Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Cummings Affair

The following letter was sent to Dominic Cummings and copied to the Labour MP for the City of Durham (my home constituency) and the Tory MPs for Bishop Auckland, Northwest Durham and Sedgefield (all of whom seem reluctant to demonstrate their populist credentials in this matter).


Dear Mr. Cummings,

I can well appreciate how, faced with an unknown illness, even the most balanced of people might be tempted to act as you did, but reading the accounts of your press conference (and the prime minister’s statement yesterday) I am struck by how little empathy was expressed for ordinary people in similar situations who adhered to the letter of the rules. Either you contravened the spirit of the rules or – assuming your interpretation was correct – others were unfairly obliged to submit to an unduly harsh discipline. If the latter was the case, why, at least since you returned to work, have you failed to urge the government in which you play such a prominent role to clarify that other parents should have been allowed the same freedom to act as you did at the height of the crisis?

At the time of the Lockdown, a neighbour of mine in Durham City and I took steps to organise our neighbourhood. We have thankfully had no situation of the sort that you and your wife faced, but I feel sure we would have found a way to help a household where both parents were incapacitated and young children needed care. If no such network existed in Islington, I still find it incredible that in your circle of friends and neighbours there was no one to whom you could turn, and even if that had been the case, the government advice at the time was for parents in such a situation to approach their local authority hub. Moreover, assuming that your trip to Durham was essential, is your job so important that it necessitated a return to London upon recovery when one would have assumed that you could continue to provide advice to the prime minister remotely?

The overriding impression is of an individual who believed himself so vital to the governing process that he must be allowed to interpret the rules himself and it does not seem to have occurred to you to ask anyone other than the prime minister (one of the medical officers, for example) for a ruling. I find myself recalling Stanley Baldwin’s quip about the exercise of “power without responsibility.” Of course a parent may decide that his family must take priority but when he or she holds a position of responsibility should there not be a penalty for so acting, particularly when so many have lost spouses and parents in tragic circumstances and even been denied the opportunity to be present at their deathbeds? Are not officials who give advice honour bound to follow it or is collective responsibility dead? I note that your mother has recently attributed your visit in part to the death of a beloved uncle, but, again, many have been denied the opportunity to mourn as families.   

At your press conference, you seemed inclined to treat all criticism of your actions as propounded by those who resented your stance on Brexit (or your opinions in general). I suspect that there are many who voted Leave (myself included) who also find your arrogance in this matter infuriating. I can’t help but wonder what the ex-Labour voters who swung Bishop Auckland, Northwest Durham and Sedgefield to the Tories for the first time in more than eighty years feel about this situation. So much for the populist rhetoric of recent years! It would truly seem to be the case that, in the words of George Orwell, “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”        

Almost thirty years ago I first became acquainted with the career of Jack Lawson, later a Labour MP for Chester-Le-Street. Early in his career Lawson was offered the opportunity to study for an Oxford degree (which would have opened doors to a white collar or professional career):

I was grateful but refused. Mr. Hurd pressed me, but I told him I was going back to the picks and the pit, in pursuance of my ideal . . . I did not want a professional career. I was of the pits, and would spend my life there, demonstrating, in fact, that a manual worker might be an educated man, and that education would end his life of low standards in return for grinding work. So we thanked those great-hearted considerate people who had designed this thing and went our way.[1]
That, to me, is what self-sacrifice is about and from a County Durham man, no less.

[1] Jack Lawson, A Man’s Life (London: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd, 1949), 106. 


Alto en chamade said...

Only ten days on now, but any responses?

Jeremy Bonner said...

From Dominic Cummings himself not a word, but then I wasn't expecting one. Curiously we are contemporaries in age (he's a year younger) and were both educated in Durham (though not at the same school).

From Dehenna Davison (Bishop Auckland) not a word either. Her two Tory colleagues, Richard Holden (North West Durham) and Paul Howell (Sedgefield) both acknowledged my communication while insisting that, following parliamentary custom, they could not advocate on behalf of a non-constituent. While this is technically true, my point was that they all represent ex-Labour voters who I'm sure took Boris Johnson's commitment to the masses over the classes seriously and the Cummings affair (particularly his refusal to acknowledge error) would seem to run counter to such a pledge.

My own MP, Mary Foy, has expressed her dissatisfaction, but as a Labour MP she has no incentive not to do so.