The coronavirus crisis has brought out the best and worst in people – and the witch-hunt against Dominic Cummings is an example of the latter.
Dominic Cummings has always been a controversial figure. David Cameron once described him as a “career psychopath” and his central role in the Vote Leave campaign leaves him bang in the middle of the deep fissures that run through British society post-Brexit. Deeply intelligent, Cummings does not suffer fools gladly. Together with a tendency towards iconoclasm, this has resulted in Cummings ruffling more than a few feathers in his time, especially amongst the left-wing media and the patricians in the Tory Party, to which Cummings shows a lack of deference at best and outright contempt at worst.
I always thought it a gutsy move on the part of Boris Johnson to make Cummings his chief adviser, as he could have been in no doubt that the appointment would be met with a frosty reception among a large element within his party. More than anything, it was a message that a Johnson government would deliver on Brexit but would also be a force for change – perhaps the biggest force for change since Thatcher. Given that he’d just delivered the Tory Party the biggest majority since the 1980s, Boris clearly calculated that he could quite comfortably risk the ire of a few backbenchers.
But then COVID-19 happened. Far from a comprehensive programme of reform and renewal, the Johnson government has been compelled to impose what is effectively state socialism on the UK economy, with huge swathes of the workforce now dependent on government handouts. The NHS has been elevated from the level of a national talisman to a national religion – a sacred cow beyond all censure. And while good deeds abound, there is a profound sense of anxiety amongst a public constantly on edge – a mood exacerbated by the name and shame culture in the media.
I don’t pretend to have any particular insight into minutiae of the comings and goings of Mr Cummings, nor do I really care. However, what is clear is that the Remain press has been chomping at the bit to bring this man down ever since the Brexit referendum. I think, objectively, from what has been reported and what Cummings said in his press conference, we can all accept that Mr Cummings’ movements did not put anyone at risk: far from it, he was acting in the best interests of his child, a clause for which the lockdown rules specifically make an exception. What’s that? I hear the bien pensants cry out that the general public weren’t aware of all the minor details and loopholes in the lockdown rules. I’m sorry, but in the event of a crime having been committed unwittingly, lawyers are always quick to point out that ignorance is not a valid defence. It works the other way too.
But the substance of Cummings’ supposed ‘crimes’ matters little in a world where each headline only serves to feed on the nation’s anxiety. In a sense, the government has made a noose for its own neck here, having cast the crisis from the very beginning as a ‘war’ against the virus. Here Cummings is easily cast as the traitor that needs to be made an example of.
The fact that Cummings is in good company when it comes to those high-profile figures that have fallen foul of lockdown rules speaks volumes. They include several of the government’s scientific advisers, which is testament to the fact that lockdown rules are a blunt tool rather than a precision instrument. If we discount the notion that these very intelligent people knowingly put themselves and the public at risk, we are left with the conclusion that they knew they were acting safely but they simply thought they’d get away with it. Call that entitlement or complacency or naivety – call it whatever you want – but let those without sin cast the first stone. I think there are very few of us who can claim to have observed all the guidance to the very letter, not least those in the media who routinely flout social distancing rules and crowd Mr Cummings as he attempts to leave his home in the morning.
That said, I think the public at large has behaved with a heady dose of that very British tonic, common sense, at all times. And that is why I think the majority of Brexiteers will forgive (if that is the right word) Mr Cummings. The Brexit referendum was a victory of common sense over the hysterical scaremongering of an establishment unable to conceive an outcome where the public would actually vote to take a risk and say bye-bye to the status quo. What the establishment failed to appreciate was that a vote to Remain also carried considerable risks – and arguably even greater so than a vote to leave, because a vote to remain would inevitably tie the UK into a European project where the destination was not of our choosing.
And it seems with the coronavirus crisis, the establishment is repeating that very same mistake. Whilst we obsess with the direct risk of catching the virus, we are largely ignoring the indirect risks of lockdown and its knock-on effects, of which we’re only just beginning to scratch the surface. Mental health problems; missed cancer treatments and diagnosis; and a spike in domestic violence, to name just a few of the ‘invisible’ victims of COVID-19: the ‘cure’ is now worse than the disease. Yet the government is now in thrall to The Science and institutions that are overwhelmingly left-leaning in their outlook. For better or for worse, it has pinned its flag to the mast of the NHS and instigated a bizarre role-reversal which has seen the public urged to defend this monolithic institution rather than the other way around. Far from the NHS being overwhelmed as was predicted, many hospitals are now eerily quiet, as people avoid GPs’ surgeries and non-COVID related activities are delayed, no doubt storing up many ‘excess deaths’ for the future.
A battle is now raging between those who want to put ‘safety first’ and continue lockdown in order to keep COVID-19 related deaths to an absolute minimum, and those who recognise that risk is an unavoidable part of life and must be judged holistically. Cummings understands this, and I believe that most Brexiteers do too. Let the press rage. I hope Boris stands by his man.