Fuss about Nowt
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”. You will see these terms used often on Spiked by Brendan O’Neill and his merry band of contrarians.
The peregrinations of Dominic Cummings to the north-east have brought the “what’s all the fuss about? Nothing to see here.” brigade out in force. Veteran Times journalist Walter Ellis writes: “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 claims to dislike Cummings but asserts that he has suffered more than is reasonable. Speaking as an Irish citizen brought up in England who is currently watching Johnson’s Britain from the jaundiced perceptive of my Sri Lankan sojourn, I would say that O’Toole has hit many nails on their heads. I am a regular reader of his articles in the Irish Times, the Guardian and the New York Review of Books. I always find them stimulating and would differ vociferously from the elegant view expressed about O’Toole by Rod Liddle (I almost wrote Rod Hull). Recent articles about the disintegrating status of Britain under Johnson’s incompetent and mendacious rule were particularly effective. O’Toole is good on the dire consequences for Ireland of contamination by its neighbour.
Anger, What Anger?
Ellis asks the question: “Are ‘the people’ really baying for Cummings’s blood?”. Let us deconstruct that short question. Ellis puts ‘the people’ in scare quotes which nudges us towards thinking that it is not a concept to be taken seriously. Is anyone baying for Cummings’s blood? There have been some mild scenes of people expressing their discontent but very few would advocate causing him physical harm. This does not mean that we can hire the Eddie Stobart van and move on. Henry Mance wrote in the Financial Times (lefty rag), “The government wants us to move on so Dominic Cummings doesn’t have to”.
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, and that 52% of Tory supporters think he should resign. Almost half of 2019 Tory voters 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. I think O’Toole puts well how I feel watching Matt Hancock laughing uproariously on Sky News, Helen Whately giggling at Piers Morgan’s questions (and disintegrating on Question Time), Priti Patel smirking on the Andrew Marr Show, Johnson burbling vacuously and betraying his ignorance of the benefit system and just about everything else at the Liaison Committee. O’Toole writes about “the soundtrack to the images stored from these months in the mind and the heart, an unpardonable snigger of elite condescension.”
Ellis does not feel the way I do. “I don’t agree. O’Toole is mistaken.” Then he trundles out ‘the technique’. “There are certainly many out there who think Cummings was wrong to do what he did and that he is a nasty piece of work anyway. I am one of them.” Although Ellis claims to be one of the good guys in detesting Cummings, he asserts that there are not enough people who care about the issue to justify “serial blood-letting or a scene from opera bouffe.” Again, a jokey exaggerated language of violence is used to deflect us from the main point. He does the same again later: “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”.
There is no mob. This is not about mob rule; it is about decent people who have been trying to follow the government’s own guidelines angered at being treated as imbeciles. A woman in rural Durham said: “If there were stocks in the village, Dominic Cummings would be in them. There is not one single person around here who is not disgusted. Everyone is furious because we have all played fair. People haven’t been able to go to funerals, they haven’t been able to go to weddings, they haven’t been able to look after people who are dying. I can’t go to see my friend in Barnard Castle who is dying and yet that four-letter word goes out for a trip. I was born in this county. I have never come across ill-feeling like this about anything. Everyone feels it is one law for us and one law for them. That is so unfair.”
Bloody Liberal Hypocrites
Blood came up again the next day when Ellis returned to the topic. “My post yesterday on the public’s reaction to the Dominic Cummings affair has brought home to me how easy it is to get on the wrong side of liberal opinion when its blood is up.” As if an experienced journalist like Ellis would be surprised at the reaction. Note the casual contemptuous sideswipe at “liberal opinion”. Elsewhere, he described the “liberals” who disagreed with him as “hypocrites”. He is calling me a hypocrite for disagreeing with him. We are hypocrites because (Ellis knows this for a fact) we are picking on poor Dom because of his role in Brexit not because we care about the undermining of the strategy to deal with the pandemic. Ellis sees himself as a victim of the same “hue and cry” raised against Cummings.
Remember that Ellis said, “how easy it is to get on the wrong side of liberal opinion when its blood is up?” 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.
Baying Tory MPs
The baying mob included many Tory MPs. Now Ellis says, “I clearly underestimated the extent of public disquiet over what Cummings did.” He had said few people cared. He was wrong. A Guardian analysis covering 117 MPs found they received a total of 31,738 emails since the story broke. Across all 650 MPs, it would suggest the revelations may have sparked as many as 180,000 items of correspondence. More than 100 Tory MPs, many saying they were motivated by their constituents’ anger, criticised Cummings. In a statement to her constituents Theresa May said she could “well understand the [public’s] anger”. She said, “I do not feel that Mr Cummings followed the spirit of the guidance”. Another Tory, Bob Stewart, MP for Beckenham, said Cummings’s position was ‘untenable’ and that he certainly broke the rules.
Tory MPs Sir Roger Gale and Richard Fuller reported a sharp increase in their mail and stressed that these were all individual, sometimes emotional, communications and not computer-generated or cut-and-paste. Several Conservative MPs in marginal seats said they had received more than 1,000 emails about Cummings, Alex Chalk, MP for Cheltenham, has a majority of 981; Stephen Hammond, MP for Wimbledon, whose majority is 628; and Andrew Bowie, the MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, with a majority of 843. Elliot Colburn, 27, the Conservative MP representing the marginal Carshalton and Wallington seat, wrote to Johnson to say he had received more emails on this issue than any other. He said “many hundreds of messages from concerned constituents” had called on Cummings to resign. Many MPs said their mailbox was overwhelmingly weighted towards criticism of Cummings.
Tory hardline Brexiter 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. Now, if he had accepted that he had done something wrong, and apologised for it, as a fair-minded person, I would have thought that that would be the end of it. It is the insistence that he did not break the rules and the refusal to apologise that has outraged so many.”
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.
According to the Guardian, “Other Conservatives vainly try to claim the fuss is being whipped up by bitter and twisted leftwing and liberal Remainers who want revenge on Cummings for delivering Brexit for Johnson.” That is exactly the line taken by Walter Ellis.
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.”
At Least Cummings Isn’t a Butcher
Ellis is aware of all this but he is insouciant. Still he says, “I would hazard a guess that a majority of people will have other things on their mind today than the fate of one 48-year-old political apparatchik.” Of course they do, but that is not the point. Cummings “is not Jack the Ripper or one of the Shankill Butchers. He is a political apparatchik who made a poor decision and has suffered for it more than is reasonable because he is who he is, the Butcher of Brexit.” Jack the Ripper killed five people, the Shankill Butchers 23 – the virus has killed a possible 60,000 in Britain. Chris Bryant, Labour MP for the Rhondda, said he received 20 messages a day all angry with Cummings and has had a constituent tell him he now has no intention of abiding by the lockdown rules.
Consequences and Condescension
Fintan O’Toole does not speak for the Irish people or the British people but I doubt if many people would call him “naive to think that ‘the people’ are working themselves into a frenzy over this.” Ellis is using a variation of the straw man trope. If we all agree that not everybody is worked up to a frenzy we can move on. The issue is not about how many people Ellis thinks are angry. The issue is not about punishment. It is about the disastrous effect on the public psyche and indeed public safety of the actions of this arrogant man and the clown who is supposed to be prime minister.
Where does Ellis now stand on his assertion that “Fintan O’Toole has seriously overestimated the extent of the outrage felt by the British people”?
Enough people are disturbed about this whole business to mean that moving on is not possible. 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. They may not be clear what they are angry about or what to do about it. There is a general feeling of being disrespected. Politicians are taking the piss. To add insult to injury those politicians are making a complete bollocks of everything.
Blame the Media
Because of Cummings and Johnson things will never be the same again. What is the main thrust of Ellis’s argument now that he admits underestimating the extent of public disquiet? In the rose garden Cummings went for the Trump line of blaming the media. “A lot of that anger is based on reports in the media that have not been true,” Cummings said. It was the media’s fault. Is that what Walter Ellis is doing? In spite of all the evidence, is he still saying this is a non-story puffed up by the media? Ellis says Cummings has suffered more than is reasonable.
I watched Johnson’s performance at the Liaison Committee several times. I couldn’t believe how awful it was the first time. Bernard Jenkin was not as bad as expected but bad enough. He did ask one fairly challenging question but then did not control the proceedings. He allowed Johnson to take the Walter Ellis line. We’ve heard enough about this. Move on. Jenkin chastised Yvette Cooper for over-running her time and for repeating questions. She had to do this because she was not getting answers. Johnson was batting away questions by saying he had dealt with that already. However, the previous answers also only consisted of “I have been quite clear about that before” and “We mustn’t let petty politics divert us from the task ahead”.
It is clear that government decisions are not motivated by concerns of public good. They are rushing out new wheezes and devising apps that crash to distract our attention. Johnson is facing new criticism for easing the lockdown too soon and risking a second wave of infections. There is a perception that this is being done to distract attention from the Cummings affair. Why is Walter Ellis, posing as the representative of common sense, trying to distract our attention?