There is an unfortunate trend in Britain’s politics which has coagulated into a rhetorical device – the latter used so often that it has congealed into reflex. It’s behind a few unfortunate recent cases, each of which have, in their own way, served to confuse, and to excite anger at precisely the most bottled-up and contorted moment of my life time.
All this has been directed by politicians, journalists, and performers in public life; it may yet hurt a great many of them, and cripple what limited usefulness they as a class have in dealing with the pandemic we all face.
That rhetorical device, whether in a newspaper column or a representative’s letter or a call shouted from one side of a legislature to another, is the injunction to resign.
Three examples, then, as we begin. They aren’t in themselves interesting, and may get a little dull. But they may do, for my purposes, as emblematic.
The first. Professor Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College London. Ferguson models disease and was a significant voice in the modelling of this disease. The team Ferguson leads charted the likely consequences of a series of public strategies, from doing nothing to doing everything conceivable, to restrict the way people were able to spread the virus and in so doing kill those around them.
Ferguson was subject to insistent scurrilous attack from those who either desired mass deaths as preferable to the alternatives, or disbelieved tens of thousands were likely to die of pandemic disease at all. This sniping never placed his job and capacity to work at risk. But the affair he continued with a married lover managed that just fine when it was reported by the papers.
It was made clear to Ferguson that, everything having been said and seen, he must resign from the government’s scientific advisory committee. And resign he duly did, at least potentially denying the government the benefit of his prescience and sincere desire to save lives; and strengthening the hand – practical and, if one must, moral – of his wiling-executioner enemies.
In Ferguson’s case, hypocrisy was detected, and that was enough to set the rest in motion. No special pleasing, no intervention of individual circumstance, no sense (truncated or selfishly put) of the good of the nation – nothing was allowed to intrude between admission and immediate, swift exit from the effort to curtail epidemic disease.
Leaping forward in time, a second case. The junior Labour whip Rosie Duffield had, like Ferguson, class A possession of a private life. And in pursuing her private life at a time of strain, she transgressed the rules about precisely where you ought to stand and for what reason you were, at least then, allowed to go outside.
For a brief period, it’s amusing to note, sexual relations between people who did not live together were functionally illegal in Britain. I wonder if any of them noticed.
But Duffield was not in luck because a Sunday paper noticed her. And before it had even gone to press, she had resigned. Caught in a tricky spot, the choice was clear. Approbation or disappearance. The latter was the only path available in such a prissily hypocritical period, when everyone, close to without exception, breaks some form of social distancing proclamation, but only those whose work is important are forced to suffer by losing their jobs when discovered.
Now a third example, and a complication. (Here’s where the promised boredom comes in.)
As he was falling ill with the virus, Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s principle adviser, drove north to stay near, but not with, family who were willing to look after his son – were Cummings and his wife, Mary Wakefield, to be incapacitated or killed.
This appeared to the often toothless sharks in the press like blood in the water. It was a long way to go in a time of near national house arrest. He was seemingly spotted around the town in Durham, some distance from the capital.
He was for it now.
The initial reaction from government was a little atypical, the journalists must have thought – first denying aspects of the media story, and then maintaining that Cummings had the confidence of his colleagues, and that he had acted appropriately. So the media increased its pressure, confidently expecting the inevitable.
It claimed Cummings may have been responsible for the higher rate of transmissibility in the Durham area; he may have killed people; he clearly didn’t care about those, in the Durham area, his car journey may or may not have killed.
And all the while, a seeming knockout blow was being prepared. The government was allowed to file gaily in to defend Cummings, and all the while a new front page was being readied – news of a purported second trip up north. A proper breach of the rules, a taking of the cake! The journalists complimented each other on their scoops and their handling of the matter, and anticipating champagne and Press Awards.
The story of a second trip, and the rolling hysteria it briefly provoked, deserve some treatment, but not much. Suffice to say it was not true. There was no second trip. Instead, various sightings, like that of a rare bird or a sasquatch, were conflated into a picture the papers wanted to present. The old one-two. Playing the government like a fish on a line.
Tripping them up over their shoelaces while separately allowing them rope with which to hang themselves.
But it was, all of it, untrue. The journalists who purported such a thing were soon either elementarily wrong or liars. The corks unpopped, the awards still likely, but now undeserved.
Cummings took some of the wind out of all this when he gave an odd press conference in the rose garden at Downing Street. Those asking the questions were personally offended, offended perhaps most of all because he explained his position at tiring length and did not offer his resignation at any point. That was simply not how things are meant to go.
Some context to all of this.
In Britain, standards in public life are not what they were, but in some ways they have grown more punishing and not less.
There is a strange almost-consensus, believed and occasionally stated but not fully applied, that no one who is truly or avowedly flawed can work in public life. This does not mean a public space full of angels, of course. To disabuse anyone of that, simply look around us. Instead it means inconsistently applied rules of who is allowed to work in the public sphere at all, dependent largely on random chance and trivia.
The main game in politics, in normal times, appears to be putting opponents in a bit of a bind, then demanding their resignation.
With the pursuit of hypocrisy now the prime objective of political activism at its broadest definition, admission of wrongdoing, while in office or in public life, generally meant resignation. People are simply not allowed to admit to a degree of wrongdoing, or even an episode of poor or mistaken judgement, while remaining in a position to do their jobs.
It happened enough during the Miliband and Corbyn years to become a drumbeat.
This permanent jeering cry for resignation is not fairly and consistently applied. How could it be? Instead, it is close to random.
Who gets caught? Who is out of favour? Who cannot reasonably be saved by the costly use of deflection and deceit?
This mode of operating, taken to its true conclusion, appears grotesque and unsustainable at a time of lockdowns and distancing.
If the press followed every member of the cabinet and shadow cabinet, and all the scientists most publicly working on this question, and all the people on TV and radio who are so surely certain how what we must all do – and people played by the admission-resignation rules – there would be dozens of vacancies in a few short weeks.
If journalists gave their own number even a cursory glance, they would have even more empty desks in their news rooms. At least if public figures going about the difficult business of living in lockdown had to be, to a man, beyond reproach.
A true going over of everyone’s diaries between the beginning of lockdown and the present would elicit a veritable bloodbath of many in public life who consider their work significant and their status worth preserving.
As advisory roles have increasingly folded into politics, rather than ministers being urged to resign if they misled parliament, or made major errors in running departments, or engaged in serious departures in personal conduct, advisors who appear briefly unpopular in public, or are accused of minor transgressions, are expected to depart the second the suggestion they resign is forcefully made.
It means unnecessary turnover, interruption of government business – notable and regrettable at any time, but especially at present.
As with Ferguson, and so it is with Cummings. Caesar’s data modeller must be above suspicion. His master of the horse as well.
Their centrality to government and to the work on the pandemic was forgotten amid normal political gamesmanship. One of them followed the script, while the other did not.
Perhaps the pious incantation of the press no longer holds such power, over some. Although the government has lost ground and standing with the public by defending Cummings, it has not lost its man. But it may have lost something else, for all it has preserved by the advisor’s survival.
And if this odd episode has had any effect at all, it has possibly proven that in a febrile situation where admission means resignation and the collapse of all an individual’s efforts before a cauldron of bubbling popular anger, it is likely better not to admit to anything than even to say, in public, that one might for a moment have been wrong.
This essay first appeared in Correspondence, an occasional journal.