We assume that those we consent to govern over us share a common decency and fundamental moral values — what happens when they reveal that is not the case?
Dominic Cummings broke quarantine. That’s indisputable. What is claimed since is that, although uncounted thousands of families found themselves in similar or much worse circumstances and observed the regulations, the option was always there, for everyone, to ignore the rules based solely on their own judgement at the time.
This argument is clearly nonsense, and shows complete contempt for the public. Numerous instances have been posted on social media of direct government messaging, or of the Prime Minister or members of his cabinet stating repeatedly that this was absolutely not the case. In the past when ministers or senior government officials were caught out, revealed to be hypocritical or worse, and shamed by public opinion they would apologise and resign or in other cases, be sacked.
But when there is no shame, there is no shared common decency or moral value, what we have seen is that the public has absolutely no redress, no method of seeking justice, no way of venting their anger.
It’s true that throughout history, the overwhelming majority of our leaders have been motivated primarily through greed and self-interest. They have seen themselves to be above those they rule, in every sense. In Machiavelli’s The Prince, he gives this advice on what we would now term public image:
“Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them… Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result.”
It is necessary to state here however that Machiavelli says that whilst the prince should have and behave according to virtue, in order to effectively govern he will find times when he will have to act against principle. Not even Machiavelli would consider that the prince didn’t share certain pre-eminent moral values — but he did say in order to save the state, and to bring himself security and prosperity, he should be prepared to countenance whatever action necessary without reproaching himself.
Is it true however that to some extent we expect our rulers to be able to act immorally when necessary? Do we give tacit approval to torture of terror suspects, of execution by drone, to the real-life counterparts of James Bond or Jack Bauer? Simply, no, we don’t. We rightly condemn those actions, our laws forbid assassination, torture and other immoral acts in the name of “defence of the state”. Some would argue that in extremis such actions are justified — but even then there is a limit to what they would expect — or at least a limit to how much they would be prepared to know about and be challenged with such actions. Essentially there is still this pretence of virtue, of moral authority, that needs to be preserved. Without that moral authority, they cannot presume to govern — they can no longer maintain the fiction that they have right on their side.
In Machiavelli’s time, princes — even those who rose from the ranks, to some extent — still claimed to rule not through consent but by divine right. In our modern democracy, though still a monarchy, the government claims to rule by common consent. However, what the Cummings scandal has revealed, perhaps for the first time in recent history, is that this consent is a lie, that we are governed by an unelected, entitled elite, that rules from a position of privilege.
We have no practical or constitutional process in place for removing our leaders from office, this is as much true in the UK as it was sadly demonstrated in the United States, even when they have been accused of committing a crime (as I write this, Benjamin Netanyahu enters the history as the first standing Israeli Prime Minister to face criminal charges for corruption). It could be argued that this is simply because, in the past, these people have recognised at least publicly the opprobrium, have regretted and apologised for their actions and resigned. Even Nixon resigned. But when these values have literally no meaning for them, when they recognise that it doesn’t matter what they do because the public have no power of redress, then they can remain in office.
In the case of an unelected civil servant, the power behind the throne, the one who can bend the ruler to their will so easily, who promises continued security in office and the power to manipulate public opinion — though paid from the public purse. the public have absolutely no say.
There is an arcane power that Machiavelli couldn’t imagine that Cummings claims to possess. That is the ability to rewrite history, to lie and change the past to cover that lie. That is the power that modern governments have. In the past few weeks and days, the British government have been deleting posts, editing videos posted online, to cover their lies. Why would they do this if they truly don’t care about public image any longer? This is what is termed control of the narrative, much in the same way that even news that would be bad for the government is deliberately used to cover their actions, to keep their actions to subvert and attack our rights and the rule of law off the front page, and away from the top page of a Google search (do you know for example, that last week the Home Secretary gained the power to curtail someone’s liberty indefinitely without charge or trial?). It is a manipulation of reality, so that even in its utter absurdity, it becomes possible for government lickspittles and armchair warriors to defend the indefensible.
Whilst some mechanics were put into place to challenge leaders if necessary, these were always predicated on the fundamental rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and acknowledged, shared common morality. In the past this was in the main provided by shared religion but during the Enlightenment, political philosophers did their best to remove it and in so doing debated the whole concept of ethics and behaviour, including that in public office. But even they were not starting from a blank state.
The blank state of amorality is what we are now faced with. And not being foreseen, we have no defence in place against it.
Whatever happens in the Donald Cummings saga, it has revealed the face of power without the mask or recourse to respectability. And this is not something that the elites should ever be allowed to forget.