Public good

The Cummings farrago exposes a government which doesn’t grasp its own role

Wars give us enemies with faces. Coronavirus does not. Social media delights in both putting war metaphors up and shooting them down, but I suspect the lack of a clear enemy makes national cohesion harder. And as we start to talk about exit strategies, whose interests come first and when may well divide us further.

Dominic Cummings has, if nothing else, given many people’s fury a face. And many have written already about how offensive his conduct — and his disdain for explaining himself — has been. But the defence of his conduct betrays a basic failure to grasp the purpose of government, which I think deserves a closer look.

Family first?

When push comes to shove, of course people care about their own children more than anything. But an unpalatable truth is that much of what the state does aims at keeping that impulse from running riot. One of the biggest challenges in education is stopping monied parents elbowing less fortunate kids out of the way in the interests of their offspring. Fair admissions, access to higher education, school funding formulae: keeping loving parents at bay is the bread and butter of education policy.

When politicians put their kids’ education first — as Diane Abbott and Tony Blair both found — we tend to censure them for it. Sometimes, as in Abbott’s case, that’s mainly about hypocrisy. But it reveals a deeper truth. We may nod as politicians say any parent puts their families first, but we don’t like it when they actually do. Because they set the rules which keep that truth in bounds.

Coronavirus poses a wider, sharper, harder challenge. The vast majority of us are vanishingly unlikely to die from it. We are asked — instructed — to act against our own and our loved ones’ interests (at least our immediate interests) every day. Do my friends gain or lose when I can’t help look after my nephew-in-all-but-name? Do children gain or lose from missing months of classes in favour of the trench warfare we call home school? Do families gain or lose from not having loved ones at funerals?

‘Parents always want to do what they think best for their kids’, ministers say. Of course. Why do ministers think we have laws?

Following instincts?

As maxims go, ‘follow your instincts’ may well be beloved of start-ups. It’s also precisely what the coronavirus rules try to prevent. Humans are deeply social animals. We want to see friends and family in groups, we want to hug people and not voice-project at two metres, we want sex. But all these things can transmit coronavirus.

So the state took draconian measures to get us to suppress our instincts. I don’t dispute the need for them: I merely observe that they remain draconian. After a shaky and ambiguous start, we were told to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives. And it broadly worked. Possibly it overshot: the British are now among the most cautious of nations, and UK ministers (rightly or wrongly) are struggling to coax them out.

But to judge from the Prime Minister’s press conference, many ministers think we’re mugs. Having demanded a national effort, having given a simple instruction, having thanked us all for the sacrifices we’ve made, yesterday Johnson said Cummings ‘followed his instincts’. But people who didn’t attend loved ones’ funerals, let their children roam freely or see lonely family members resisted their instincts. From Grindr to grandparents, we built an edifice to contain a pandemic by keeping our instincts at bay.

As Johnson says, Cummings did what lots of us would naturally do. Why does he think we have rules?

Public demands

There’s something inhuman about what government — in truth, the policy world — requires. To work in policy, you have to be the kind of person who knows most government choices can kill. You have to embrace choosing whose lives and whose futures to put first every day. Most people don’t want to do it for a reason.

Most people don’t have to acknowledge that up front and they don’t like it when they hear it. So politicians often have to pay lip service to human instincts when half their task is to constrain or countermand them. Yes, it’s hard. And they’re allowed to say it’s hard. But what they cannot do is cite it as a defence when they put their private interests before what they say the public good demands.

On the evidence of the past few days, ministers and advisers neither recognise a higher public good nor care to pretend otherwise. That does not just constitute a culpable failure in public office. It constitutes an intellectual failure to understand what public office is for.

Unless and until they realise that ‘Wouldn’t you have done the same?’ is not just inadequate, but irrelevant, we will have no reason to believe they grasp the point of their own jobs. And even if we ignore every other issue, for that reason alone, Dominic Cummings must go.

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 25 May 2020.

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