A couple of days ago, a Dutch writer friend retweeted something at me. ‘Did you see this one-sentence postcolonial novel? ;)’ he asked. The ‘novel’ was a tweet by London-based Lebanese-Iraqi architect and satirist Karl Sharro. It was this: ‘The British are finally experiencing what’s it like to have the British rule your country.’
The tweet was part of the maelstrom of social-media posts responding to recent news about the actions of Boris Johnson’s key adviser Dominic Cummings, who, in the early weeks of the UK lockdown, ignored the instruction to stay at home and drove his coronavirus-infected wife and young son 260 miles to a family property in County Durham.
Unlike other senior figures who have resigned over breaches of lockdown rules, Cummings shows no intention of leaving his post. Indeed, many government ministers have rallied round him, issuing statements in his defence.
The backlash has been severe. Since the end of last week, social media has been awash with fury. Thousands have shared heart-rending stories of those unable to see dying relatives or attend funerals because of respecting lockdown restrictions. Many have expressed fears that such hypocrisy could put lives at risk by tempting others to flout social-distancing rules. There have been searching questions into some of the more dubious elements of the account of his actions that Cummings eventually presented to the media, along with a huge number of wisecracks and witticisms. At press briefings, the prime minister and other senior government figures have had to face a barrage of questions about how they can support a status quo that seems to have one rule for the majority and another for those in their inner circle.
On the face of it, the crisis seems extraordinary. If you were to take many of the comments flying around at face value, it would be easy to think that this development could be terminal for Boris Johnson’s government. Perhaps in a more volatile nation – one more given to coups, revolutions and regime changes – that would indeed be the case.
The truth is, however, that we have been here many times before. In recent years, particularly since the Brexit referendum, outrage at the latest apparent failure or example of double-dealing by those in power has erupted frequently on platforms such as Twitter. Such sentiments are not new: before the rise of social media, there were plenty of instances of people expressing similar anger – against the Iraq war, against the poll tax, against the closure of the mines. Still, it’s true that in the last decade social media has amplified this anger in a way that makes it feel all-consuming when it is at full throttle. For the past ten years, many of us seem to have lived in a near-permanent state of apoplexy.
As such, I’ve found myself watching the unfolding of the latest scandal with an odd mixture of feelings. I share the outrage of many of my peers at what appears to be a flagrant instance of exceptionalism reminiscent of the kind of double standards that, as Sharro pointed out in his tweet, riddled the British Empire, but I also have an odd sense of detachment from what is going on. I can’t help feeling that the furore largely misses the point.
This comes partly from an awareness that what is being argued about on the surface here is not really the main cause of many people’s anger. While there is justifiable cause for fury among those who have made terrible sacrifices to stay within lockdown rules, the truth is that many of those calling most loudly for Cummings’ resignation are not especially concerned about his roadtrips but instead are seizing the opportunity to oust a figure they have long disliked and mistrusted as the architect of Brexit, a situation that itself has roots stretching back decades. Similarly, many of those defending Boris Johnson’s right-hand man probably do not believe that he acted reasonably but are simply concerned about keeping in place one of the lynchpins of their administration.
Little of this can be acknowledged, however. It doesn’t fit into a headline or the 140 characters of a tweet. Indeed, I’m not sure it is entirely sayable in any medium, for when you start to trace the problems back, the threads run and run, stretching down the centuries – one bad decision proving to be the consequence of another and another until, eventually, the tangle is lost in the mists of time.
And so we Brits sit in the midst of a global pandemic, with one of the highest death rates in the world, picking over the minutiae of one man’s car trips. And in so doing, we carry on the national – or perhaps human – tradition of never saying precisely what we mean.