Brendan O’Neill

Starmer’s beergate woes show why we need a lockdown amnesty

Starmer’s beergate woes show why we need a lockdown amnesty
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Do you really care that Keir Starmer had a curry and a beer while working late in April last year? Be honest. Does the image of Sir Keir tucking into a masala with colleagues keep you up at night? Do you find yourself distracted from the cost-of-living crisis by visions of Starmer having a San Miguel? Would you like to find out more about what’s happening in Ukraine but you can’t, because your mind keeps getting dragged back to that shocking grainy photo of the Leader of the Opposition holding a bottle of beer?

Look, I get it about the hypocrisy. I get it that Starmer bored us all rigid – well, me anyway – with incessant questions about that ten-minute birthday party at Downing Street. I know that having madly talked up the government’s shindigs during lockdown as proof of ‘widespread criminality’ at the heart of political power Starmer cannot now feign shock that his Indian is being splashed all over the front pages. And yes, I understand the thrill of Schadenfreude.

More importantly, I’m glad that Starmer and others might now learn a very important lesson: namely, that you should never pose as a moral crusader unless your own life is utterly spotless, unless your closet is bare of skeletons. Puffing yourself up as a pious unveiler of sin is not a good idea if you – like all of us – have sinned. It’s like those fundamentalist religious blokes who rage against sodomy only to be exposed as frequenters of public toilets in which certain larks are had. Sure, all Starmer did was have some food and a drink, but he hauled Boris and Co over the coals for the very same, so… snap, Sir Keir.

I understand all of that. But really, deep down, do you care that Starmer did what he did? Forget his ill-advised reinvention of himself as Partyfinder-General of the Covid era. Forget the hilarious knots the likes of Lisa Nandy are currently tying themselves in as they try to explain why Keir’s food at work was fine but Boris’s was an outrage against decency. Just focus on the thing itself: that beer, that curry, in that office. You don’t care about it, do you? It is completely unimportant, isn’t it?

I, personally, am done with Beergate. And Partygate. No more gates, please. It’s an insult to Watergate to attach the ‘gate’ affix to Rishi Sunak awkwardly singing Happy Birthday to Boris or Angela Rayner enjoying a korma. We need to stop poring over what people did during lockdown. Yes, including the people who made the rules (Boris) or voted for the rules (Keir). Enough. It is now time, surely, that we took a completely approach and forgave everyone – from Downing Street downwards – who broke the Covid rules.

After all, didn’t everyone break the rules? At some level? Some did it to a crazy degree, for example by hosting house parties for drunken teens. Others were a tad less anarchic, maybe going outside more than once a day or allowing a lover to visit them at home during lockdown (how’s life, professor Ferguson?). But I would wager that the majority of the good citizens of this fine country at least leaned an elbow of rebellion against that old stringent system of rules. 

Indeed, I find myself more shocked by the people who didn’t break the rules than by those who did. It worries me, if I am being honest, that there are people in this country who went for months without cheekily clinking a glass of booze with a friend or having relations with a lover on the other side of town or just plonking themselves down on one of those benches that was wrapped in yellow tape by the lockdown lunatics of officialdom. To err is human — to obediently stay inside your home for months on end is less so, I would say.

And here’s the thing: people didn’t break the rules because they are horrible or immoral or uncaring. They did it because they recognise that life is to be lived. Even in times of crisis. Even in times of disease. Safely, cautiously, and for the good of their own souls and the souls of their friends and family, people went against the rules. It was the most human thing to have happened in that weird period we’ve all just lived through.

So here’s my proposal: instead of going on and on about Beergate and Partygate, let’s have a complete lockdown amnesty. Let’s pay back all the fines that were issued, forgive all the rule-breakers, and move on. Let us recognise, as a society, that the lockdown was the strangest social experiment any of us is ever likely to live through, and that most of us did our best but every now and then we bent the rules. We had to. It was as important for our spiritual health as avoiding catching Covid was for our physical health.

That’s enough lockdown moralism. Enough pointed fingers and shouts of ‘Shame!’. Keir had a beer with colleagues and Boris had cake with workmates — you did something similar, didn’t you? Admit it. Britain got through Covid fairly well; now let’s do well in the post-Covid moment too by offering redemption to those millions who twisted the regulations.