Against Common Sense

Samuel Earle

On 11 May 2020, as Britain reeled from the first wave of the pandemic, Boris Johnson urged the public to use ‘good, solid British common sense’ to navigate the risks posed by Covid-19. One year and 120,000 deaths later, the prime minister’s advice to the nation was the same. ‘It’s about basic common sense,’ he said on 11 May 2021. Now, as Britain lifts all Covid restrictions while recording nearly as many cases as the entire European Union, the health secretary, Sajid Javid, who tested positive at the weekend, has told the Commons it is time to ‘start a new chapter based on the foundations of personal responsibility and common sense’.

Last September, Johnson said that ‘common sense’ is the ‘single greatest weapon’ against the coronavirus. In October, as cases soared in the second wave, he told people to ‘live fearlessly but with common sense,’ dismissing the case for a two-week ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown; he announced a four-week national lockdown a few weeks later. In late November, he assured us that a regional ‘tier system’ guided by ‘common sense’ would end the need for national lockdowns; in February, during a three-month national lockdown, Johnson said the tier system was no more. And on and on.

Most public health measures, from mandated mask-wearing in public places to social distancing, cease today: a policy of ‘moral emptiness and epidemiological stupidity’, according to a senior World Health Organisation official. But the dangers of reopening when the case rate is so high – vaccine-resistant mutations, young people who haven’t yet been vaccinated contracting long Covid, those with underlying health conditions still being at risk – can apparently be addressed with ‘common sense’. What could go wrong?

Given how poorly the British government’s ‘single greatest weapon’ has performed so far, common sense might suggest we try something else. But for the Conservatives, there is no cheaper defence at hand. The worse Britain’s situation becomes, the more ‘common sense’ must be invoked – papering over the gaping holes in the government’s pandemic strategy, and turning its withdrawal from responsibility into a twisted compliment: the British people are wise enough to look after themselves.

The devastating inadequacy of this logic in a pandemic – when people often don’t know if they are carrying the virus, however considerate they may be, and cases rise exponentially – hardly needs stating. Its convenience to the government is just as plain: if the pandemic is a matter of ‘personal responsibility and common sense’ as Javid said (a telling conflation), then the public can always be made to shoulder the blame when things go wrong.

As Antti Lepistö writes in The Rise of Common-Sense Conservatism, Conservatives have long invoked ‘common sense’ to ‘depoliticise the public sphere, to supplant legitimate intellectual conflict with a made-up moral consensus at a time of perceived moral chaos’. It wasn’t always this way: Sophia Rosenfeld’s Common Sense: A Political History (2011) emphasises the radical connotations of the phrase in the 18th century. But it’s now a key term of the Conservative playbook. William Hague spoke of a ‘Common Sense Revolution’ in 2001. Ten years later, as the Tories pursued austerity, David Cameron declared: ‘Let this be our message – common sense for the common good.’

The term has particular appeal to a British elite with nothing ‘common’ about them, a phantom thread that ties the likes of Johnson and Cameron (both distant relatives of the royal family) to the ‘common man’. Britain’s ruling class has long displayed a combination of faux-humility and anti-intellectualism that elevates instinct over expertise (despite the vast sums they spend on their education). When Arthur Balfour – like Cameron and Johnson, one of Britain’s twenty old Etonian prime ministers – was asked what his guiding political principles were, he replied modestly: ‘I suppose the principles of common sense.’

When Michael Gove declared during the Brexit referendum campaign that the British public were tired of experts – ‘I’m asking them to trust themselves’ – he was not betraying the Tory tradition but continuing it. ‘No lesson seems to be so deeply inculcated by the experience of life as that you should never trust experts,’ Lord Salisbury said in 1877. ‘If you believe the doctors, nothing is wholesome. If you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent. If you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe. They all require to have their strong wine diluted by a large mixture of common sense.’

In other words, the Conservatives’ empty invocations of ‘common sense’ and their indifference to scientific advice long predates the current prime minister. Yet to maintain the same posturing during a pandemic requires a recklessness and callousness that Johnson can call his own. The idea that there could be any such thing as ‘common sense’ in the face of a pandemic – caused by a new and unpredictable virus – is plainly a fantasy. But it’s one that the Conservatives, determined to relinquish responsibility, will keep on peddling.


  • 20 July 2021 at 8:54am
    OldScrounger says:
    I have just caught the end of an interview with Alan Ayckbourn describing his new play, which centres on a conversation between a man of today, complaining about Covid restrictions, and a young woman of 1942, whose husband is away at the War and whose children have been evacuated. She is bewildered by his attitude.

    In a discussion like this my mind always returns to the actions of the war-time coalition government which, despite being led by a Conservative Prime Minister, placed a high value on expertise and - dare we say it? - common sense; that is to say, recognising that when the world turns upside down "business as usual" simply isn't an option.

    The words of Mr. Attlee and of Members from both sides of the House are a salutary lesson:-

  • 20 July 2021 at 10:52am
    Richard Byakika says:
    Great piece Samuel!

  • 20 July 2021 at 11:42am
    Mick Flynn says:
    Fantastic article which although it reinforces my views, articulates the entitled, selfish and destructive actions of Johnson and those who support him in Government.

  • 20 July 2021 at 8:50pm
    Graucho says:
    Use your common sense = I haven't got the foggiest what to do about the problem so I'm delegating it to you and it's your fault if it goes pear shaped.

  • 21 July 2021 at 11:45am
    ptrptr says:
    William Hague's "Common Sense Revolution" seems to have been borrowed from Mike Harris, premier of the Canadian province of Ontario in the 1990s, whose government carried out a brutal austerity programme in this name.

  • 21 July 2021 at 4:04pm
    steve kay says:
    “ Common sense” but married Sarah Vine. Maybe it’s the effect of the sun but I’m having problems with this.

  • 24 July 2021 at 9:53am
    Rowena Hiscox says:
    Yes, expert advice is worth listening to, but you do have to recognise its limitations.

    I respect the expertise of meteorologists. But I wouldn't ask them to predict the weather three months ahead, because it can't be done (except at the most basic level – "it'll probably be cooler than today" – and even common sense will tell you that).

    Predicting the course of the pandemic is in much the same category: as soon as you look more than a few weeks ahead, even tiny changes to the assumptions can have massive effects on the figures. And even the best predictions assume that the situation won't fundamentally change; as it has several times since the start of the pandemic, and will do again. Our current wave got started just when many experts who had been warning of a third wave for months had finally decided that there wasn't going to be one after all (remember, the decision to lift the Astrazeneca age limit to 40 was taken on the grounds that the models were no longer predicting a serious third wave).

    Of course it isn't experts' fault that people are constantly asking them to predict things that can't be predicted. Nor when a carefully nuanced prediction gets turned into a "could" story (as in: "Britain 'could have 500,000 deaths a day', warns expert").

    Everyone knows what the consequences of Freedom Day "could" be (and how I wish I could be vaccinated against the word "could"), but no one – including the experts – knows what they will be.

  • 27 July 2021 at 6:23pm
    Pam Lindsay says:
    It seems to me that the those not wearing masks OR getting vaccinated are selfish narcissists. Perhaps we need different language for these "people". It isn't that one will die, it is that they may never recover from the long term effects of COVID-19. They may pass it on to their grandmothers or children.

    It is so disheartening that the world is full of people who have no care for anyone else.

  • 31 July 2021 at 11:59pm
    olywood says:
    I think common sense in this case can be thought of as 'elementary logic' - if you're in a shop/on the tube late at night with virtually no one around, wearing a mask probably isn't necessary. You can't protect people who aren't there, or people who are there but are too far away to meaningfully endanger. But the point is moot: unless a mask forms a vacuum seal around your face, you are in fact still breathing into the atmosphere. The air is simply redirected upwards through your mask (hence why your glasses steam up) with some being rerouted through the side-vents. As far as I can tell, the only thing masks really protect against is droplets (i.e. spit). Though even then, droplets don't seem to have a very long range. It's unlikely a droplet is going to travel all the way to the other side of a shop to infect someone.

    Of course, this all depends on where your own research has taken you. Some people might believe that facemasks offer greater protection than they do. But I'm guessing most members of the public will be able to use their discretion - there's a difference between being jammed in a packed elevator, quite another to be pushing a trolly down an empty isle late at night.

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