In John Rawles’ 1971 book ‘Theory of Justice’, he wrote about a thought experiment which would come to be known as the ‘Veil of Ignorance’. In it, Rawls proposed that the only way for a person to design a truly just society would be behind a veil of ignorance where they are deprived of all knowledge of their personal state -including but not limited to their race, religion, gender and social class.
The rationale behind this is simple: humans are focused on self-preservation - a diplomatic way of saying we are inherently selfish- and will naturally tend to favour what benefits us personally. But because people behind the veil of ignorance do not know what position in society they will find themselves in, they don’t know what will benefit them, thereby rendering all personal biases obsolete. In fact, any choice they make intending to skew society to benefit themselves runs an equal risk of disadvantaging them. For example, in choosing to make a society that advantages men, they run the risk of being a woman in said society. The idea is that this changes the original aim of self-preservation into the preservation of an entire group, overcoming human selfishness, and resulting in a truly fair, egalitarian society.
But what does this have to do with Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of Britain? Well, at the time of writing, said Prime Minister is in intensive care after testing positive for COVID-19 on March 27.
This is a direct result of the ‘herd immunity’ strategy that Johnson’s government advocated for. While this strategy was short-lived, after experts condemned it as ‘a dangerous gamble’, it meant the UK lost valuable time in its fight against COVID, lagging behind other European nations. In fact, on March 12, the same day that France closed schools and asked companies to institute work from home policies, Johnson -going against scientific advice by making a show of shaking the hands of two tv presenters- proposed his government’s strategy to the British public, saying ‘many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.’
The speed with which Johnson fell victim to the failure of his own policy is almost poetic in its justice.
Just over two weeks later, on March 27, Boris Johnson tested positive for COVID-19. The speed with which he fell victim to the failure of his own policy is almost poetic in its justice. And one wonders, if all politicians were as susceptible to the effects of their policies, if they were placed behind Rawls’s veil of ignorance without the knowledge of their privileged positions, knowing that they could just as easily occupy the positions of society’s most vulnerable, would they continue to pioneer certain positions? One only has to look at Boris Johnson’s voting record to see that he feels cushioned by his wealth, having consistently voted for a reduction in spending on welfare benefits. Would he feel differently if he didn’t have the £1.6million fortune that makes it impossible for him to ever be thrust into economic freefall, forced to depend upon the safety nets he has gouged holes in during his political career?
And it isn’t just Johnson; let us place our elected representatives behind the veil of ignorance. Would ministers have cut funding for firefighters by 15% if there was a chance they or their loved ones could have been victims in the Grenfell tragedy? Would they have increased the use of section 60 powers for the police (known colloquially as stop and search) if they weren’t secure that their privilege would protect them from the fact that black people are nearly ten times as likely to be stopped and searched as white people?
Even though the UK currently has the most diverse parliament in its history, we still have a far way to go in ensuring our representatives are empathetic to the plight of their constituents. Indeed, we must not forget that while Boris Johnson battles COVID-19, he is doing so with full financial security, a stable job and knowledge that he has access to the best medical treatment in the country, unlike a vast majority of the population. This is but a microcosm of the inequality in this country. And so, while the virus may not be the great equaliser many claim it to be, disproportionately affecting poorer populations, we can only hope it will give our politicians something to think about.