Harold Macmillan was British prime minister from 1957 to 1963. A charming Tory with a patchy record, he’s usually remembered for saying that during his government Britons had “never had it so good” in their standard of living. What has been forgotten, almost completely, is that he said this in the middle of a pandemic.

Macmillan made his claim on 20 July 1957, at a party rally in Bedford. Like Boris Johnson, he was a new premier with a preference for optimistic public statements. In 1957, the British economy was actually quite fragile, and Macmillan acknowledged this in his speech, but the idea that Tory rule kept Britain prosperous and safe was central to his premiership. As now, the party had already been in power for years, and needed to present a Labour government as a terrible risk.

The pandemic, of a new strain of flu, had started in China the previous winter. During the first half of 1957 it steadily moved across Asia and then the rest of the world, killing hundreds of thousands of people, to the alarm of the world’s media, including the British press. In June, the first cases appeared in Britain. Yet that month, and again in July, Macmillan’s health secretary, Dennis Vosper, refused to make a public statement setting out the threat the flu posed, arguing that it was not spreading in the UK.

By August, the virus was all over north-west England. Macmillan finally began to pay attention. He asked another health minister, John Vaughan-Morgan, for his department’s view of the situation. Vaughan-Morgan replied: “The general assessment seems to be that eventually [the flu] will affect up to 20% of the population.” But he insisted that the virus was more a public relations than a medical problem: “This is a heaven-sent topic for the press during the ‘silly season’.”

The government advised those with symptoms to stay at home, but otherwise took little national action as the flu spread right across the country during the autumn, instead leaving it to local medical officials to work out what to do. In some areas, schools were closed, but few sporting events or other mass gatherings were cancelled. In October, the peak of the outbreak in Britain, the Conservative party conference went ahead as usual. Macmillan’s speech didn’t mention the pandemic.

The outbreak continued into the winter, and ultimately killed more than 30,000 Britons. Senior medical figures were horrified at Britain’s performance. John Corbett McDonald of the public health laboratory service wrote to Ian Watson of the Royal College of General Practitioners: “Although we have had [over] 30 years to prepare for what should be done in the event of an influenza pandemic” – since the previous one in 1918 – “we have all been rushing around trying to improvise [solutions]. We can only hope that … at the end it may be possible to construct an adequate explanation of what happened.”

Many critics of Johnson over coronavirus are hoping for a similar reckoning. The government is expecting one, too, judging by its goalpost-shifting rhetoric, such as the prime minister’s highly selective boast this week that Britain had “defied so many predictions” about the impact of the virus.

But for Johnson’s critics, the fate of Macmillan’s government in the aftermath of the 1957 pandemic is not a reassuring precedent. During the later months of the crisis – not a point the government has reached yet – the Tories’ poll ratings did fall sharply. But by the time the next general election came, in 1959, the pandemic had receded. The Labour manifesto didn’t even raise the government’s handling of it. The Conservatives talked up their economic record instead, and won easily, increasing their Commons majority to 100.

In Britain, it remains disconcertingly easy – and a sign of how lopsided our democracy is – for Tory governments responsible for disasters to change the subject. The rightwing bias of the press, worse now than in the 1950s, as there are fewer left-leaning papers, is the obvious villain. But equally important is a reluctance from voters to face up to the sheer scale of what the Conservatives have sometimes got wrong.

The 1957 flu catastrophe came the year after the disastrous British military intervention at Suez – also under the Conservatives, and supported by Macmillan – which destroyed much of Britain’s credibility as a world power. Similarly, the British coronavirus failure closely follows the Tories’ chaotic Brexit U-turns and hugely counterproductive austerity. Yet in both eras, many voters have avoided coming to the unsettling conclusion that, quite often, their default ruling class simply isn’t up to the job. It’s more comforting to believe, as Johnson promised this week, that after its latest calamity, “the UK will emerge stronger than ever before”.

Our national myth often revolves around recovery from disaster. In this narrative, failures by the state – such as the second world war setbacks that led to Dunkirk – just create opportunities for future, greater successes. As a politician preoccupied by history, and not very good at governing, Johnson understands this well. His much-admired optimism is really a form of cynicism: as he blunders through the present, he keeps the possibility of better times for Britain in the future floating perpetually in the distance, like a mirage.

Can the Tories’ cynical optimism and evasions of responsibility ever be effectively pointed out? They can if Labour has a sharp enough leader. In 1957, Macmillan was mocked in parliament for his “never had it so good” speech by the shadow chancellor. With deft sarcasm, Harold Wilson called the speech “remarkable”. Wilson became Labour leader in 1963, as Macmillan’s supposed economic miracle finally petered out, and won four of the next five elections. Keir Starmer might do well to get some old tapes of him out.

Andy Beckett is a Guardian columnist

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