• Patrick Cox

Why Dominic Cummings' lockdown breach matters

The actions of Dominic Cummings in breaking the lockdown rules is the big news story of today. It will also have a long-term impact on politics and on the Tory party.

The sad truth is that politicians lie all the time. In this respect they are not so different from all other people, who mostly also lie on a daily basis. Many of these are harmless and inconsequential untruths, and generally designed to avoid social awkwardness. In our normal lives we rarely give every scrap of relevant information, or relay it is an entirely truthful way. This is perfectly normal and actually a necessary part of functioning society. Imagine if we were to behave as though we were on the witness stand at every moment. Life would be impossible.

The difference between our daily modification of the complete truth and political lies is two-fold. Firstly, elected politicians hold public office and therefore need to be accountable to the electorate. Without accurate information the public can't know whether they have made good choices at the ballot box. Routine lying by politicians undermines democracy. Secondly, political lies deny the public accurate information about the public realm and knowledge of our own lives and society more generally, which is anti-democratic in itself.

And yet politicians still routinely withhold the whole truth for a number of reasons. Some are more valid than others. For example, giving a press conference on a credible terrorist threat could seriously undermine attempts to disrupt a planned attack and would be obviously unwise. Less helpfully, politicians are also restricted by the requirements of their political parties. Voters choose representatives mostly becuase of their party label, so politicians have to behave the way their party expects them to. If the party changes its mind this can lead to some some galling lie-telling. MPs will often be coerced by their parties into explaining on TV or radio why they hold some opinion they disavowed only the previous day. It's embarrassing for all concerned, but lying is - sadly - part and parcel of the business of politics.

A load of Barnard Castle

The Dominic Cummings story of the last week is different. This is not a routine political lie, as the reactions to the events have so clearly demonstrated. It has already had a significant impact on the approval rating for the Prime Minister Boris Johnson and has cut the Conservative's poll lead over Labour to just 4 points. More than 80% think Cummings acted badly, and a majority of people think Cummings should resign. These numbers are all the more surprising because a fortnight ago few people would actually have known who Cummings even was.

So why is the story having such an effect, if political lying is par for the course? Well, it isn't the people involved. Boris Johnson is a serial liar and Dominic Cummings - along with Johnson and Michael Gove - were central to the Vote Leave campaign which famously put the entirely made-up figure of £350m the side of a bus.

What is different this case is the context in which the lies took place and the nature of what he did. It is enough to say, to avoid going over all the specifics of the case, that Cumming's actions came at a time of genuine national emergency and that he broke clear rules that obviously applied to everybody else.

With that establised we need to know about the way in which we judge the actions of leaders annd politicians and the basics of political messaging. As members of the public, our reactions to the events of the day and the actions of politicians can be said to operate on three levels.

The first of these is the surface level, like the waves and ripples on the surface of the sea. At this level people react to the news in a personal way, and we tend to refer to these surface beliefs as 'opinions'. They are our thoughts on specific issues. Some will be very local and specific to us as individuals (a personal dislike for a new permit parking scheme, perhaps) and we might have different opinions to even those in or closest family. Husbands and wives can disgaree on matters of opinion and their relationship will no be overly-troubled. What's more we can change our opinon about something, if new information arises or we are persuaded by a strong argument. Our opinions, like the waves on the sea, are constantly in flux.

On the next level down is an underlying set of political beliefs which are more stable and harder to shift. These underlying poltical beliefs tend to determine our party political alignment and decide which party we vote for. We will tend to have similar thoughts on this level as our friends and famliy. When Tories talk about 'Conservative values' they mean things like a commitment to self-help, a small state, and personal responsibility. On the political left the equivalent values include a commitment to a strong social saftey net for the most vulnerable, a tendancy to be suspicious of authority and being comfortable with higher levels of taxation. These longer-term and more deeply held beliefs are the ones that align people into political tribes. The leader of a political party might change, or they might espouse some policies with which we disagree, but generally people cleave to the same party, because are in broad agreement on the direction they will take societyif elected. A single news story is unlikely to shift people's perceptions of life at this underlying level, but years' worth of such stories might pull people towards a particular party, or away from another.

Lastly, at the deepest level are the fundamental political beliefs that we each hold. These are so firmly entrenched in our minds as to be mostly unconscious. What we think in relation to a system of justice, or the right to move freely from place to place, are matters of controversial 'everyday life' and are part of the 'common sense' or each society. As such we hardly need dicuss them. Where debates at this level do take place they are mostly presented moral, rather than political, questions. These deepest beliefs are generally decided for us very early on. We pick up very basic notions of right and wrong from family, schools and religions, mostly before we have developed the mental faculties to fully scrutinise them. These fundamental values operate at the scale of whole countries, and inform cliches about national character, for example. For a practical example of these kind of values, you could think of the mode in which the Queen speaks in her rare public pronouncements. In order to function as the apolitical Head of State for the whole of the UK she needs to only make points on which there is near universal agreement.

In the present crisis there has been a tendancy to fall back on the language of war: NHS staff are described as being on the 'front line' of the 'battle' for example. This use of bellicose imagery is lazy, in the sense that 'fighting' the virus is not like fighting a war. However, there are valid comparisons to be made between lockdown and the experience of Britain during the war. Again, the Queen made a shrewd and pitch-perfect allusion to this in her speech of the 5th April 2020. By referencing the wartime song by Vera Lynn 'We'll Meet Again' she drew a direct comparison between the sacrifices made 75 years ago and the privations of today. In both cases people had been separated from their loved ones, in both cases the separation was for the benefit of society as a whole.

Another similarity is the manner in which both adversaries - the Nazis and the coronavirus - and necessary measures to counter them stand outside of the political shere. An early demonstration of this was the way in which the furlough scheme was enacted by the Tory Chancellor Rishi Sunak. It was politically thrilling, and a little weird, to see the most right wing of Conservative governments put in place a scheme as close to socialist central planning the UK has ever seen in peacetime.

This all matters because the UK public made immediate and significant adjustments to their lives in a way that was understood on the deepest levels of personal belief. It was immediately apparent to the vast majority of people that the hardships of lockdown were necessary in order to prevent a much worse outcome in the future. In this specific context, Cumming's actions and subsequent, implausible justifications are seen as a direct affront to people's most strongly held sense of fairness and civic justice. Cummings's lies tap into a sense of being wronged that we are more familiar with coming from the mouth of a wronged toddler: 'It's not fair!' People on the left and right believe just as vociferously that society should be 'fair', they just have differing conceptions about what fairness is an how you should go about achieving it. Yet no one things that a common set of rules should not apply to everyone equally.

News stories rarely 'cut through' to this deepest level and therefore shift people's fundamental perecptions of particular political parties. However, it is obvious that everyone who has lived through lockdown will remember it forever. For many it will be a defining period in their lives, one way or another. By the same token the Cummings episode will always be a taint on the Conservative Party. It will be very difficult, perhaps imposible, for Johnson and the Tories to shake the feeling that they are not on the electorate's side, because Cumming's actions and Johnson's trenchant defence of him cuts so deep into many people's political psyche.

There is much evidence that Johnson and those in No.10 think Cumming's was just another political lie, and one they that they can brazen out like so many others. There is a strong possibility that that will not be the case this time.


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