Dominic Cummings’ latest utterances should not be treated as revelations, but rather as corroborating evidence of what should, in a functioning democracy, be treated as Britain’s gravest peacetime scandal. A prime minister sent tens of thousands of his own citizens to premature graves because he valued other considerations more highly than human life.
We knew Boris Johnson resisted demands from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies for a national lockdown in September, even if Johnson’s former senior adviser now fleshes out the prime minister’s reasonings: that most of those dying were in their 80s, whose disproportionate political loyalty to the Conservative party was rewarded by its leader caring not whether they lived or died. It was already clear that Johnson’s administration wanted Covid to “wash through the country”, because they briefed favoured journalists that “herd immunity” was their official strategy more than 17 months ago. Britain has a more severe death rate per million inhabitants than the United States in part because Johnson – alongside Rishi Sunak, whose reputation Cummings has sought to whitewash – wanted to prioritise the economy over life, and ended up devastating both.
What, though, to make of a democracy unable to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe that was – on such a scale – completely avoidable? One of the central frustrations of Cummings is that he such a convenient pantomime villain, clearly relishing his notoriety, that he allows liberals to believe that Britain’s problems are not systemic, but the consequence of degenerate leaders who lack honesty and integrity. Consciously or otherwise, this is an audience Cummings plays to when he repeatedly emphasises Johnson’s unfitness for political office, even confessing to MPs that he should not have been at the centre of power either. If only public-spirited leaders who told the truth were running the show, many liberals are left concluding, then Britain’s supposed age of decency could be restored. We could all live in the 2012 Olympics’ opening ceremony for ever more.
It is a logic that was taken to its extreme end by Brexit, in which much of the political centre fused an abandonment of Occam’s razor – that the simplest explanations are the likeliest – with conspiratorial thinking. Britain’s rupture with the European Union was so obviously an act of self-harm, and an affront to liberal values that had remained intact whoever was in political office, that it must simply be treated as illegitimate: an absurd blip in the matrix won via machiavellian chicanery (enter Cummings), Facebook algorithms and foreign interference. More obvious explanations – the poisonous role of the oligarch-owned rightwing media over decades and the festering disillusionment of ex-industrial communities that was long ripe to be exploited – were largely discarded.
In his interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg last night Cummings smirked his way through a question on the deceit of Turkey’s imminent membership of the EU, which was a deliberate attempt by the Vote Leave campaign to exploit anti-Muslim bigotry: but that only worked because this acceptable racism has long been fanned by newspapers ranging from broadsheets like the Times to tabloids like the Sun.
A belief in substituting the disreputable with the honourable finds its apogee in Sir Keir Starmer; yet many of those who see him as the antidote to Johnsonian skulduggery openly demand that he discard the promises he made to the Labour membership to preserve radical Corbyn-era domestic policies. In other words, to commit deceit: which, in fact, has already happened, leading to a membership collapse that has brought the opposition party to the edge of bankruptcy, despite failed attempts to court rich donors – who in any case expect influence for their buck, further corrupting our heavily caveated democracy.
A source of consternation is Cummings’ confession that he and a like-minded network considered plotting to oust Johnson within days of the Tories’ 2019 landslide victory. The unelected and unaccountable manipulating our treasured democracy like a chessboard – heaven forbid! Is this truly a novelty in a country in which media moguls unashamedly use their empires to secure their political ends, and where Tory MPs tell journalists that their desire to slash taxes is driven by funding from “rich City donors”?
If it is indeed the case that elite factions – whether it be the Vote Leave cabal or the court of Carrie Johnson – can easily manipulate our democracy, our beef should not be with the players but rather with the game. This is not a country where the people are understood to be sovereign, a title literally conferred on an unelected monarch. Our rulers like to boast of our “mother of all parliaments”, but ours is a democracy without a proper democratic culture. Well over half a century ago, the political essayist Perry Anderson remarked that Britain’s never-ending systemic crisis was because of the nature of the state. Like, say, France, we had a revolution, but a premature one – so premature we pretend it never happened – back in the 17th century, and many of our institutions remained preserved in aspic from that era.
Things do change, of course. See the rise of the City, how big money exercises power with various levers, from donations to political parties, lobbying, the revolving door, various PR agencies, and how Thatcherism brought alternative power centres to heel, notable the trade unions and local government. But archaic power structures can easily be manipulated, even when there is a split among our ruling elites, which is what happened throughout the Brexit drama when Johnson and Cummings shamelessly used powers conferred by our “elected dictatorship” to secure their ends.
It is not remarked upon enough that the calamities of the Covid and Brexit era could have been avoided if there had been a proper reckoning with our democratic failings after the war in Iraq. Even the very mention of Iraq provokes eye rolls and mutterings of “oh, move on will you”, often by individuals who will be cursing Brexit on their deathbeds in decades to come, because for some a crisis over British trade and liberal values is regarded as of far greater import than the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Arabs.
But how did a clique around Tony Blair and intelligence agencies railroad this country into a war judged illegal by the UN secretary general, all following a hard-right US administration on a pretext, and suffer no consequences? The only resignations were from opponents on the Labour frontbench, as well as the BBC top brass, permanently hobbling our public broadcaster as a means to hold government to account. Thirteen years after the invasion, there was some modest accountability with the Chilcot inquiry, but ultimately that had no lasting consequences. Our establishment looks after its own. And if our political elites could get away with the inferno of Iraq, they could in fact get away with anything – as indeed Covid and the various Brexit debacles have now underlined.
What, then, is the legacy of Cummings’ latest intervention? It is likely to be little other than a further shot in the arm for the liberal delusion that Britain’s travails are the consequences of decisions made by wicked men. Rather than a compelling alternative vision – one that would actually transform a broken democracy – all that is needed is the appearance of integrity and honesty by rational and competent genuine public servants, however illusory. From Iraq to Brexit to Covid, nothing is learned, just more illusions, and so this country will stumble from needless disaster to self-inflicted calamity, seemingly for ever more.
Owen Jones is a Guardiane columnist