January 1982. Margaret Thatcher’s net approval rating is at -40; the only time it will ever be lower for her is 12 months before she loses her job. Her position is under serious threat. Yet, fast-forward five months and her approval rating has jumped to +23, the highest it will ever be for her. She goes on to win another two elections. So what changed? The answer is, of course, a stroke of luck for Thatcher: the Argentine invasion of the Falklands. 19 years later, the tragedy of 9/11 served a similar purpose for George W Bush, with his popularity rating rising by a staggering 39 points shortly after the disaster. Thanks to this, and a similar phenomenon in 2003 with Iraq, he was re-elected with an increased majority.
These are just two among many examples of the ‘rally round the flag effect’, wherein a leader’s popularity surges when a serious external threat faces the nation. This happens because the ruler ceases to be a partisan figure and becomes a statesman, with the enemy as an outsider against whom we can unite. In most cases, the common enemy is a foreign dictator of some sort. The enemy in this case, however, is COVID-19, and it is important that we ensure that our leaders do not profit from this crisis.
Of course, the effect is not a bad thing in and of itself; indeed, in the short-term, it is probably even a positive. In times of emergency unity is crucial, as the nation can deal with the problem far more effectively if everyone puts aside their differences and works together. Order is also vital, and if a leader is not respected by their electorate, they lack the authority to maintain that order. So, let there be no doubt, we should certainly suspend our misgivings about Boris Johnson (for now, at least) because this crisis will be noticeably more difficult if we are inhibited by them. But, if allowed to go unchecked, the phenomenon carries two distinct dangers.
Firstly, the ‘rally round the flag’ effect too often stems from a collective wish for the leader to be a statesman, rather than from any agency on the leader’s part. Bush is the perfect example: he had 90% approval among Americans at the end of 2001, when a year earlier he’d been elected despite losing the popular vote to Al Gore by more than 500,000 votes. During that year he had offered such pearls of wisdom to the American people as “they misunderstimated me” and “I think we can all agree, the past is over”. 9/11 did not make him any more competent, eloquent, or legitimately elected. What is far more likely is that in the aftermath of 9/11, the American people wanted unity and strong leadership, and so they projected leadership qualities onto a man who once asked a blind journalist if they were “going to ask that question with shades on”.
While we in the UK are fortunate enough not to be led by George Bush, there is a very real risk of Boris enjoying the same upswing that happened in 2001. Whatever your opinions of Boris as a man or as a prime minister, the fact that he has listened to medical experts during this pandemic should not change them. I am by no means saying that he has handled this crisis poorly, merely that following the advice of specialists is what any remotely competent prime minister would do in this situation. The praise he is currently receiving for his handling of the pandemic (and make no mistake, he is receiving praise) is more than likely to be at least partially driven by our natural bias, desiring unity and leadership. We must acknowledge that, so that it does not become conventional wisdom that Johnson was some Churchillian talisman during this time of crisis.
The second danger is that it may influence our opinions of leaders in the long-term. The problems with judging a leader’s overall worth on their handling of a crisis are twofold. Firstly, such serious crises as these are few and far between, and the skill of managing them is by no means transferable to the everyday duties of a head of state. Secondly, a leader’s handling of a crisis is not an appropriate metric by which to evaluate them against other candidates. It is pure chance that they are in office while it happens; that Trump is president during the coronavirus pandemic does not make him a better candidate than Joe Biden, since there is no evidence of Biden as a head of state dealing with the crisis.
On the topic of Trump, this second danger is particularly pertinent in his case. He is running for re-election this year, and the ‘rally round the flag’ effect, combined with the incumbent advantage that is undeniably present in every US election, could be enough to carry him to victory. What a damning indictment of democracy that would be, if he were to win the election thanks to his handling of a crisis that he called a hoax, even while it was causing thousands of deaths worldwide. Even now, he refers to it as “the Chinese virus”, a practice explicitly condemned by WHO in 2015 in order to prevent prejudice and discrimination. And, while it will most likely be a good few years before Johnson faces another election here, it would be equally tragic if the coronavirus crisis were to play any part in electoral victory for the party responsible for nine years of austerity, starving the NHS of funding so that the crisis would be that much harder to combat. If we let this bias go unchecked, we risk creating another two George Bushes, and we already have more than enough of those.