There is a moment in all British political scandals when a prickly sensation creeps up the spine: “He’s going to get away with it, isn’t he?” It isn’t provoked by Dominic Cummings alone. I felt the same watching Michael Gove’s exchange with Nick Ferrari on LBC: Gove first starting to claim that he too took the occasional miles-long drive to test his vision before rowing back, perhaps dazzled by the scale of the lie. Smirks were exchanged. The same when Matt Hancock stared down the camera on 30 April and celebrated “achieving” his testing target; the reflux came two days ago, when revised testing figures revealed the target had, in fact, never been hit.
It is not a sensation produced merely by lies, or the stench of hypocrisy in high places. It is the smirk, the assured belief that consequences are for little people, and that, in any case, anyone who really matters is in on the act. These people are open about it: to accept it is a mark of urbanity, to be disgusted by it is gauche.
We have become used to being badly governed, and inured to lying. The prime minister’s laziness and mendacity are proverbial, but it is the mediocrity at the pinnacle of power that is more startling: the self-impressed dilettante and crank who whispers in his ear, or the toy-town thug – complete with pet tarantula – now in charge of the nation’s schools, or the conspiracy theorist “at war with cultural Marxism” now its most senior law officer, merrily dismissing the universality of law. The problem extends beyond politicians’ individual deficiencies, severe though they are, and one might point to multiple sources of institutional rot to explain it, from the sycophancy of party bureaucracy to the evaporation of the civic bodies on which the great parties once drew. But there is also another, simpler explanation: politicians are increasingly insulated from the consequences of lying.
The UK institutionalises its corruption, with peerages regularly doled out to party patrons. Even British politicians realise that allowing donors to purchase a permanent seat in the legislature looks bad so, formally at least, it is illegal. Despite this, donors still acquire peerages with appalling regularity; as this is a useful source of patronage, all the major parties simply look the other way. But this is emblematic of a wider institutional rot. Now Tory fundraisers, eyeing a Covid-19 collapse in cash, brief journalists that the party’s billionaire donors are cooling on Johnson for his failure to deliver them the peerages they expected. Such open entitlement ought to be a scandal itself, signalling a willingness to further dilute the UK’s already weak institutional safeguards; instead it is greeted with jejune sophistication by commentators, proud to know that this is simply how the game works.
Why are we so badly governed, to the point that we scarcely notice it? Stories of national decline are a cottage industry in Britain, and laments for a decaying polity are common in times of upheaval. “Where is now the soul of god-like Cato that durst be good” asked one stage character in the fag-end days of Elizabethan England, “when Caesar durst be evil?” That play itself – Ben Jonson’s 1603 Sejanus – drew on Tacitus’s ancient laments about the corruption of imperial Rome, and landed its author a trial for treason. It is instructive not only because it reminds us that this anxiety is historically common, but because the villain’s fall sees him replaced only with another villain, equally violent and cruel.
Like many conservative “declinists” since, Jonson’s Romans laid the blame for the weakening and corruption of the state on the decay of virtue among the citizenry. Modern culprits for decline might range as widely as the doctrine of equality or political correctness, or moral laxity, or the degradation of our capacity to think as independent citizens. Liberal variations impute more fault to institutions, concentrating on the corrupting influence of cash, our archaic forms of government, or erosion of sacrosanct political norms.
Both versions offer degrees of truth mixed with dubious assertion: there is no evidence that equality drives decline – quite the opposite – and change in norms is surely the proper business of politics. Perhaps what is distinctive about the liars and mediocrities of our age is the sheer openness of political cynicism. The cynic’s “knowing wink” is now the basis of conservative politics in Britain: a sign that not only do they not believe what they’re saying, no other politician does either. We’re all liars here.
Such permeating cynicism arises above all from depoliticisation: the claim, advanced over the past few decades, that ideological difference is dead, markets ought to be insulated from political contestation, and politics is merely a set of technical quibbles between administrators. Depoliticisation has produced a more professionalised politics with narrower routes of entry, and constrained what is agreed to be politically possible: thus the sad post-Thatcherite trawl of crumbling PFI schools, underfunded hospitals and outsourced public services. If the possibility of significant political change is denied, popular revulsion becomes increasingly anti-political, rejecting the legitimacy of democratic deliberation.
That is why the Cummings scandal matters. His recurrent motif is that liberal democracy is a con: that deliberation and debate are simply excuses by elites to stifle the popular will; all you should expect from politics is the occasional authorising vote for a champion you hope will wreck the joint in the way you prefer. The law, in turn, is for little people who can’t find a way round it, and protests about its universality are another elite sham.
It might be that Cummings has overestimated public indifference, and the wave of popular anger washes him from office. But perhaps perversely, prime ministerial backing strengthens, rather than weakens, the cynicism on which he feeds. Had it not involved him, Cummings would have used this episode as a teaching moment.
Democracies are more resilient than some expect. But they are still fragile achievements. If the link between actions and consequences in politics is severed, why should the young or disenfranchised keep faith with democracy at all? The pandemic has reminded us that we are not isolated individuals, and our choices impact profoundly on others.
Perhaps it also implies other unfashionable truths: politics matters. Laws should not have get-out clauses for the rich. State power is immense, rather than weak, and no one is entitled to it by rank or wealth. There are deceptions that should see you drummed out of public life altogether. If the tawdry spectacle of ministers bending the law and distorting the truth to defend an unelected aide teaches us anything, it’s this: consequences matter.
• James Butler is co-founder of Novara Media and a regular contributor to the London Review of Books