This article was published in Ceylon Today on June 11 2020
The public outcry in Sri Lanka about the Thondaman funeral recalled for me the public reaction in the UK when it was revealed that the prime minister’s unelected special advisor, Dominic Cummings, flouted the guidelines he had himself helped to draft in relation to social distancing and travel during the pandemic.
On March 23, Boris Johnson announced lockdown in the UK and declared a “national emergency”. He said people should only leave the house for a very limited set of reasons. Government guidelines stated: “You should not be visiting family members who do not live in your home.” At the time, the advice was that anyone with symptoms should isolate for seven days, with a 14-day isolation for those around them. On March 27, the prime minister announced that he had himself tested positive for the virus. Shortly after, a camera caught Cummings running, with a backpack, away from Downing Street. Health Secretary Matt Hancock on the same day announced that he too had coronavirus. By the end of the day, the Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty and Scottish Secretary Alister Jack were also self-isolating with coronavirus. On March 30 Downing Street confirmed that Cummings was self-isolating but did not say where. Cummings’s wife, Mary Wakefield, editor of Tory magazine the Spectator, wrote an article, published on April 23, which revealed her husband had become very poorly but was in London. On March 31, Durham police were “made aware” that Cummings had travelled from London to Durham and was still present at an address in the city. Number 10 denied this. On April 5 Cummings was seen in his father’s garden in Durham. Cummings and his wife both had symptoms of the virus but together travelled with their four-year-old son 260 miles to Durham, supposedly stopping on the way and having contact with other people. They endangered more people by taking their son to an NHS hospital. They then took another little trip (on the wife’s birthday) to see the bluebells at Barnard Castle. Cummings explained that he wanted to test his eyesight before making the drive back to London.
The prime minister told a press conference that he firmly backed Cummings, saying his aide acted in the best interests of his child, in a way “any parent would frankly understand”.
There is a particularly creepy kind of commenter on Facebook. They will insidiously try to gain your trust by pretending that they are just like you. One of the good guys. The opening gambit goes something like this: “I am just as liberal and progressive as you are, probably more so, and I detest Brexit/Boris Johnson/Donald Trump/Dominic Cummings/Harvey Weinstein/Jimmy Savile/Adolf Hitler/Vlad the Impaler/Attila the Hun/Caligula (insert to taste) even more than you do, but, come on, in the interests of common sense, isn’t the lefty press going overboard and stirring things up when really nobody cares so why don’t we just move on and deal with the really important issues”. There will be talk of “moral panic”, “mass hysteria”, “witch hunts” “lynch mobs”.
Liberal Mob Baying for Blood
Veteran London Times journalist (retired) Walter Ellis wrote: “Not for the first time in recent months, the Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole has seriously overestimated the extent of the outrage felt by the British people over the actions and behaviour of Boris Johnson and his cronies.” Ellis asked: “Are ‘the people’ really baying for Cummings’s blood?”
Maybe not ‘the people’, but some people, many people are angry. An Opinium poll on May 31 shows that 81% of all voters think Cummings broke the rules; 52% of Tory supporters think he should resign. Almost half of those who voted Tory in 2019 say their respect for the government they voted in has been reduced. Many more people are sad. Many are tired and fed up. Many are insulted. O’Toole actually caught the public mood well when he wrote about “the soundtrack to the images stored from these months in the mind and the heart, an unpardonable snigger of elite condescension.” As one commentator said the main commandment is “Thou shalt not take the piss”. James Butler wrote in the Guardian, “consequences are for little people and, in any case, anyone who really matters is in on the act”. The little people ARE angry.
Ellis likes to bring in blood to his polemic. He faux-naively affects to be surprised at hostile reaction to his comments. He describes the “liberals” who disagreed with him as “hypocrites”. This “has brought home to me how easy it is to get on the wrong side of liberal opinion when its blood is up.” “The mob senses blood, and a hue and cry, based around revenge for Brexit, has been unleashed.” “It won’t be the mob, with torches and pitchforks that restores decency and competence to Downing Street”.
Note that shifty trope in there: “a hue and cry, based around revenge for Brexit, has been unleashed.” It is actually not unreasonable to be influenced by Brexit in one’s judgement of Cummings’s actions here. Cummings was a major force in the leave campaign. His success depended on lies, illegal actions and general skullduggery. If the man could lie and break the law then in relation to Brexit, is it unreasonable to conclude that he could have broken the law and lied in this instance? Brexit means he has form.
Tory hardline Brexiteer MP Peter Bone dismisses the idea that it is Remainers stirring trouble. “Every announcement on changes to the lockdown rules, track and trace, and government support, is bogged down with questions about Mr Cummings. I believe that Mr Cummings did break the rules.” Arch-Brexiteer Steve Baker MP also called on Cummings to resign.
Bishops Baying for Blood
This is a funny old “mob”! One might expect the leftie press to froth up on the subject but the Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Financial Times, the Spectator and even the Daily Star have been highly critical of Cummings and Johnson. A junior minister resigned. The baying mob included many Tory MPs. Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, has already relayed the extent of anger on the Conservative benches to Downing Street.
Senior Anglican bishops criticised Cummings’s actions and his refusal to apologise. Many of them received death threats as a result. The Bishop of Worcester said “the whole Cummings drama is not about politics but life and death”.
The government’s deputy chief medical officer Prof Jonathan Van-Tam went out of his way at the daily coronavirus briefing to make clear that people in positions of authority had a duty to lead by example and obey lockdown rules. Senior UK academics and health administrators wrote to Number 10 to warn that public faith in the government is essential if the Covid-19 crisis is to be tackled effectively. They say that trust has been “badly damaged by Dominic Cummings. “The public mood is fragile and unlikely to cope with another over-optimistic target-based strategy that goes on to fail.”
Sri Lanka has had its very own Dominic Cummings moment with the funeral of former minister Arumugam Thondaman. On June 3, Army Commander Lt General Shavendra Silva announced that in Sri Lanka the crisis was basically over. Let us hope that government and citizens do not become too complacent.