Every now and again, a national controversy over an individual takes on a significance of disproportionate significance in the life of a nation. Such events or controversies are seen in retrospect to be significant turning points. Culturally something is significantly different after than before.
There are many such individuals, for example Stephen Ward, whose behavior split this nation between the Swinging 60s progressives and the traditionalists, who viewed the louche behaviour of a society osteopath as a betrayal of everything that had been defended during the Second World War. And then there’s Monica Lewinsky, whose ‘relationship’ with President Clinton is still playing out in the USA as feminism has redefined her role from being a foolish love-struck adolescent to the embodiment of the victim of an abuse of power by a predatory male. Others see that affair as marking a sea change: for the first time a President could blatantly lie and still remain in office. It was not a happy precedent as we watch the consequences continue to unfold. When Nixon broke the rules, his party gave him up, but the Democrats refused to reciprocate over the a Clintons – twice.
At one level, the domestic arrangements of a government backroom fixer should be of scant longterm interest to most people, but in the febrile world of lockdown Britain the controversy over Dominic Cummings has inflamed and divided the nation in a most extraordinary fashion. Having engaged with the wisdom of Dom Christopher Jamison during lockdown, I was initially minded to accept one of his observations as the rational explanation for this. Newcomers to monastic life are tutored and helped by a novice master, and warned that self-isolation often results in periods of tetchiness, which once recognised and understood are easier to overcome. I now suspect that the Cummings affair is more than that: something is going on and it is worth taking a little time to consider it.
When Chairman Mao was asked about the consequences of the French Revolution, he replied: “It’s too early to say.” Having spent much of the lockdown in France, reading its post-revolution history, I have become more aware that Mao was not being droll, and that ‘what our Revolution means’ has been a constant controversy here, as successive challenges and disasters have divided the country. There are reasons that La République is in its fifth iteration.
In contrast, the continuity our UK constitutional settlement, founded on the embodied expression of our State within the doctrine of “The Queen in Parliament”, has been both a stabilising and increasingly overlooked virtue. For much of that time, the Established Church has been an important part of that stability.
Since calling off our ‘Liaison Dangereuse’ with the EU, however, which was, after all, little more than the triumph of Bonapartism, we appear to have carried over some of the more quarrelsome characteristics that followed his fall. We have become more French. While the UK has enjoyed a measure of continuity in its politics with its two party system, France has continued its post-Revolution search for an identity, and as successive controversies hit, its politics have divided, often irreconcilably. This is ironic. The revolutionary ideal was predicated on rationalism and universality. The reality has often been one of continued prejudice and factionalism.
In the 20th century alone, the Roman Catholic Church in France took sides in the Dreyfus affair, and lost. Those who went through the First World War were scarred by it, and post-war politics divided between the patriots who celebrated and claimed victory, and those who thought it should never have happened. In the inter-war years, veterans fought, sought to claim or refine the Republic through the example of Russia, the socialism of the pacifist Left, or the Christian traditionalism of the countryside, or the growing far Right of Action Française. There were even those seriously seeking the return of monarchy. Hitler’s pact with Stalin divided the Left, and soon after Vichy co-operation with occupation divided the Right. Even the Resistance was always factional. De Gaulle moved from national saviour to the betrayer of French Algeria. By the late 50s, a relatively obscure socialist advanced a colonial vision of France extending “from the Channel to the Sahara”, even as the EU itself was being formed. His name was François Mitterrand. Each of these controversies injected fresh division and mistrust into the body politic.
When the lockdown ceases, you can expect business as usual in France with far Left and far Right united in blocking roads, the French police brutalising them, and the UK media not paying much attention at all as President Macron and his new party ‘En Marche’ sink in the polls.
This whistle-stop tour of French history flags up that at each turn divisions were accompanied by accusations of betrayal of the Revolution, and determinations “never again” to trust one’s erstwhile allies. National unity is a treacherous business. We in the UK may not have understood well enough through all this that the two parties vying for government are both new – ‘En Marche’ and the Front National. The Gaulist centre-right, Socialists and Communists are in retreat. After studying this history during lockdown, I have begun to consider the Dominic Cummings controversy through the prism of this comparison with France, and could not fail to be struck by the uniformity of response from the Church of England Bishops every bit as confident in judgment of him as was that of the French Catholic Church of the guilt of Dreyfus. They, like their French counterparts, bought the first media narrative. Both sets of clergy took a very establishment line.
French Catholicism suffered in the longterm historic association with the witch-hunt of of an individual who embodied that which they distrusted. Injustice is never a good look, and a rush to premature judgment is no foundation for trust.
I suspect that outsiders looking at the collection of episcopal tweets condeming Dominic Cummings might be reviewing them in the light of Mr Cummings’ full statement of events, and thinking that this chorus was not the Church of England’s finest hour.
Is it not clear that the story was more complex, more nuanced, and at the very least closer to the margin of reasonable judgment than those tweets entertained? Will any bishop have the grace to acknowledge that, had they waited, they might have expressed themselves less stridently and maybe less overtly politically?
Two early reactions surely hit uncomfortably close to home for the Bishops. One pointed out that more of them condemned Mr Cummings than condemned the introduction of abortion against the wishes of the Government of Northern Ireland.
Survivors of Church abuse were quick to point out that it was a bit rich for Bishops who always defend Bishops to criticise a PM for standing by his man. Are they absolutely sure that their colleagues’ justifications for neglecting survivors were as reasonable as Mr Cummings’ explanations?
At this point, the Bishops may not appreciate that they are actually every bit as establishment as were those who persecuted Dreyfus. They stand in a bourgeois alliance with Remain politicians, the Civil Service, the Fourth Estate and much of the education and academic world. Such alliances not infrequently put expediency before truth, whether it be scapegoating Dreyfus, or papering over child abuse allegations in Church or State.
Two short concluding points. First, some bishops have received threatening hate mail for expressing their lawful opinions. This is quite unacceptable, and they have responded with grace and dignity, praying for their aggressors. It might help to take the out of the situation if the Bishops asked the media to get off the doorstep of Mr Cummings’ family home. I haven’t heard much concern expressed for Mr Cummings’ child in all this, either.