Tuesday 26 May 2020

The Cummings affair

There are numerous obvious connections between Brexit and the Dominic Cummings lockdown affair that has dominated the last few days. For one thing, the very existence of the present government is down to Brexit, its composition is based on the central test of Brexit loyalty, and its advisers, from Cummings downwards, came from the old Vote Leave campaign team.

But in any case both Cummings and his supporters have repeatedly tried to tie the story back to the Brexit divide in order to reframe it in the culture war terms that are their comfort zone. The reason, though, why his behaviour has become so huge an event is because it reveals so many of the paradoxes and flaws within that culture war to the extent that, for perhaps the first time since 2016, the Brexiter vs Remainer battle lines have been transcended.

The paradox of populism

At the core of this is the central paradox of populism. Brexit was presented as the triumph of ‘the people’ over ‘the elite’, and the years since the Referendum have repeatedly cast all the conflicts it has given rise to in those terms (hence, ‘will of the people’, ‘enemies of the people’, and the equation of remainers with the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’). Yet this is a precarious construct, given the fact that the country was and is more or less evenly split – making ‘the people’ an unconvincingly small proportion and ‘the elite’ a preposterously large one – and the self-evidently elite nature of its leaders.

The idea that the largely male, public school and/or Oxford educated Brexit leaders – a category that takes in Johnson, Gove, Farage, Cummings, Carswell, Lawson, Rees-Mogg, Hannan, Redwood and many more – are anything other than a privileged elite is plainly ludicrous. It is a fiction which is constantly vulnerable to obvious inconsistencies, but although they are often pointed out (Rees-Mogg’s investment fund company, Lawson’s French Chateau, Redwood’s advice to investors) this has no cut through with their supporters.

Why? It is not, I think, that those supporters fail to spot the privilege of their leaders. It is that this isn’t the kind of privilege to which they object. Such figures – Johnson, most obviously, Farage, certainly, even Rees-Mogg, surprisingly – are seen as being, despite that privilege, still in some way ‘ordinary’ and, perhaps, more important, as ‘authentic’. More than anything, they may be privileged but they are not what their supporters mean by ‘the elite’ which, instead, is associated with the supposedly finger-wagging, won’t let us say what really think, prissy, moralistic, do-gooders. The Human Rights Brigade. The PC Brigade. The girly swots. The bleeding-heart liberals.

It’s an amorphous group which, together, constitutes a ‘them’ to which the ‘us’ – ordinary, common sense people and their perhaps not ordinary in the ordinary sense but still common sense and authentic leaders – are opposed. For years we suffered as the ‘silent majority’, but with Brexit we found our voice. Within this is another, and crucial, dividing line. As brilliantly depicted in Jonathan Coe’s ‘Brexit novel’, Middle England, the elite in this meaning are ‘constantly telling us what to do and say’. They are interfering. They are authoritarian. They force us to be other than ourselves, and so to be inauthentic, unlike the flamboyant leaders who we revere for having kept their authenticity. They make us follow their rules.

Taking back control

In this cultural universe, ‘taking back control’ was a doubly potent slogan. It was about freedom from EU control, but also freedom from the control of them – who, not coincidentally, were opposed to Brexit – freedom to ‘talk about immigration’, freedom to celebrate Christmas not ‘Winterval’, freedom to fly the St George Flag without being sneered at. In this way it was, of course, partly about nationalism – about ‘us’ as a nation – but also about internal divisions – about ‘us’ versus ‘them’, those who for so long had ruled over us but were now exposed as traitors and saboteurs.

So Brexit provided an umbrella that could link the hard-core libertarianism of a very small ideological minority with the resentments, victimhood and perceived humiliations of a much larger group. And the spines of that umbrella were ‘freedom from the rules’.

Almost all the high-profile fights of the post-Referendum period were framed by this. Domestically, these ranged from the Miller Case on Parliamentary approval for triggering Article 50 through to the row (and court cases) over Prorogation. They were battles over whether ‘the rules’ (laws, conventions) had to be followed or whether ‘the will of the people’ trumped such niceties. In relation to Brexit itself, the distinction between rule-taking and rule-making is what shifted its meaning from ‘single market membership’ to the present stance whereby any and every trace of ECJ involvement must be expunged.

This is also one of many reasons why Brexit has proved so impossible to deliver. For its simple foundational fantasy of national freedom from the rules has constantly been exposed by the complex intricacies of reality. That reality includes the need for transnational regulations if trade is to be done smoothly – free trade in the modern world is not so much about freedom from tariffs as shared rules to eliminate the non-tariff barriers of national regulations.

Sticking a finger in the eye of the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ was easy enough, but doing so to hard-nosed trade negotiators – whether of the EU, US, or anywhere else - something much more difficult. Hence, in the end, Brexiters have been reduced to claiming that they never promised it would be easy, or even economically desirable, but all about some ill-defined sense of sovereignty. The ultimate paradox of this aspect of Brexit is that the last-ditch defence of freedom from the rules is championship of adherence to WTO rules.

Enter coronavirus

Into this culture war, the coronavirus pandemic arrived. By this time, the Brexiters were firmly in control of government and those such as Johnson and Cummings, ideologically and psychologically invested in rule-breaking, were suddenly confronted by a situation which required the imposition of new and unprecedently draconian rules and restrictions on everyday life. Small wonder that they did so belatedly, reluctantly and, in Johnson’s case, with a nod and a wink that rules were there to be broken. As Bobby McDonagh observes in The Irish Times, there is “a striking correlation between Brexit indoctrination and virus insouciance”.

As I and others have remarked several times before, Brexiters are far more comfortable with campaigning than governing. As they have found over and over again, it is far easier to stand on the side lines denouncing government ‘betrayal’ of Brexit than delivering it. This is not coincidental, since the promises of Brexit are undeliverable, partly for the reasons given above. But coronavirus revealed a deeper paradox, which is the impossibility of ruling when your politics are defined by rule-breaking. Forced to confront it, Johnson and Cummings opted, however reluctantly, for the rules of lockdown.

But here the culture war took an unexpected turn. Because what was revealed were two diametrically different responses from Brexit supporters. Some of the most high-profile of them became, as discussed in a recent post on this blog – lockdown sceptics. Yet amongst plenty of rank and file leavers a different version of cultural identity held sway, and one they shared with plenty of remainers.

This was the traditional image of the British – and for once it was the British, not just the English - as a ‘naturally’ law-abiding people of orderly queues, fair play, pulling together for the common good, and ‘all in it together’. A people who, in fact, did not disdain but played by the rules. Indeed Johnson himself, with his constant invocations of Second World War unity, mobilised exactly this cultural theme, and it proved to be remarkably powerful. Most people have followed the rules, despite the hardship, and in some cases tragedy, that entailed.

The Cummings row

So, finally, the incipient distinction between ‘the people’ and their anti-elitist yet self-evidently elite leadership was exposed in a way which had cut through. The ‘freedom from rules’ umbrella of Brexit was blown inside-out by the wind of coronavirus. And the trigger for this was Cummings’ exposure as a lockdown rule-breaker and, with it, of what Fintan O’Toole this week called “the unpardonable snigger of elite condescension”.

It’s this charge of elitism and double standards which has been the central theme of the criticism of Johnson’s defence of Cummings, in outlets as diverse as The Spectator and The Guardian. The biter has been well and truly bit.

Cummings’ response to this deployed two of his favourite techniques.

One was ‘to do the unexpected’. In this case, that meant the unprecedented event of a Special Advisor holding a Press Conference. But, here, he had fallen into the trap he accuses his opponents of, that of not understanding how politics looks to ‘ordinary people’. For, outside the despised political bubble, few will know or care that this was an unusual event.

The other was to engage in gaslighting, using a swirl of detailed information and disinformation to make opponents doubt their own grasp or memory of events. In the end, at the very least, all the debate – as with the dishonest Referendum claims about NHS money or Turkey’s accession – serves to create an impression that there are two sides to the story, no one really knows the facts, so who can say what the truth is? At most, the core detail is what sticks in people’s minds.

This time, it didn’t work – or it worked in ways he did not intend. For the most part, people have responded by ignoring, or mocking, all the extraneous detail and holding on to the central fact that, unlike millions of others in similar situations, Cummings broke the spirit and letter of the rules. Referring to some supposed (and in fact questionable) exemptions in the detail of the regulations cut no ice with those who simply referred to the letter Johnson had written to each household. In fact, it has ironic parallels with the way that Brexiters treated Cameron’s pre-referendum letter promising to implement the result as trumping the legal wording for the Referendum Act itself.

A turning point?

It’s always easy to imagine that current events betoken a major watershed when, in reality, it is only retrospectively possible to see such patterns. But the Cummings debacle does at least illustrate the fragility of populist politics, and the way that riding the tiger of such politics always carries the danger that ‘the people’ mobilised against one kind of elite will turn upon that which led them – as Jennie Russell pointed out in an article in The Times last year (£).

It certainly illustrates the stark differences between campaigning and governing, and the incoherence of a campaign based on rule-breaking becoming a government which must, in all events but especially those of crisis, create and enforce rules.

Both of these points will remain salient whether or not Cummings survives in post. His fate may, though, have an impact on how easy or difficult it becomes for the government to secure compliance with current and future coronavirus regulations, with all the consequences for human lives that will have. For with every ministerial announcement that he was within his rights to make his own interpretation of the rules comes the erosion of the possibility of the population at large adhering to them.

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