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26th May 2020

Opinion: What the Dominic Cummings scandal means for our democracy

“In a normal, non-pandemic world, people would take to the streets. They would march. Wave banners. Shout. Scream. Their dissent would be seen and heard.”

Dr Elspeth Payne is the Beate Schuler Research Fellow in the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute. Here, she writes about how the Dominic Cummings scandal has highlighted questions about how democracy works during a pandemic…

Yesterday, the Chief Adviser to the British Prime Minister, Dominic Cummings held a press conference in the rose garden of Number 10 Downing Street to explain his lockdown-defying Durham trips.

The choice of location was unprecedented. It was also inappropriate. Cummings was given a platform in the most important political residency in Britain to address a nation that never elected him. A nation that cannot un-elect him.

At his daily briefing less than two hours later, Prime Minister Boris Johnson repeatedly told journalists that people “will have to make up their own minds” about the trips. Johnson himself continued to defend Cummings’ actions.

What happens if the people don’t take the same view as the Prime Minister? What if they don’t think that Cummings acted “responsibly, legally and with integrity”? What if they, like some sections of the British media and other British politicians, think he should be forced to resign? What do the people do once they’ve made up their minds?

In a normal, non-pandemic world, people would take to the streets. They would march. Wave banners. Shout. Scream. Their dissent would be seen and heard. But this option is no longer open to the conscientious citizen endeavouring to ‘stay alert’ and social distance. Lockdown has, by and large, confined protests to waves of controversial demonstrations against lockdown measures.

Every Thursday, the people of Britain have diligently come to their doorsteps at 8pm to clap for frontline staff. A show of appreciation for long-undervalued workers who have been chronically underpaid for years. A show of support for the NHS that has been dangerously underfunded for a decade by Johnson’s own party.

Will it be anger that drives them on to their doorsteps next? For, unlike Cummings, they haven’t seen their family or friends for weeks. Some will not get to see these loved ones again.

Will people now be motivated by the injustice of it all? That the elite can travel 264 miles because they were apparently worried about childcare, when many single parents have been struggling on alone for years.

In a normal, non-pandemic world, MPs would turn up at Westminster to ask questions on behalf of their constituents. They’d squeeze in. Sit the aisles. Heckle and cheer.

Today, only 50 Members were able to do this. A further 120 participated virtually. The rest were left to watch proceedings on Parliament TV. This hybrid model is necessary. It is safer, certainly, than Jacob Reese Mogg’s plan to bring all politicians back to sit in the crowded and enclosed conditions optimal for transmission of the virus.

This reduced hybrid parliament can, of course, still be critical. This is still a forum for the British opposition parties and Tory dissenters to challenge the government and voice disapproval. There are other means still open to politicians: letters, tweets, newspaper commentaries. They can, like Conservative  junior minister Douglas Ross, resign. Is this enough?

While this drama may be unfolding in Britain, some of the questions raised by the Cummings scandal hold relevance for observers here. It is no clearer how people can sensibly and safely participate in civic life during a pandemic in Ireland than it is in Britain.

Irish politics, while certainly less polarised than that of their nearest neighbour, has still been disrupted by the virus. The capacity of the Dáil has been reduced dramatically. The formation of a new Government has been delayed. Increasingly strained talks are ongoing.

What happens next? Do we all wait? Complain in private? Sit tight on our socially distanced rafts, waiting for the return of the ‘old normal’ and the resumption of the familiar structures of democratic life?

Or, is the Cummings scandal the wakeup call we all need? A timely reminder for those on either side of the Irish sea, that we cannot afford to wait. As we adapt and learn to live with Covid-19, do we need to find new ways to hold elected leaders – and their unelected advisors – accountable?

‘When access to the traditional public sphere is disrupted, what happens to democracy?’ will be the focus of an online panel discussion taking place on May 27, 2020, at 4.30pm. The panel includes former Economist editor-in-chief Bill Emmott, Melody Barnes – Co-Director of the University of Virginia Democracy Initiative and former policy advisor to Barack Obama – and Irish Times journalist Fintan O’Toole.

The free event and will be livestreamed on the Trinity Long Room Hub Facebook page.

It is the final instalment in a five-part Rethinking Democracy in an Age of Pandemic series organised in response to Covid-19 by Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute in partnership with the Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University. More information on the series can be found here.