openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Cummings is caught in the bomb he placed under British politics

The government tried to shirk responsibility for their pandemic failures by making it a story about individual blame.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
26 May 2020
A sign appeared at Barnard Castle mocking Cummings
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Image: Claire Ashforth/Twitter

Like many proverbs in English, the term comes from Shakespeare. A “petard” was a small bomb, used for blowing up the fortifications of castles. To be hoisted on your own, as Hamlet put it, was to be blown up by it. I can find no evidence that such an explosive event ever took place at Barnard Castle. Until now.

That particular dead metaphor came to mind because the most interesting thing about the Dominic Cummings scandal is the reaction to it. The stupid actions and ridiculous excuses of one man are unlikely to have led to thousands of deaths. The same can’t be said of the broader crisis – the UK government’s multiple fatal failures to keep people safe from the virus. 

As we’ve all been aghast at the prime minister’s chief strategist, the UK has taken top place on the global league table of deaths from COVID-19 per million. That should be the real scandal – that should be why we’re furious with Cummings.

Why, then, has his trip to the North become the defining issue of the pandemic? Why is this the thing onto which so many of us have attached our fury? I suspect the answer is that it clarifies two more complex stories – underlying trends which have shaped people’s experience of this crisis, and of the broader breakdown of British politics which it sits within, but which it can be hard to put our fingers on.

The first of these is the story about blame. The government’s primary political strategy during the pandemic has been to shirk responsibility by making this a morality tale about individual behaviour. Much of the media has helpfully collaborated by running endless stories about ‘covidiots’ – people doing seemingly stupid things. Rather than holding the government to account, we were encouraged to twitch our curtains, and point at our neighbours.

Throughout the pandemic, millions have had the feeling that this isn’t quite right.

On the one hand, most of us have seen our neighbours follow the rules carefully. Those around us have behaved responsibly, and so have we. On the other hand, the government’s failure to deliver PPE or test-and-trace, its sending infected patients from hospitals back to care homes, the prime minister’s own mixed messaging, England’s lack of serious lockdown rules – surely these have contributed much more to the UK becoming a global COVID-19 hub than the actions of a few foolish individuals?

And yet the narrative persisted. Collective responsibility, after all, is a ‘loony left’ idea. ‘Don’t politicise a crisis’, we’re told. The strategy is simple: sidestep government accountability, come down like a truncheon on anyone breaking the rules. 

Read more: Stop blaming ordinary people for the UK's pandemic failures

Normally, this political strategy is effective – for twenty years, it’s how governments have got away with failing to act seriously on climate change. For a decade, it’s allowed the Conservatives to rule as homelessness and hunger soared: it’s the personal responsibility of the homeless and hungry, and of each of us to give to charities. To say otherwise is ‘political’, we were told.

In this world view, accountability slips out of the purview of what they call ‘politics’ – what I would call ‘democracy’. Human relations are mediated by the market and by individualised, personal morality. In this world, the biggest sin is not doing things which damage other people. It’s hypocrisy.

Dominic Cummings’ aim when arriving in Downing Street was to put a bomb under what remained of politics. By dismantling the mechanisms of democratic accountability, he hoped to cement this new era in place, an era dominated by the individual, and where “brilliant” individuals rule – “brilliant”, like him. 

Last week, the petard he placed under the British politics went off in his face. The story was about individual responsibility, and he was the individual at the centre of it.

There are other rules for them, that’s how Britain works

The second underlying trend is perhaps subtler. In a way, it is the power imbalance which produces the anger which Cummings tapped into. Where most countries have a written set of rules that everyone has to follow – a codified constitution – the UK’s political system is based on the idea that our rulers get to make up the rules as they go along.

This idea – the sovereignty of the Crown in Parliament – is at the heart of a longer running part of Britain’s culture: the culture of deference to the monarchy and aristocracy which has been corroding since the 1950s, but still plays an important part in our society. It is an idea which produces two feelings, warring within the souls of many people in the UK.

On the one hand, the mythologies of British nationalism teach us that posh people ought to be in charge. Rather than a belief in the processes of democratic accountability – in politics – privately educated white British men are ‘prime ministerial’ because they are, we are taught, imbued with a natural ability to know the mind and the interests of ‘the people’. Boris Johnson, with Cummings lurking in the foreground, embodied this idea. He was ‘Britishness’ personified.

On the other, there is a deep sense of implicit injustice: the idea that they live by one set of rules, and everyone else has to live by another. Ultimately, these two principles are irreconcilable – particularly for those members of the middle class who are only now discovering that they belong in the category of ‘everybody else’. 

The strength of the resonance of the Dominic Cummings story surely comes partly because it’s an injustice with which people across the UK are far too familiar. That there are different rules for “them” and “us” is the foundational injustice of the UK.

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