Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 4 July 2020

Dominic Cummings is wrong, but the popular assault on him is becoming poisonous

Unless cooler heads prevail, the vitriol aimed at the UK Prime MInister's adviser risks escalating to a dangerous point

A Glasgow sign referencing Chief Advisor to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings' visit to Durham. Getty Images
A Glasgow sign referencing Chief Advisor to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings' visit to Durham. Getty Images

In any free society, sooner or later an incident occurs that points the finger at just how much protest is acceptable. In the UK, peaceful public protest is part of the national culture, as our mass demonstrations on political issues clearly display, from Ban the Bomb to Climate Change.

Twenty-five years ago, as a young government minister, I took over responsibility for a difficult area of policy, involving legislation passed before I took that office which transferred child maintenance from the courts to the government. The administration of this was handled by an agency, and when it went live it was clear that massive errors had been made in the computer systems, and that the policy itself had an inbuilt inflexibility that produced harsh outcomes.

This led to significant popular anguish. It was in the headlines for weeks. While I struggled to deliver reform, I rightly had to bear the anger and distress of the policy’s consequences in the face of the public, the press and Parliament.

But one day, the protests against it went a step beyond.

British Minister of State for the Middle East Alistair Burt was the target of protesters 25 years ago. Antonie Robertson/The National
Former British Minister of State for the Middle East Alistair Burt was the target of protesters 25 years ago. Antonie Robertson/The National

I arrived home to find quite forceful slogans painted on the wall of the house I shared with my wife and our two children, then aged 7 and 8. Some days later, a crowd entered our garden and stayed for a couple of hours, shouting and then planting some 30 or so crosses to symbolise those fathers who had taken their own lives under extreme pressure, it was said, from the demands for higher maintenance payments.

A few days later still, the village where we lived was covered with posters and leaflets on lampposts and public property with my photograph, calling me a murderer. All within sight of my children.

I carried on, we reformed the policy and I never lost the understanding that what we did at Westminster affected the lives of millions of people very personally. I understood a right to protest, and although some of what happened was borderline illegal, I mostly resented that my children had borne the burden as well as me.

Since that time, harsh language and hostility in popular debate have exploded. In the UK the sense of bitterness and the nastiness of discourse on both sides over the EU and Brexit have burrowed deep into the soul of a nation much more divided than many had realised.

I was reminded of this over the last few days. A prominent government adviser, Dominic Cummings, unelected but widely accepted as a driving force of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s administration, fell afoul of the public, press and Parliament through activity that appeared contrary to the lockdown rules imposed by that administration on the UK.

Mr Cummings was not unknown, being also credited with leading the successful and controversial campaign to win the referendum on Brexit and the Conservative Party’s win in the election last November. He also possesses a well-known attitude of disdain and dismissal towards opponents.

His initial refusal to accept that he had done anything wrong or engage with the criticism, and the increasingly convoluted defence of his position by uncomfortable ministers, became a lightning conductor for the growing mood of weariness after nine weeks of restrictions. Add to this the distress of families who have lost the opportunity to be with loved ones at the time of their death from Covid-19 because they had obeyed rules they believed Mr Cummings was flouting, and you have the perfect modern political storm.

In the UK, peaceful public protest is part of the national culture. Getty Images
In the UK, peaceful public protest is part of the national culture. Getty Images

This has culminated in ongoing protests. Journalists picket Mr Cummings’s house, and he has to fight through a scrum to reach the car taking him to Downing Street. His elderly parents have been badgered at their property constantly by press seeking interviews. Cummings’s neighbours have even taken to shouting at him from their front windows, and a van with a large screen is parked outside his house, playing at top volume a variety of news messages and TV footage hostile towards him.

His son, inside the house, is 4 years old.

I do not think this is right. I am not a natural defender of Dominic Cummings – he is the principal reason I am no longer, after 32 years, a Member of Parliament, and I think his actions have been wrong, plain and simple. But street harassment, and the degree of anger unleashed and being justified by undoubtedly cruel family events and lost loved ones, will result sooner or later, maybe not with him, in something worse. We in the UK lost an MP not long ago when the contortion of political messages with hate led to her murder.

In the UK the nastiness of discourse on both sides over the EU and Brexit have burrowed deep into a nation much more divided than many had realised

Those on the other side of the argument with respect to Mr Cummings are repeatedly using the phrase ‘media scum’ against the press when defending him. This will not end well.

Dominic Cummings is not ‘getting away with it’ by being able to come home without facing a torrent of abuse. He has many legitimate questions still to answer, but hounding him, and inevitably his family, is not the right way to express the emotions that his ill-judged actions have caused.

Alistair Burt is a British politician and a former Minister of State for the Middle East

Updated: May 28, 2020 09:52 AM

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