One of the first things we are taught about liberal democracy is that the structure of a healthy political system has separate branches with distinct responsibilities, so that “checks and balances” will prevent the concentration and abuse of power. But one of the many difficult lessons for liberals in recent years has been the belated realisation that accountability requires more than institutional structures. A functioning democracy also depends on a balance of power between the government and an ecosystem of independent actors who can publicly hold the state to account – including a formal political opposition and media organisations that are not affiliated with the government or beholden to its backers.
What Dominic Cummings described in his testimony last week was not just the government failing in its duty: it was the absence or weakness of those oppositional forces that might curb the excesses of power, or demand that it change course. Unless you’ve wiped your memory of the past year, none of what Cummings revealed about the early stages of the pandemic was new.
I remember the sense of panic and foreboding among many who felt that the British response was delayed, that there seemed to be an alarming detachment and lack of urgency. I remember the scenes from Italy and Spain, il warnings sent to us, and the magical thinking that it wouldn’t happen here because of reasons of Britishness. I remember Johnson saying he had shaken hands with “everybody” in the hospital. I remember how the first lockdown happened right after a quarter of a million people were allowed to attend Cheltenham. And I remember the instinctive deference to the government in those early weeks of the pandemic – even as the disasters unfolded in plain sight, just as they did in the second wave, and perhaps in a terzo.
Cummings’ unrevealing “revelations” will inevitably be met with the question that now follows every new chapter of government failure – will this be the one that finally “cuts through”? When it comes to figuring out why little seems to stick to this government, this is the wrong question. The facts don’t cut through on their own.
What the past year teaches us is that sometimes political disasters are not caused simply by a lack of knowledge or bad information. Sometimes terrible governments will survive, and indeed thrive, even though their faults are clear and visible to the public – and not simply because the public doesn’t care about the truth. “The truth” about any government is itself a narrative, not merely a set of facts. In public discourse, “the truth” is an argument, and one that has to be made often, consistently and persuasively for it to stick.
And so Cummings’ testimony revealed two crises: first the obvious one, in which narcissistic dilettantes wield great power in a catastrophic government of egotists and charlatans. But watching him on television, flamboyantly oversharing, it was hard to avoid the sense of a much larger crisis – a sort of failure of context, in which this entire cast of inadequate characters is caught repeatedly lying and failing, and yet their collective errors do not come together into a coherent account of the government’s mishandling of the pandemic. The right question now is: who is responsible for making those facts cut through?
Let us take the actual opposition. As the pandemic response disaster was unfolding, the Labour party substituted rage for optics, eager to appear level-headed, to come across like a party not “politicising” a crisis, when in fact everything about the pandemic was political. Keir Starmer thought he could toggle between “constructive opposition” and presenting himself as a competent alternative to Johnson, but somewhere between the two failed to land on the urgency of it all, to paint a clear and compelling picture of a government taking the country into catastrophe. Afraid of appearing radical, he forgot his one job – opposition – and instead landed on coalition. Tactically, the focus on competence was always going to be a self-laid trap, because the moment the government did a single thing right, such as rolling out the vaccine, it would look like an emphatic refutation of Starmer’s one argument.
The other party in the scheme of checks and balances, the media, has indeed skirmished with the government. But every blow landed by way of hard-hitting investigation into its failures was undercut by columns fawning over Johnson: his importance, his relatability, whether the birth of his latest child or even the firing of Cummings might finally snap him into seriousness. The rest was undermined by tone. The gossipy language about the Cummings testimony itself demonstrates that part of the problem. His appearance was merely the latest act in an event of political theatre. It was Cummings’ revenge, in a hearing “longer and bloodier than Hamlet", the return of a “crazed ex-boyfriend” in an episode where the highest stakes were about who was going to lose their cabinet position. In the glut of coverage we have an impression of a media that is doing its job, but is really mostly sitting in the galleries munching snacks and watching “popcorn-worthy sessions". That is, unless it’s let in behind the scenes, ovviamente, where it is flattered by access and ventriloquises the government line as the insight of “sources". Even after Cummings’ testimony, when there was no room for doubt, some still engaged in political science fiction, excusing the government’s performance because, well, what was the alternative?
That fatalism is of a piece with a wider belief among the British public – one encouraged by the papers – that whatever we have is the best we could possibly do. Some of that is genuine support for a Conservative agenda, but some is a resignation that takes its lead from the inertia and gullibility of the opinion-forming classes. It is easier to justify the familiar status quo than risk its disruption by contemplating a leftwing alternative, even if that means rationalising and justifying the loss of tens of thousands of lives.
The pandemic continues to confront us with what this country is lacking. In its first stages, it exposed how vulnerable we have become to all shocks, be they virus-related or economic, in a hollowed-out state and rundown public services infrastructure. More recently, it has revealed another insufficiency: we can get angry but can’t stay angry. When we ask about the impunity this government continues to enjoy, we are not talking about a passive and uninformed public, but a public poorly served by those whose job is to oppose and challenge the government. After all, impunity doesn’t exist in a vacuum: it is created by the vacuum.