Gary Raymond explores the notion of British Exceptionalism in light of the media frenzy surrounding Dominic Cummings and his breaking of current Covid-19 lockdown rules.
I don’t know about you, but I’m beginning to believe in British Exceptionalism. If lockdown has taught me anything, it’s that the people of this Sceptred Isle are head and shoulders above the rest in many ways. Unfortunately, few of them are positive.
Of course, there have been many examples of noble behaviour during these times that some people are even going so far as to call “unprecedented”. Our healthcare workers have worked as selflessly as they always do, albeit under more stressful circumstances than usual. But the NHS workers are no more brilliant than medical professionals from other countries. Indeed, most of them are medical professionals from other countries. Britain is truly exceptional in the way it vacuums up skilful, selfless and passionate people from other cultures, puts them to work, and then pats itself on the back for being so special, so unique, for leading the way. Perhaps that’s part of the legacy of Empire.
England – sadly, shorthand for Britain for so many for so long (not least the English) – has been proving itself pretty exceptional over the bank holiday weekend by matching sun and sand. Images of packed beaches in the wake of the relaxing of lockdown guidance have been all over Britain’s exceptional media landscape, often paired with the empty beaches of the Welsh coast to show just how exceptionally not stupid the Welsh are. Social distancing seems a thing of the past in England now. Soon shops will reopen just in time for the Primark post-lockdown sales rush. But for now, England’s beaches tell the story so familiar to foreign sun-soaked holiday destinations that have been mopping up after British Exceptionalism for decades. One shot of a young man up to his waist in sea foam with a bottle of Budweiser in his hand also reminds us simultaneously how exceptionally alcohol-dependent and litter-prone Britain is when compared with other countries.
Now, you may be thinking, looking at the quality of our leadership, on a UK level at least, alcohol-dependency is understandable. I for one was grateful Dominic Cummings was late for his own exceptional press conference, meaning I was able to push back my despair-drinking to the more reasonable hour of 4.30pm. Cummings himself proved his exceptionalism by being the first government advisor in living memory to give a statement to the press about his own exceptional behaviour, emphasising over and over again how he was not exceptional, does not think of himself as exceptional, and in fact doesn’t even know what exceptional means, so there. Lucky for us, he deemed fit that circumstances allowed him to slum it by swapping his piss-stained vest for a collared shirt to deliver his speech to the mutts of the press corps from Number 10’s rose garden. This is traditionally the platform of much less exceptional figures than Cummings, like democratically elected leaders of Superpower nations.
In reaction to this exceptionally humble and generous act, the elite of the British press worked themselves up to a devastating barrage of questions that had petals gently falling from the prize-winning roses that adorned the outlines of the battleground. BBC’s top attack dog Laura Kuenssberg showed the rapier sharpness of the assassin’s art for which she is paid the big bucks by asking Cummings’s, sitting at a pop-up table like a bean with a biro face trying to sell lemonade for a school fundraiser, if he felt at all bad about what he’d done. He did not. Damn, he’s good, thought Laura as she toddled back off to her socially distanced sedan chair.
Next, Robert Peston, without doubt the Aramis of the Fourth Estate, took a deep breath, drew his sword, and asked if DC could possibly go over all that again as I missed a bit and I make all my notes in longhand.
Then, Sky’s Beth Rigby threw a few impassioned grenades but was swiftly carried away by two diminutive figures in hooded robes that Cummings’s was heard to refer to under his breath as “the creatures”.
Next up came a young lady with a notepad asking DC for his lunchtime sandwich order. Next a man asking if he could use the loo. Just as one woman began asking why DC’s story had the distinct whiff of the back end of D’Artagnan’s horse about it, Cummings’s eyes rolled back in his head and he began chanting a semi-intelligible ancient language, at which point a tsunami engulfed the rose garden and the press conference was called to an abrupt end. “Exceptional,” said Huw Edwards as the footage swung back to the BBC news studio.
Since that exceptional press conference, Michael Gove, no stranger to the evil corrupting power of narratives based on lies (not if his bookcase boasting white supremacist tomes is anything to go by) was wheeled out on news programmes to claim that Yes, of course driving 30 miles is a reasonable strategy for an eye test. Indeed, he said, he himself had done it a few times in the past. I recognise the common touch when I see it. I was forced to reflect that, in fairness, I have also in the past piloted light aircraft across built up areas to test if my narcolepsy was improving.
Dominic Cummings’s story of why he drove 260 miles breaking the Covid-19 guidance that he himself had helped to draw up, was in itself an exceptionally flimsy piece of storytelling. That the press who had just listened to it in real time were unable to pick it apart on the spot is a worrying thing in itself. Cummings had just admitted to breaking lockdown rules twice, and quite possibly had broken the law by driving when vision-impaired. His excuses were not only preposterous, but they were not excuses. They do not exonerate him in any way. Indeed, they implicate him.
But what his exceptional performance has done is allow most Tory MPs and the right-wing shills to shrug and say, that’s good enough for me. I needed a few lines of get-out, and there I have them. As with Boris Johnson, a man renowned for his laziness, his self-serving myopic arrogance, his entitlement, his clownishness, who after his bout of Covid-19 was repainted as a man of deep learning, emboldened by a heroic work ethic, of exceptional compassion and seriousness, so is Cummings’s hitherto reputation as a man several places below an exploding bucket of shit on most dinner party guest lists, is now a man of integrity and honour. He is now a caring father who we are supposed to believe drove his child 30 miles while half blind. He is a man convicted of breaking electoral law, and yet did not break the rules he just explained that he broke. This isn’t gaslighting, it’s arson. In several months, Cummings will be there, in his job, and we’ll look around to see the country is now just a smouldering ruin of charred timber, the figure of Robert Peston sitting in the rubble of the rose garden still trying to furiously finish writing down what DC said in his speech.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, broadcaster, and editor of Wales Arts Review.