Boris Johnson and his hero from Jaws

Larry Vaughn in Jaws: “It’s a beautiful day, the beaches are open, and people are having a wonderful time”

One interesting feature of Dominic Cummings’ account of Boris Johnson’s reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic last year was his revelation that Johnson was still explicitly taking his inspiration from Larry Vaughn, mayor of Amity in the film Jaws.

Vaughn’s reluctance to intervene and close the town’s beaches in response to the reported appearance of a killer shark is an approach that Johnson has long applauded. His celebration of Vaughn’s laissez-faire approach first appeared in his Telegraph column back in 2003, where he declared that the mayor was his “political hero”. While conceding that Vaughn had his flaws — not least that as a result of his inaction “several of his electorate were eaten in distressing circumstances” — Johnson continued:

“But there was one laudable thing about him, and that was his refusal to give way to hysteria. I loved his rationality. Of course, it turned out that he was wrong. He kept the beaches open, in spite of the urgings of police chief Brody and Matt Hooper, the marine biologist. He thought it quite possible that Chrissie, the first victim, had been chewed up by a propeller, and that optimism, to put it mildly, was not vindicated by events. But the fact remains that he was heroically right in principle….

“He just wanted the people of Amity to go about their business without fear, and he did not want the tourist trade to be blighted. Of course, it would have been safest, politically, to join the panic. No one would have blamed him if he had also started waving his arms and screaming that there was a big white monster eating people. But he didn’t. He did the brave thing. He did nothing, and even if he was proved wrong, that in no way negates his courage and correctness.”

The additional relevance of Jaws is that there was of course a sequel, Jaws 2 — famously advertised with the tagline “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water” — in which the lives of the citizens of Amity were endangered by a second great white shark. Expressing scepticism about the recurrence of a killer shark threat, Mayor Vaughn once more showed an obstinate reluctance to intervene, again with predictably disastrous results.

The parallels with Johnson’s hands-off approach to the Covid-19 pandemic are uncanny. His responses to the first wave in February-March last year, and to the second wave in September-October, were a straightforward imitation of his hero Larry Vaughn.

First published on Medium in May 2021