Andrew Dickens is an award-winning writer on culture, society, politics, health and travel for major titles such as the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Independent, the Daily Mail and Empire.
The UK has never hesitated to go to war or interfere with other countries, but the delightfully titled #Cumgate shows that, domestically, we’re supinely conditioned to be ruled – and abused – by traditional ‘elites’.
Another week, another posh English bloke accused of wrongdoing, another flicking away of public opinion like a fly from a tweed jacket. Another case of the British public eventually accepting, subconsciously at least, that this is “the way things are.”
Last week it was our Prime Minister Boris Johnson who, like a greased-up erotic wrestler, wriggled clear of criminal charges that he’d directed public funds to a pole-dancing woman with whom he was regularly being ‘intimate’. On Monday, it was the turn of his ‘special’ adviser and bestest friend at work, Dominic Cummings, to sit in a Downing Street garden and let the bullets bounce off him.
Cummings listed many ways in which he’d broken the lockdown rules he helped put in place. He sprinkled this with some advice on how to test your eyesight (go for a drive), some highly improbable explanations and even less credible justifications; his actions were all very legal and responsible and probably saved a million or so lives, it seemed. He also told us that he didn’t want old people to die for the sake of herd immunity and he had written very clever and prescient blogs about the dangers of coronavirus last year. Even though the blogs didn’t mention coronavirus… until they were edited a few weeks ago. Very Mao.
Pre-approved and unprepared journalists were then summoned one by one to ask Dom to repeat how selfless and right he’d been, before the prime minister himself echoed such sentiments in that evening’s press briefing, going so far as to boldly lie about his own eyesight in backing his dear pal.
In short, there hasn’t been this much gaslighting in London since Queen Victoria’s reign – which is apt.
While much of Britain was angry with Cummings’ hypocrisy and, according to polls, most disapproved of his actions, the rage felt impotent. Cummings will get away with it because he’s part of the ‘ruling class’ and the British have a strange acceptance of the class structure, a sense that certain people are somehow better than us plebs.
For all our historical happiness to go to war or impose our military and economic heft on other nations, we’re extremely reluctant to demand systemic change at home. Polls consistently show that around 70% of Brits favour a monarchy. It’s like our psyche has been tuned to a default setting of servitude.
Britain hasn’t been invaded since 1066, but it’s been ruled for millennia by monarchs and emperors, by the nobility and upper classes. There was one small break under Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century, but normal service was soon resumed. Maybe we see those wars as a release, the child belittled at home getting into fights at school.
I wrote last week that the likes of Johnson get away with things because this ruling class built a system that keeps them in charge. But ordinary British people keep them there, too, and this is why Cummings will always be around.
The numbers say that most people think he was wrong and should quit. The whole affair has caused Johnson’s approval rating to plummet like a pigeon having a mid-air heart attack. A tenth of Tory MPs have scrambled for the moral high ground and demanded Cummings’ ovate head, fuelled by grumbling voters and a subsequent desire to preserve their seats (in more ways than one).
In fact, if Cummings is to be removed from the stage, it’s internal pressure from his ruling-class compadres that is most likely to provide the Vaudeville Hook. But it’s unnecessary; if Johnson and Cummings ride this out for a few weeks, with willing pawns being sent in front of cameras for ritual humiliation, then it will all blow over for most people. The anger will dilute, and we’ll resume our Resting Passive Faces.
Even if Cummings does go, he’ll reappear in one form or another, like the idiomatic bad penny. His sacrifice would be a temporary token. It’s how we’ve been soothed all these years: if there’s a whiff of revolt (often drifting from across the Channel) and force can’t suppress it, the ruling classes throw the people enough cake to appease them. So we’ve tweaked society, made sizeable adjustments, and even got a bit feisty at times, but the country and its people have never really changed.
I can’t see the Republic of Britain happening any time soon, but until we shake this subservient mentality, we are always going to be taken advantage of by those who feel programmed to rule.