People are rightly angered at Dominic Cummings’ decision to visit family in Durham when the rest of us were following the government’s advice to “stay home — protect the NHS — save lives”. But this is a fraction of the irresponsibility he’s shown over Brexit. People should be looking at all that he has done — and they should be angry.
As I write this [26 May], people are angry at his decision to travel from London to family in Durham during the lockdown. Apparently his uncle died from Covid19 while he was there which doesn’t really cut it with people who’ve been unable to visit loved ones dying in hospital from Covid19 or going to their funerals.
Keir Starmer has been right to criticise loudly. He says that, in not sacking Cummings, Boris Johnson has “treated the British people with contempt”. He has a point. The contempt is about more than the lockdown.
The Brexit angle
In January 2017 he wrote a piece in The Spectator on How the Brexit referendum was won. At the time people seized on this article as an admission that the Leave campaign “won because they lied to the public” but what shouts to me us that it says so little about why leaving the EU seemed a good idea.
If I’d been writing an essay on my involvement in that referendum, a big part of it would have been on why campaigned as I did. That’s partly about explaining my convictions, but also because I thought it important that the values aligned with the campaign. This wasn’t about winning for the sake of winning: it was about winning because EU membership is a good thing.
The same article also refers to Cummings involvement in the referendum that rejected the proposal for an elected assembly for the North East of England, also with little explanation. I can’t help wondering whether proper devolution would have discharged the frustrations which were expressed in the vote for Brexit by people in the North East.
A post on his blog also makes a telling remark:
“If you are young, smart, and interested in politics, think very hard before studying politics / ‘political science’ / PPE at university. You will be far better off if you study maths or physics.”
What shouts from this — and the perceptive comments in Chris Wylie’s book Mindf*ck: inside Cambridge Analytica’s plot to break the world — is that the use of data was key. This wasn’t about presenting a rational argument that might enable an informed decision. It was about the manipulative use of data, careful profiling of voters to prey on their anxieties and get them to vote in the way those campaigning for Leave wanted.
I could describe that as cynical and contemptuous.
Data provides a model of reality, not reality in itself. I’ve known many programmers who see the world through the way they have modelled in the technology in a way that undermines the contact with reality. Perhaps Cummings isn’t as cynical and contemptuous as that, but has managed to create his own version of reality.
Telling people they can have whatever they want might make sense when it’s about helping people who’ve grown used to exclusion to find another path. But reality can only be denied for a while. Over Brexit what Cummings has done is to say to people “things don’t have to be like this” and give them a target to kick against. That’s put him in power, but overlooks the reality that things can be worse — very few of those who voted Leave because the Leave campaign seemed to offer a better life will actually find Brexit improves their lives.
Some people will support Cummings. We’ve all faced hardship because of the lockdown and some will look to Cummings as a hero.
Donald Trump provides an interesting parallel. He’s suggested that, if disinfectant helps kill the virus on the outside of the body, it could be injected to kill the virus inside. That’s plainly daft, but could also appeal to people who are afraid and think there should be a “common sense” solution. He’s trumpted the anti-malaria drug Hydroxychloroquine without medical evidence, and trials of it have been stopped because it was found to be harmful, which speaks to people think there must be a cure that’s already available. In the world where “science” is invincible, there must already be a cure — just as, in that dystopian world — climate change can be ignored because science makes humans supreme. There’s even been a survey suggesting that a third of Americans think there already is a vaccine, but that it’s being withheld. From a scientific perspective, Trump’s position is nonsense. But people are believing him — his comments have already lead to deaths from the use of disinfectant and Hydroxychloroquine.
There will be people who react to a virus that threatens to kill millions of people by denying reality, or by a paranoid attack on “them” in authority. This is the same mindset as Michael Gove’s notorious “People have had enough of experts”. Faced with a scary reality, there is a huge temptation to deny it, and to attack the “experts” who know enough to spell it out.
Trump and Cummings are both in the strange position of having their hands on the levers of power, but acting as if they are standing up for people against “the establishment” — tainted because it’s associated with people who are speaking unwelcome truths.
Cummings’ action is not as daft as Trump’s, but, like Trump’s, it will resonate with those who need to deny the reality of what we are facing. I can’t tell whether Trump’s behaviour is crazy, or reflecting an intuitive grasp of what is needed to get people to vote for him, which might be another parallel.
Realities and the EU
Some could argue that there is a design fault in the EU, in that it is reasonable and pragmatic. It doesn’t look at the realities of the emerging power of China or of global warming and go into an emotional storm. It tries to engage with where we are, in a mature, consensual way. The weak link is that this doesn’t cope with irrational attacks on reality. Europe collectively remembers the damage those did in the 1930s.
In breaking the lockdown and in trying to get his way over Brexit, Cummings has shown scant regard for the needs of society. Seeking to get one’s way regardless isn’t a hallmark of a good leader.
Keir Starmer is right that, in this saga, Boris Johnson has “treated the British people with contempt”. But on 2 April 2019 Cummings was found in Contempt of Parliament for refusing to testify before the Department of Culture, Media and Sport select committee inquiry into fake news during the referendum campaign. For Boris Johnson to make him a key adviser a few months later smacks of a wider contempt. Breaking the lockdown is serious, but it’s not the most serious piece of contempt that’s been shown.
This story is bigger than the lockdown. Yes, Boris Johnson should sack him. But the contempt for the British people in the lies from the Leave campaign — including the £350 million a week for the NHS which would be really handy now — means questions also need to be asked about his influence. If the Leave vote was about Cummings’ getting his way, rather than doing what was good for the country, then the unwinding of his behaviour has to include a serious discussion of rejoining the EU before there’s been enough divergence to make that hard.