It was former Prime Minister Harold Wilson (c1964) who is attributed with the phrase ‘A week is a long time in politics’, suggesting that the fortunes of a politician or political group can radically change for the better or worse in just the course of a single week. This certainly appeared to be true for the Prime Minister’s Chief Aide and Special Advisor, Dominic Cummings, who allegedly broke his own ‘lockdown’ rules to travel with his wife and young son to County Durham to self-isolate on a property belonging to his parents whilst his wife appeared to have coronavirus symptoms and he also feared that he might be coming down with the illness. This episode was made worse by his own admission that before travelling back to London, and worried about his eyesight, he and his family went on a 50 mile round-trip ‘test drive’ to Barnard Castle. The media storm which followed was inevitably ferocious, culminating in Cummings giving a press conference in The Rose Garden of Number 10, which was in itself unprecedented. For days, his apparent denial of responsibility or recognition that he had done anything wrong angered the Press, political foes and the public alike, and the Prime Minister’s backing of Mr Cummings was considered partially protective. The story took an unexpected twist when Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis used her programme’s introduction to fire a blistering attack upon Dominic Cummings and Number 10, claiming that the public had been made to ‘feel like fools’ which resulted in her being taken ‘off air’ and subject to an inquiry.
Now of course from my perspective it’s very difficult to make any sort of comment or offer any sort of reflection without it appearing as if I’m taking sides or running the risk of upsetting someone – but I’d like to give it a go, being as fair as I can, stripping out the personalities and looking at the bare facts. Dominic Cummings (and the government) have been accused of hypocrisy and of being two faced summed up in the often quoted statement that there is ‘one rule for them and another rule for everyone else’. This is a considerable charge and one that’s easily understood to cause outrage to all those who have been caught up in the coronavirus crisis and particularly those who suffered because of it, and nobody wants to demean or denigrate the suffering of others. This was in essence Emily Maitlis’ charge and one that brought her considerable admirers. But Cummings pleads ‘not guilty’ because he doesn’t believe that he has actually broken any rules but has simply taken advantage of a certain leniency that was always ‘built into’ the system. His position seems to be one that was backed up by County Durham police who simply said that if they had bumped into him they would have advised him to return home but ‘wouldn’t be taking the matter any further’. This response inevitably causes outrage by those who assume ‘he must be guilty’, whether they be political rivals (of all parties) on the opposite side of the Brexit debate or those who are hurt because they’ve suffered but feel they had no other choice than ‘to do the right thing’ and stay at home – just as the government advised. But even if Mr Cummings hasn’t broken any rules, surely, he’s broken the spirit of the rules and should apologise? In normal circumstances, the answer would be an unequivocal ‘yes’, it’s the only decent thing to do, but of course these aren’t normal circumstances, and above all this is politics! No self respecting politician (or political advisor) can ever be seen to apologise, because then it would feed calls for his resignation. So until we create a climate where it is possible for politicians to apologise without fear of losing their jobs, we will never get the politics we want or deserve. So ‘by hook or by crook’, Dominic Cummings remains in his position. However, Emily Maitlis may have felt that she was ‘speaking truth to power’, but as a journalist employed by the BBC, it’s hard to see how she was being impartial – in which case she did break the rules of her position, which is why she was taken ‘off air’ (or voluntarily stood down) and is subject to an inquiry. Will she be subject to the same level of scrutiny as the Prime Minister’s Chief Aide and be asked to apologise or even resign? Only time will tell!
So where does this leave us? Well, I suppose in the first instance it reminds us that ‘people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones’! It is all very easy to point the finger at others, but what does that say about us, our character and our motivation for doing so? Are we driven by a real sense of injustice or are we driven by some less righteous motivation or anger? Do we want to get even and get our own back?
The Christian will remember the story of the Pharisees who brought a woman to Jesus who had been caught in the act of adultery. This wasn’t simply a religious matter or of righteous indignation; it was highly political. Would Jesus condemn the woman to death, which only the Roman authorities had the right to do, or would he let the woman go, in which case he was seen as weak minded and not respectful of the religious rules of the day? Either way, Jesus was caught on the horns of a dilemma, so what did he do? Well, he simply said ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone’ (John 8.7). The result was that all the woman’s accusers melted away because his question had required them all to look inwards and consider their own motives and religious standing before God. Perhaps there are times when we should do the same!