Dominic Cummings affair reflects Brexit exceptionalism
US and British exceptionalism a significant factor in response to Covid-19 crisis
Dominic Cummings, senior adviser to British prime minister Boris Johnson, took, at the very least, a casual approach to the Covid-19 restrictions. He felt empowered to accord himself a very personal and flexible interpretation of rules that ordinary members of the public were instructed to obey and that caused them great personal hardship.
While the consequences of Cummings’s impulsive and incautious behaviour are still being played out, it is worth reflecting on why there is such a striking correlation between Brexit indoctrination and virus insouciance. This was reflected both in the initial reluctance to act in the early stages of the Covid-19 crisis and, more recently, in a precipitous zeal, among some, to lift the restrictive measures.
A similar phenomenon can be observed, in a more extreme form, in the United States in the remarkable overlap between Trump supporters and coronavirus deniers. Those who now chant “Keep America great” are not the people who prioritise keeping America healthy. The antics of President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil illustrate that the reluctance of populist leaders to accept the reality and scale of the epidemic has spread further afield.
There seem to be six reasons for the strange but undeniable phenomenon whereby scepticism about Covid-19 goes hand in hand with recent disruptive and narrowly nationalistic political instincts.
Now the cheerleaders are startled by the realisation that health expertise is a life-and-death issue
The first and most obvious reason for this phenomenon is the nature of populism itself. Populism is built on the promise that there are simple answers to complex problems. It is an affront to populist leaders to find now that dealing with the virus is riddled with complexity. How they wished that people could just go on living as if nothing had happened, shaking hands in hospitals and going to the pub. How they now hope for an unrealistically early return to normal life. Trump’s magic solution of swallowing disinfectant captures perfectly both his frustration with complexity and his increasingly messy divorce from reality.
A second reason is that the electorally successful promises of Johnson and Trump have been based on the fiction that there are no difficult choices to be made. You can increase US exports while restricting US imports. You can go global by going insular. The two men are unsettled now because Covid-19 presents an unavoidable and difficult choice between public health and the economy. Strangely, notwithstanding the jiggery-pokery whereby the people could have their Brexit cake and eat it, in the real world of coronavirus you can’t save lives and put them at risk at the same time.
A third factor that has lined up many Brexit and Trump advocates against treating the virus with full urgency and seriousness, is their shared distaste for experts. The political advancement of their respective causes depended on the dismissal of expertise. Now the cheerleaders are startled by the realisation that health expertise is a life-and-death issue. They still peddle fantasies about having made America great again or about trading on World Trade Organisation terms, but they know that the public has begun to clock them.
A fourth cause of the alignment of views that has developed on these distinct political and health issues is a deep resentment of reality, a reluctance to accept that the world simply is as it is. Brexit was driven by the illusion of an imaginary world in which the UK could advance its interests without making the compromises inherent in modern interdependence. Trump was elected by persuading enough people that jingoism could create jobs and that slogans could replace slog. Covid-19 represents the spectacular intrusion of a reality for which ego provides no cure and bluster no vaccine.
Johnson and Trump have created significant political movements on which their futures depend
Fifth, British and US exceptionalism had a revival in recent years and has become a significant factor in the two countries’ response to Covid-19. The idea that the US and UK could do things differently and better than anyone else took deep root with the rise of Trump and Brexit. More recently, the notion that they would not be as badly affected by the virus as others, that they could ignore experience and scientific advice from elsewhere, played into the sluggishness of their early response. Today the only trace of exceptionalism is to be found, not in the sad statistics, but in the regular and bewildering claims to lead the world.
Finally, Johnson and Trump have created significant political movements on which their futures depend. They have fostered instincts and expectations among their supporters that cannot easily be redirected. It is hard to convince people who have repeatedly been told otherwise that there are experts to be taken into account, realities to be engaged with and choices to be made. The penny has been dropping in Downing Street if not at the White House. However, the British public seem to be getting there first, which will mean an awkward time for Cummings.