Maybe in the future we will look back and wax lyrical about “COVID Spirit” in the same way we talk about the Blitz now; maybe we’ll forget how mean-spirited much of public life was, and just how many arseholes made an already difficult time much harder for everyone else. There were heroes, too (Marcus Rashford, NHS staff and the legends who punted that statue into Bristol harbour spring to mind), but if 2020 was a battle between good and evil, evil probably edged it. These are our villains of the year.
20. KEIR STARMER
Someone or other once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Whether Keir Starmer qualifies as a “good man” remains unclear, but he has the “doing nothing” part down to a tee. He’s the only entry on our list to be included more for the things that he didn’t do than the things which he did.
In 2020, Starmer described the “defund the police” aims of Black Lives Matter as “nonsense”, failed to discipline Labour MP Rosie Duffield for her alleged transphobia, neglected to interrupt a radio phone-in caller spouting a white supremacist conspiracy theory, abstained on the so-called ‘“spycops” bill that granted undercover police the right to murder, torture, and rape without fear of prosecution and reignited Labour’s factional wars by suspending Jeremy Corbyn from the party. For a significant number of people, Starmer has been a bitter disappointment, surpassing even their lowest expectations.
19. PRESCRIPTION GLASSES WORN WITH A MASK
Short-sighted people have had a rough time of it this year and are as deserving, in many ways, of as much respect and sympathy as key workers. Wearing glasses in an age of compulsory face masks means being constantly faced with two different kinds of blindness. We spent the whole year peering out at the world as though through a night-bus window on a rainy January evening, or rubbing our glasses like Lady Macbeth scrubbing away at her blood-stained hands. But no-one stood in the street and clapped for us. No-one wrote gushing op-eds about how we embody the best of humanity. No-one suggested that we should collectively be named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year”. Absolute piss-take.
18. FAST FASHION
The backlash against fast fashion is one of the few good things to come out of 2020. Boohoo came under fire after it was revealed that Leicester garment factories with links to the company were paying workers less than half of minimum wage, as well as forcing them to work without social distancing measures at the height of the pandemic.
Boohoo-owned Pretty Little Thing also came under fire for its Black Friday sale, in which clothes were sold for as little as 8p. While everyone likes a bargain, the low prices were criticised as emblematic of the kind of disposable consumerism we’re going to have to leave behind if we’re going to tackle the climate crisis. Still, though — you can’t argue with 8p!
17. LANDLORDS, EVEN MORE THAN USUAL
During the pandemic, it was never more vital that we treated our fellow citizens with decency, kindness and compassion. It was a year of solidarity and ordinary heroism: mutual aid groups sprang up, people made enormous personal sacrifices to avoid becoming disease vectors, and a very old man walked around his garden.
Landlords responded to this call to greatness by, uh, trying to charge people extra for working from home, dodging an estimated £173bn in tax, denying people rent reductions, holding illegal viewings during lockdown and illegally evicting more people than you could imagine — in fact, illegal evictions in the UK increased by over 50 percent since the pandemic began. Thank you, landlords, for killing the “we’re all in this together :)” vibes.
16. LAURENCE FOX
“Does no-platforming work?” is by now a well-worn question, with solid arguments on either side. Some people, after getting “cancelled”, are interviewed by every major publication in the country and invited on television to talk about how they’re being silenced. At other times, no-platforming does seem to pay off. Katie Hopkins, permanently banned from Twitter and made persona non grata in mainstream media (even the really shit ones), has gone from a national scourge to someone I simply haven’t heard a word from in a very long time. It’s a blissful feeling.
Sadly, evil abhors a vacuum, and Hopkins’s departure from the stage left a gap in the market for an obnoxious and not particularly bright right-wing grifter to fill. Enter Laurence Fox, who, following an appearance on Question Time, went from being a middling television actor and failed singer-songwriter to someone who is the news all the time for saying witless, allegedly racist and deliberately provocative things. “Lawrence Fox said what!?!”, shrieked hundreds of articles.
It would be remiss to write a list of the year’s villains without including Fox, but perhaps, in 2021 and beyond, we could make a collective agreement to never mention his name again. He really, truly isn’t that interesting. We deserve a better class of villain.
15. LOCKDOWN PRODUCTIVITY
Both sides of the lockdown productivity debate were equally annoying: the people smugly reminding you that Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a pandemic and, on the other hand, the self-appointed wellness gurus reassuring you that being unproductive is “valid”. It was deeply affirming for a bunch of randoms on Twitter to grant us permission to sack off work but sadly, most landlords were unwilling to accept “validity” as a form of rent.
But everyone, even some key workers, will probably have found themselves with a bit more spare time this year. While lots of people achieved great things during lockdown, the pandemic revealed that many of us have spent years chatting shit about the things we’d do if we only had more time. There’s something tragic about having at one point thought, “If only I had a few more hours free in the evening, I would finish that novel/ teach myself Italian/ learn to play the saxophone”, finally getting the probably unrepeatable opportunity to do exactly that, but then doing a start-to-finish rewatch of The Sopranos instead.
If one of your friends made a big deal out of starting a creative project at the beginning of lockdown and has never mentioned it since, just forget it. Asking them how their Mandarin is coming along would be an act of terrible cruelty.
14. SKYSCRAPER-SIZED RITA ORA FROM THE EE AD
You might think that Rita Ora would make it onto our villains list for breaking lockdown and hosting an extravagant party, but this pales into comparison next to her true act of villainy: starring in a really weird EE advert about 5G.
The campaign aimed to show off the network’s new “augmented reality” feature, and featured a giant Ora towering over a fan before parading round the skyscrapers of London, singing a little song. In a year in which conspiracies theories about 5G became wildly popular, this was the thing that finally convinced us a mobile phone network could be the work of the devil.
The other day, I read someone suggest suggest that: “you don’t really hate Zoom, what you hate is capitalism!” Let me assure you, sweetie, it’s entirely possible to hate both.
Grim, cheerless, and strangely exhausting, Zoom has been the defining aspect of sociality this year, despite the fact that attending a Zoom party is arguably a more lonely and alienating experiencing than just, like, sitting in your room and staring at a wall. It did, however, redeem itself slightly by allowing us all a good chuckle at that New Yorker writer who got caught wanking on camera.
12. DANISH MINKS
In November, Denmark was forced to cull the entirety of its mink population after the animals exhibited a mutated form of coronavirus. It was feared that this could jeopardise the vaccine process if it the mutation was ever passed onto humans.
The story, already grim, got even worse: after the cull, the minks enacted a terrible revenge by rising from their graves to haunt the people of Denmark. It wasn’t really their fault (it was due to decomposition gases, if you must know) but still… get a job.
11. PHILIP GREEN
Arcadia Group chief Philip Green’s villainy is hardly a fresh revelation: the man has been accused of racist abuse, sexual harassment and tax avoidance – all allegations that he vehemently denies. This was the year that it all came crashing down. In November, it was announced that Arcadia – owner of Topman, Topshop, Burtons, Miss Selfridge and Dorothy Perkins – would be going into administration. Maybe there is a little bit of justice in this cruel world after all?
Not really: the sad truth is that, whatever happens to Arcadia, it will be its lower-rung employees who suffer the most. Once you get to a certain level of wealth, it’s unlikely you’ll ever meet the comeuppance you deserve. We’re sure Philip Green’s yachts will be just fine. The real villain of 2020? Capitalism itself, baby.
10. SNITCH NEIGHBOURS
There has never been a better year to be a grass than 2020. Sometimes this took the form of public shaming: posting pictures of drunk people pissing in the park online or screen-shotting a stranger’s Instagram story of them hanging out with seven friends and sharing it with the caption “this is NOT socially distanced!!!”. It was the year that many of us decided it was our jobs to hold random private individuals to account, all the while imagining this was a civic virtue rather than plain old bullying.
Sometimes this snitching took place closer to home, with people grassing on their neighbours on local Facebook groups for not joining in the weekly NHS clap or calling the police to report minor lockdown breaches. In 20 years' time, when people look back fondly on the pandemic and insist that shared adversity “really brought out the best of us”, let’s remember that a not insignificant portion of the British public proved themselves to be horrible, snivelling little snitches.
9. DOMINIC CUMMINGS
Like Phillip Green, Dominic Cummings is another villain who ostensibly, kind of, met with a comeuppance this year. But it wasn’t a very satisfying one. After surviving the year’s biggest political scandal, Cummings held tight long enough to resign of his own volition. Whether he jumped or was pushed remains unclear but, whatever really went down, it wasn’t nearly humiliating enough. Cumming’s final crime was managing to slither away from Downing Street with something approaching dignity. He could have at least have had the decency to burst into tears, piss himself, or slip on a banana peel.
I’m not convinced that being anti-vaxx is evil in itself, like racism or transphobia, but it does risk causing immense harm to public health. In order to achieve herd immunity, the point at which so many people are immune that the virus can’t easily spread, we would need around 70 percent of the population to get the vaccine. It’s a substantial number, and one that every protest, YouTube video, and Facebook post that claims the vaccine is dangerous will make harder to reach.
Please, anti-vaxxers, we’re begging you… quit your jibber-jabber and take the damn jab. I want to be able to go to a club while I’m still in my twenties. I want to be able to visit the pub without spending £15 on a microwaved toad-in-the-hole every time I buy a round. I want to live.
7. PRITI PATEL
The UK government’s approach to refugees this year has been characteristically disgusting, and no individual is more responsible for this than Priti Patel. In August, a Sudanese teenager named Abdulfatah Hamdallah drowned while trying to cross the Channel, just one out of a number of migrants who have died trying to reach the UK. While Priti Patel described Hamdallah’s death as “an upsetting and tragic loss of a young life”, she went on to blame people smuggling gangs. Actually, the UK has a legal duty under international law to accept refugees – one it is currently failing to uphold – so it’s the Conservative Party which is culpable, along with Patel herself.
If that wasn’t bad enough, there was also the bullying allegations, the Home Office threatening to fast-track Black Lives Matter protesters for deportation, and the fact she proudly suggested she’d alert the authorities if she saw two families break lockdown rules by stopping in the street for a chat. So, on top of it all, she’s a snitch.
Twitter is an annoying platform at the best of times and this year was particularly obnoxious, which makes sense: people were trapped indoors with hours to kill and few other ways to socialise, and they were angry. Out of a crowded field, the nadir for me came when there was a day of furious, vicious discourse around the question “should people be allowed to wear skimpy outfits at gay Pride?”, despite the fact that Pride wasn’t even taking place. Another favourite (i.e. I hated it) was the day that everyone argued over whether it’s “rooted in paedophilia” for a straight man to be attracted to short women.
Twitter on 2020 was a year of discourse taken to the level of abstraction: people were angry and annoyed, with good reason, and flailing around for something to project this onto. This resulted in some of the most boring and frankly bizarre discussions ever to curse the internet.
5. MILLWALL FANS
Fans of Millwall, a club which in recent years has struggled to shake off its racist image, came under fire for booing when the team’s players took the knee as a a gesture of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement against racism and police brutality.
Obviously, this is reprehensible. But just as villainous, I would argue are, real are the high-profile journalists who sought to defend them, because, you see, when these people booed a gesture universally understood to signify anti-racism, they weren’t being racist at all – they were actually protesting “cultural Marxism”. This is, by sheer coincidence, the explanation most palatable to right-wing journalists (not to mention being an antisemitic conspiracy theory in its own right).
4. JEFF BEZOS
Unlike Philip Green or Dominic Cumming, two villains who at least faced some form of downfall this year, Jeff Bezos has only gone from strength to strength. Amazon did very well out of lockdown, and between March and October, Bezos became US$90bn richer.
Needless to say, this windfall was not shared by Amazon’s workers, many of whom faced a year of exploitation, poor COVID safety measures, and being spied on by their employer when they attempted to strike. That’s before you even get started on Amazon’s alleged tax evasion and the damage the company’s enormous carbon footprint is wreaking on the planet. Jeff Bezos is dystopian capitalism made flesh.
3. UK UNIVERSITIES
Seeing people younger and happier than you enjoying themselves on a night out can be a painful experience. Who among us hasn’t wanted to lock up freshers in their halls of residence before? For most of us, the idea remains a passing fancy. Some UK universities actually went ahead and did it, the evil bastards.
This wasn’t simply an unfortunate but necessary public health measure: in many cases, universities insisted that students had to be there in person before — surprise!— trapping them indoors when they arrived, often with very little support and terrible food. It all just seemed like a cynical cash grab. This controversy did provide one very cool moment though, when a bunch of students at the University of Manchester tore down a newly-erected fence with their bare hands in protest.
2. BORIS JOHNSON
The UK currently has one of the worst coronavirus death rates in the world, second in Europe only to Italy, and has also suffered the worst economic fallout of the world’s major economies. Whether you place a higher priority on human life or the economy, it’s clear that the government fucked it. The country is in a terrible state (we still have a no deal Brexit to almost certainly look forward to) and Boris Johnson is ultimately responsible. He’s proven himself to be a frivolous, unserious person who, when the time came, just wasn’t up to the challenge.
1. THE PHRASE ‘THESE UNPRECEDENTED TIMES’
There were a few annoying phrases doing the rounds this year. Personally, my least favourite was “we’re literally in a pandemic”, the weapon of choice for the online scold. “Hope you’re staying positive and testing negative” was another sick-making turn of phrase. But, really, there could only ever be one winner. Please, my times, they’re very unprecedented!
It’s understandable that this phrase because so ubiquitous: after all, the times were objectively unprecedented. But for its pomposity, and simply the fact that is so relentlessly reminded us what a terrible time we were having, this is our villain of the year. Here’s to 2021.