Warning: there be politics in these parts.
The outpouring of anger and frustration over the decision of the Prime Minister’s Special Adviser, Dominic Cummings, to flout the law has been overwhelming over the weekend and into this week. By leaving his home in London to travel to Durham with members of his family who he had reason to believe had Covid-19, Dominic Cummings disregarded the rules that were in place, and remain in place, that if you suspect that you or someone has Covid-19 you must stay at home and isolate yourselves.
The excuses have reached epic levels, beyond parody. That you would go out for an hour drive to test your eye-sight with your family in the car, risking their lives and the lives of other road users is, of course, patently ridiculous. The Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines, voiced the feelings of many in response to Boris Johnson’s defence of Cummings’ actions: “The question now is: do we accept being lied to, patronised and treated by a PM as mugs? The moral question is not for Cummings – it is for PM and ministers/MPs who find this behaviour acceptable. What are we to teach our children? (I ask as a responsible father.)”
What really angered me was the Prime Minister’s insinuation that any loving parent, concerned for their child, would have done the same. Many loving parents, concerned for their children, stayed at home, as the law demanded.
The actions of Cummings should not be remotely surprising to watchers of politics. Remember that Sajid Javid resigned as Chancellor of the Exchequer after weeks of reported tension with Cummings, including the Special Adviser sacking an aide of Javid’s, Sonia Khan, without Javid’s knowledge. She was marched out of Downing Street by an armed police officer. Cummings, it would appear, thinks he can go around the rules, such as over the firing of staff or the rules on self-isolating. More than that, he has made this kind of rule-breaking a part of the “mystique” around him. That is hokum, but the number of times you hear stories of his genius, of his special abilities, it has gained some traction.
What really did stun me over the weekend was a short-lived moment of pure clarity that some brave soul offered to the world. A tweet was published from the official UK Civil Service twitter account that, in response to Boris Johnson’s press conference on Sunday evening, said: “Arrogant and offensive. Can you imagine working with these truth twisters?”
The tweet was rapidly deleted, of course, but in that brief glimmer of honesty we saw someone who could not help themselves but to speak truth to power. It has been announced that an investigation is ongoing to root out who published this tweet. One suspects far fewer resources will be expended on investigating the actions of Dominic Cummings by this Government.
The issue of truthfulness and honesty amongst leadership is one that I have repeatedly been returning to in Sunday’s messages as John’s gospel keeps returning us to those themes and Jesus’ own example to us.
In a time of pandemic when nationwide shifts in our behaviour, our actions, are necessary to bring the rates of infection down, to protect the more vulnerable, we were being told, repeatedly, that we were all in this together. We had to obey the rules, albeit introduced too late to stop the devastating loss of life that has affected so many people, in order to protect one another. This was an action of shared social concern. This was the nationwide community being asked to change their way of behaving in order to protect one another. And in the intervening time people tragically either could not or would not, due to trying to obey the rules, be with loved ones who died.
This communal activity to protect one another, at tremendous personal cost for many, is what Cummings’ betrayed and what the PM and other cabinet Ministers (noting that Douglass Ross MP resigned his Jnr Minister position today) are now lauding as not only acceptable behaviour but an example of good, loving, parenting.
But again, this is not in the least surprising to me. The crew that are in Downing Street are the same folks who brought us Brexit on a bus replete with lies and misinformation and other such gems as lying to the Queen over Prorogation of Parliament. And it is all connected. The attitude of one rule for us and one rule for others is endemic in their whole project.
The Brexit argument was fabricated with a house of cards. Each card representing another false argument (sovereignty of parliament, immigration rules, bendy bananas, EU funding payments, Prawn Cocktail crisps, the EU is bad for our trade, refugees, and on and on). But it worked. That heady mixture of lies, fabrications, interwoven with a heavy dose of populism and simplistic sloganeering led to a narrow referendum victory. But that did not stop it from being a project built on falsehood.
As time has gone by and the campaigning is past those falsehoods are revealed, along with the dire cost of them.
My point, in regard to the current hoo-ha over Cummings’ actions is that this is but one example of what we should expect far more of in the future. The whole point of Brexit, as is the case with the Trump project in the USA, is to break the system of rules within nations and between nations. It is to allow an individualistic free-for-all where the rules, limited though they were, that restrained the powerful and wealthy are removed, once and for all. It is a world in which the wealthy elites can move between homes at whim while the rest of us have to remain self-isolating. It is a world in which the regulations that protect those in the workplace are reduced in order to boost stockholder value and company profits. It is a world in which the vulnerable will find themselves even more at risk of the vagaries of viruses or poverty or unemployment or limited choices.
The Brexit propagandists repeatedly, for instance, laid claim to how we will be fine leaving the single market of the EU because we can fall back on WTO rules. But at the same time Donald Trump is undermining the World Trade Organisation to the point now that it is almost worthless and unable, due to his decision to block the judges that are required for the WTO to do its work. If the UK gets in a disagreement with another nation about a matter of trade there will be no one to adjudicate on it at the WTO, making the WTO rules meaningless. It is a Wild West era we are being led into.
When the mask is pulled off the project and we see what it really means, such as “one rule for me and another rule for them” we rightly object and are horrified by the selfishness that this exhibits. We recognise that this is going to do terrible harm to communities and to society, while at the same time enriching and enabling a few. Because we often want to see the best in others, we are generally happy to accept people’s word as presented to us, which is what the PM is wanting us to do with his Special Adviser. To do so in this case, however, is to focus on a single tree and miss the wood around us.
The patterns of thought, the reliance on lies and falsehoods, the dismantling of relationships with partners (as we are grimly witnessing with Europe and the failure of the UK team to negotiate with the EU team) is not an accident, it is part of a strategy. That strategy includes never admitting error or apologising. It is the same strategy being deployed by Trump and the Republican party in the USA. When you read about authoritarian regimes around the world, past and present, you realise it is part of a pattern and, as such, it is deeply worrying. (If you are interested, Sarah Kendzior’s new book “Hiding in Plain Sight”, she being a scholar of authoritarian regimes, is a good place to start.)
Which is why I keep coming back to the part that the church should be playing to be a prophetic voice that defends community, that tries to display a model of how we can support each other. It is heartening to see so many bishops in the Church of England publicly come forward to speak out over the last couple of days, revealing the hypocrisy of those who say one thing to us while doing another themselves. We are about to celebrate the coming of the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit, on Pentecost Sunday this Sunday coming, and we need to be empowered by that Spirit now more than ever.