. Meanwhile, Feminist International Relations scholarship has thoroughly traced how norms of exaggerated masculinity and other gendered discourse circulated through leaders’ body language and gait (see for example Dean 2002, Shepherd 2006) to inform, be projected on to, and shape state identity and international relations in gendered ways.

However, as I detail in the following section, as the COVID-19 pandemic went on, not only did Johnson become more overtly bodily and “macho”-presenting himself but this logic about his own and other bodies — and, most importantly, the body at the source of the metaphorical body politic — reverberates around the body politic. These longer and stronger reverberations came to (re)shape and move bodies comprising the collective body politic, materializing and demonstrating the metaphoricity of the body politic — and, in this case — the unhealthy body at its source.

The English Patient

I don’t particularly care for PM Johnson or anything he stands for but when I heard he had been transferred into St Thomas’ Hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU) on 6th April, I was concerned. I felt on edge for the three nights he would spend in the ICU – as if Johnson surviving or succumbing to the virus would have a significance beyond the addition of one more to the tally of survivors or victims.  The updates from Number 10 were curt and daily:

“The Prime Minister’s condition is stable and he remains in intensive care for close monitoring. He is in good spirits.” (07/04/2020);

“The Prime Minister continues to make steady progress. He remains in intensive care.”  (08/04/2020).

In the days following the PM’s hospital admission, well wishes began to fly in. United States President Trump described Johnson in the past tense as “a really good friend.  He’s been really something very special.  Strong.  Resolute.  Doesn’t quit.  Doesn’t give up.” Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab MP, by now standing in for Johnson, took it upon himself to reassure the nation, saying: “I’m confident he’ll pull through because if there’s one thing I know about this Prime Minister: he’s a fighter.”  The PM’s aged father, Stanley Johnson, also weighed in:

“Boris is not just a classicist but a countryman and that will give him a lot of strength at this time. He is not just ‘rus in urbe’ but ‘rus in rus’, meaning he is a countryman to boot…Ours was not a household that had dinner parties, we were not hunting, shooting…Boris was there, mucking in at all times. A part of the very person he is, optimistic, determined, resilient, came from this Exmoor valley.” (Bhatia 2020)

Here, Stanley Johnson connects his son’s body to the very land of England, suggesting that Boris’s rural upbringing makes him superiorly embodied then his urban counterparts and even those urbanites claiming to be of country stock – the rus in urbe. In doing so, the elder Johnson and Boris’s other well-wishers demonstrate their devotion to an exaggerated masculinity. However, their ideas about a correlation between hard work, fighting, and determination and COVID-19 recovery are misguided as there’s not evidence of a correlation between work ethic, determination, and likelihood of recovering from the virus.

PM Johnson did not speak to the press or send out any tweets from hospital. However, in the absence of any statement from the ailing PM, others attempted to speak for him, including his biographer Sonia Purnell:

“[H]e has a weird attitude to illness. He was intolerant of anybody who was ill. Until now, he has had a very robust constitution. He has never been ill until now, and this will be a huge shock to him. His outlook on the world is that illness is for weak people” (Mendick and Yorke 2020)

Former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and current backbencher Sir Ian Duncan Smith released a similarly telling statement upon hearing the news, saying: “I know him very well so I am deeply saddened really that it should come to this. He has obviously worked like mad to try and get through this but it’s not good enough so far.” In fact, those claiming to know the PM project the same misguided bodily and medical knowledge on to the PM. Perhaps more troublingly, those close to Johnson appeared to be correct about the PM’s views on the relationship between physical strength, vulnerability, and susceptibility to COVID-19. 

Meanwhile, inside St Thomas’ hospital, PM Johnson would, if conscious, be experiencing first-hand what it means to ‘fight’ COVID-19. Particularly clear would be the collective nature of the effort required to keep Johnson alive, which also required the PM to give up any sense of control to those around him. In a July 17 New Yorker article on the realities of life inside a COVID-19 ward, Dr of Internal Medicine Ricardo Nuila described exactly how patients are treated and provides particular details on a procedure known as “proning,” which involves:

“carefully flipping an unconscious, paralyzed patient can require as many as six people—nurses, assistants, therapists, and sometimes doctors, each gowned in [personal protective equipment]—to coordinate their efforts, as though they are moving a large sculpture.” 

On being discharged, the PM duly conceded that he did indeed, like all bodies, require substantial support from others in order to recover from COVID-19 and referenced what may well have been his own proning by nurses in the St Thomas’ ICU: “the reason in the end my body did start to get enough oxygen was because for every second of the night they were watching and they were thinking and they were caring and making the interventions I needed.”

Quite. The notion of the independently sovereign body is a naive fiction – inexcusable and rather dangerous for those in positions of power and influence to be espousing and bringing into being through policy and practice. Bodies rely existentially and ontologically on one another in order to first be – to exist –  and then to be healthy. However, the PM emerged from the ICU even more steadfast in his commitment to exaggerated masculinity as prophylaxis. Moreover, continued reliance on Cartesian dualism and steadfast commitment to individualism attempt to force independent, sovereign, strong, masculinized, Leviathan bodies into existence. Further, the emphasis on this type of body has a moral dimension, wherein responsibility, like agency, is located in the apparently rational, bounded, individual who, as the sole master of their body, can then be blamed for having failed to stay strong.

Prior to his positive COVID-19 diagnosis, Johnson did other things to indicate he shared his father’s and others’ beliefs. For example, Johnson’s persistent hand-shaking, even with hospitalized COVID-19 patients during spring 2020, which continued even after the UK Government’s own appointed Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) issued guidance against the act – only reconfirms the PM’s steadfast belief in at least keeping up appearances of strength. It was clear that Johnson wanted to be seen shaking hands and indeed was heard bragging about it afterwards to the press: “I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody, you will be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands.”  

As the pandemic went on and the UK Government were able to catch their breath in the post-peak lull of June and July, Johnson’s bodily logic continued to prevail even and especially as it was found to have failed – as the PM’s campaign of pandemic hand-shaking demonstrates well. Indeed, by mid-July, the UK had the highest excess death rate in Europe and over 45,000 of those deaths had been attributed to COVID-19. However, coming to form the centrepiece of the UK Government’s response to the first wave of the pandemic was not a relief package for the fledgling National Health Service or measures to tackle inequality (given how the virus exacerbated and afflicted the most deprived British communities the most severely), but a host of interventions into the individual physical bodies of those comprising the body politic. These interventions were aimed at exactly (re/dis)embodying the British populace in the image of the now slimmer and hegemonically and militarily masculinized PM.

Where before, Johnson had seemingly cared little about his appearance, declaring “I’m fat!” while speaking at an event about body positivity in 2006,[1] on his release from hospital the PM became more self-consciously bodily. Claiming in a post-ICU interview with the Mail on Sunday to be “fit as a butcher’s dog” Johnson went as far as asking “do you want me to do some press-ups to show you how fit I am?” before getting down on to his office floor to prove that he was over the virus by doing the exercise.[2] Johnson’s personal experience and very body then came to provide the blueprint for a UK Government policy launched on Monday 27th July and hinted in the PM’s 24th July interview with the BBC’s Laura Kunessberg to mark his first year in office where he explains, using himself for reference, how “being overweight” can interfere with individuals’ ability to “withstand the virus”:

“One thing by the way that I think did make a difference and for me and for quite a few others is the issue of frankly being overweight… and that’s why we need to tackle our national struggle with obesity… If we’re fitter and healthier and we lose weight we’ll be better able to not only individually withstand the virus but we’ll be better places to protect our NHS and that’s why we’re bringing forward an obesity strategy…We will bounce back stronger than before.”

Johnson’s logic here is unchanged, seeing that he failed to defeat the virus on his own because he was not fit and strong enough. However, the PM’s reference to ‘us’ and ‘we’ in the above begins to hint at and expose the contradiction within dominant discourse and the inability of an individual – such as Johnson himself – to beat it alone, without help, and not from friends or family, but from the NHS, crucially.   

The official launch of the Better Health strategy the following day saw Johnson describing his body in detail in a promotional video, apparently filmed mid-dog walk and released on Twitter through the @BorisJohnson ‘personal’ prime ministerial account rather than through @Number10 or a Government Department account or platform: “I’m more than a stone down… I’m only about five foot ten” he tells the audience. Indeed the Better Health launch was framed very much as a personal and paternal message and instruction from the PM to the public and saw the UK executive moving from conservatism towards a more typically fascist fixation on the body of the leader and his post-COVID hyper-masculinization. During the week of the Better Health launch members of the cabinet appeared in public and were made visible following Johnson’s advice to work on their bodies, with for example Health Secretary Matt Hancock doubling down on the PM’s performance of press-ups for a photo shoot and multitasking by jogging while being interviewed by The Sun newspaper.[3]

Further, and while being encouraged to Eat out to Help Out the UK’s hospitality industry, the Better Health strategy focused on promoting weight loss via fitness and food-tracking programs. For example, under the Better Health strategy, the UK Government issued guidance for restaurants to begin listing the calories contained in each item listed on the menu, banning sweet displays at store checkouts and ‘buy one, get one free’ promotions on crisps and chocolate and ‘junk’ food adverts being shown on TV and online before 9PM.[4] Measures aimed at individuals are listed on the public facing Better Health website and include a host of resources and services including: online fitness programs and classes, free and paid apps for members of the public to download including “Couch to 5K,” a “Food Scanner’” to check items for calories before purchase, a “BMI calculator’” to track Body Mass Index, and various links to weight loss company sites and apps including Weight Watchers and Slimming World.[5] On top of this, the Government has specifically asked the “overweight” British public to lose five pounds in order to save the NHS one hundred million pounds.

By forcing Johnson’s body upon the British nation through a campaign of “fat-shaming” and by pressuring people to lose weight, the UK government equated weight loss with a moral responsibility to stay healthy and not use the NHS. Thus, the underlying aim of the Better Health strategy – at the level of the body politic itself –  is to keep the next wave of COVID-19 infected bodies out of hospital beds and relieve the extra pressure on the NHS. Indeed, the case explored in this piece demonstrates the consequences of an outdated and unwell body lying at the source of the metaphorically materializing body politic as enlightenment era ideas about strong, sovereign, and individual bodies have re-shaped not only the PM’s body but national Government policy and in turn the bodies comprising the collective body politic. With specific reference to the COVID-19 outbreak and responses to it globally, this is extremely pertinent as outdated ideas about what it means to be a  strong, weak, and/or vulnerable bodies continue to circulate and shape policy responses to the pandemic as it endures. As immunologist Samantha Le Sommer attempted to clarify in a tweet responding to common explanations for why some bodies ‘catch’ the virus on 30th March:

“Immunoscense & “weak” immune systems aren’t the same thing… this idea of a “weak” immune system is a myth, its “dysfunctional” immune system.”

From the PM’s very own (re/dis)embodiment through the spring and into the summer of 2020 – through his diagnosis, hospitalization, and discharge, to the press-ups performed in public by a lighter Johnson telling the British public to ‘lose 5 pounds’ in preparation for a second wave of COVID-19 and the launch of the UK’s Better Health strategy – what the responses to COVID-19 discussed in this post reveal is twofold.

Firstly I have demonstrated that the persistence of outdated bodily metaphors used within policy circles to (mis)explain the threat of COVID-19  are acutely problematic at the level of the bodily health of the individuals – as bodies including the PM’s have been placed in danger by attempting to work on and through COVID-19 with a false sense of immunity conflated with exaggerated masculinity facilitating this. However, secondly, this post also underlines how the outdated and indeed unwell body at the source of the metaphor – the body politic – forcibly materializes, as an apparently strong and independent body politic that the COVID-19 pandemic reveals is actually inherently vulnerable and precarious – unable and ill equipped to cope with COVID-19 and accordingly facing economic, social, and political crises of an entirely new order.

Indeed, it is perhaps more important than ever to return to Michel Foucault’s observation (1980: 58), that ‘one needs to study what kind of body the current society needs’ – especially as the COVID-19 death toll hovers at 65,000 at the time of writing and during the second wave those bodies deemed responsible for their own infection (the overweight) are being threatened with house arrest in the name of protecting the NHS and facilitating the continued flow of capital via the circulation of bodies deemed healthy and strong according to what has been found to be severely outdated criteria. Moreover, as the UK’s not unique experience of the onset of COVID-19 demonstrates, the apparent ‘Leviathan’ bodies materializing through such thinking are outdated and unfit for the purpose of facilitating good, supported lives and any local, national, let alone global thriving.


Kandida Purnell is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Richmond, the American International University in London. Having previously published on the body politics of COVID-19, the Global War on Terror, war commemoration, and army/artist collaboration, Kandida’s monograph Rethinking the Body in Global Politics is due for publication 1st April 2021 (Routledge Interventions). Kandida is also continuing to collaborate with Natasha Danilova and Emma Dolan on the Carnegie-funded ‘War Commemoration, Military Culture, and Identity Politics in Scotland’ project while her solo research into Feeling COVID-19 and Bringing Bodies Back: Repatriation and War Performance within Forever War are ongoing.. Twitter: @KandidaPurnell


Notes

[1] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OD_Gl96hzOM&feature=youtu.be.

[2] The number of press ups Johnson completed is unknown and with many thanks to Benjamin Nutt for making me aware of this event.

[3] See Sabey, 25/07/2020

[4] See Brown, 27/07/2020.

[5] See https://www.nhs.uk/better-health/?WT.mc_ID=Google&gclid=CIq5ka6q9-oCFRVjGwod2F0BnA

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