Young campaigners take a stand, Boris Johnson takes a snooze

Boris Johnson, maskless and asleep
Dozing maskless at COP26

The image of Boris Johnson maskless and dozing during the opening speeches at COP26 in Glasgow is one of the most damning indictments of our incompetent leader to emerge and is now circulating around the world much to the amusement of international commentators. Downing Street officials insist the PM was following the rules, only removing his mask when seated, but whose rules are being referred to as more than one set of rules seems to exist?

This confusion is exactly what Boris Johnson thrives on – ambiguity, loopholes, obfuscation, and his own sense of self-importance that often places him and his friends above the law. The image raises many issues that should concern us all.

Firstly, we are still in the middle of a global pandemic with the UK being one of the countries with the highest number of deaths, level pegging with Indonesia at present. Indonesia’s death rate however is significantly lower than the UK meaning we are losing more people through infection than a desperately poor, less developed country where access to healthcare and sanitation is patchy at best and where vaccinations are in short supply.

‘World beating’ Boris Johnson

Given our PM’s frequently trotted out motto of ‘world beating’ we can assume this doesn’t apply to saving lives from a deadly viral infection. Making the wearing of masks compulsory is within the government’s power and positive role modelling from the country’s leader would have done much to encourage citizens to follow suit. It’s bad enough that the government couldn’t get its head around this simple pain-free public health message before cases started rising astronomically threatening to overwhelm the NHS again. But it’s even more painful for those of us who love our country to witness the viral memes that followed Boris Johnson’s abdication of personal responsibility. With Johnson asleep at the wheel, maskless and in his ‘Benny Hill’ suit, we are a laughing stock of the world.

Johnson was sat squarely between two older gentlemen when the photo was taken. To the right of him is Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General, a man of immense experience and stature who used his voice to call for an end to conflict at the beginning of the pandemic, urging countries to work together against a common unseen enemy. Guterres was a previous United Nations Commissioner for Refugees and recently called for a fair Migration Compact which the UK blatantly ignored. Growing up under a dictatorship in Portugal, Guterres knows all too well the dangers of a government in service only to itself and his lifelong commitment to socialism, including as the PM of Portugal, makes him the polar opposite of the Tory public schoolboy napping next to him.

The other gent next to Johnson is our ‘national treasure’ Sir David Attenborough, now 95 and evermore urgent in his stark warnings about existential anthropogenic damage to our life-support system – Mother Earth. People watching the COP26 proceedings being live-streamed from Glasgow took to twitter immediately the image of the three men began circulating, criticising Johnson for his lackadaisical approach to public health and reaffirming their adoration for Attenborough whose natural history programmes have been a backdrop to all our lives. He is a very British institution and represents the best of us. Looking at Johnson and Attenborough and listening to their speeches at COP it is obvious which is the greater in terms of gravitas, honesty and leadership. Attenborough speaks truth to power, from the heart and from a position of knowledge. Johnson meanwhile makes crass jokes about burping cows, guilt-free chocolate, and feeding humans to animals, even suggesting he can tackle climate change by taking on a James Bond persona rather than do some serious political work by reining in the big polluters. The man is seriously deluded.

But it’s not simply what you say from the conference podium with the eyes and ears of the world watching you that matters – Greta Thunberg knows all about the ‘blah, blah, blah’ of politicians like Johnson. Luckily, the BBC’s Climate Editor, Justin Rowlatt, did a fantastic job of interrogating Johnson’s hypocritical record in an interview that saw the PM squirming without an aide to help him out. Rowlatt quizzed Johnson relentlessly on the lack of commitment to phase out fossil fuels as demonstrated by the plans for a new coal mine in Cumbria and the cutting of domestic air passenger duty. We need more of this kind of probing journalism across a whole range of issues as the Tories continue to ride roughshod over democracy and avoid scrutiny at all costs.

After bumping fists with world leaders and hanging out with big business Johnson returned to London from Glasgow in a private jet to dine with climate sceptics at a private men-only club, proving where his true allegiances lie. Meanwhile Rishi Sunak ran the gauntlet from the entrance of the SEC holding his green briefcase whilst two articulate and determined young women demanded answers to their questions about climate finance. The fact that they were ejected from the building tells us all we need to know about a government running scared of the public, especially youth who they continue to fail.

Whilst young people are denied access to the global gathering that will determine the future viability of their planetary home, the streets of Glasgow and other towns and cities around the world are filled with the urgent demonstrations of the young who demand truth telling and action. Saturday 6 November is a hugely important Global Day of Action and wherever you are there will be marches, rallies and other events that you can attend. In the North East of England there are events across the region in Newcastle, Durham and Saltburn.

The Newcastle event begins with a march from the Civic Centre at 11.30 followed by a rally at The Monument. Local climate activist Gwen Lewis-Hedley, aged 13, will kick off the rally and introduce the first speaker, Newcastle MP Chi Onwurah. Gwen has already made her mark in the Bylines network with an article published by us on 26 October on youth climate activism. If you didn’t read it before, read it now, and if you did read it, please re-read and ask yourself if you are doing enough.

Information about the Global Day of Action can be found here.

Listen to a special message from NE musician Sting check out Climate Action Newcastle.

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