As Dominic Cummings carried his cardboard box out of Number 10 Downing Street, the gloating started. It came not just from the usual suspects, those who bemoaned the exit of the UK from the EU and his role in it. They were joined by some on the opposite side of the Brexit battle. Cue Bernhard Jenkins, Conservative MP, an arch Brexiteer, who celebrated Cumming’s exit from Downing Street during a BBC interview saying that (paraphrasing) things will hopefully get back to normal now. Interestingly he did not stop there and noted that, during Cumming’s reign, the Cabinet contained surprisingly few Brexiteers and he hoped that this would now be reversed.
This makes me think… did we get Cummings wrong? By we, I mean the ones on the ever so cosmopolitan, liberal, Europe loving side. Let’s take a step back and look at this from a wider angle. Cummings is often credited for his firm anti-European commitment. But what we may have overlooked with the Brexit battle indignation still red hot in our eyes, is that Cummings’ preference for Brexit was a means, not an end. Cummings had a keen eye for the discontent of substantial parts of the public with the establishment. We may question the validity of this term, but the millions of voters who turned out on the day of the referendum knew exactly what he was talking about.
For anyone who lives in the North of England, that establishment, real or not, cuts across party lines. In fact, it combines positions as contrary as Labour in North West city councils and traditionally Conservative ones in Yorkshire and the Humber. Conservatives, rightly or wrongly, were loathed for their close contact with money and business, being seen as traditionally favouring those who already made it. Liberals, on the other hand, were perceived as hypocritical as those articulating the benefits of globalisation were often employed in white collar jobs, drawing on European money or benefiting from middle class council jobs with little impact on real lives. Just ask yourself: How many ‘development officers’ were funded by European Convergence funding (my own hand goes up!) and how little impact did they have on suffering communities beyond creating another cushy office job?
Cummings’ strategy was to bundle those discontented voices and give them a purpose. We may disagree with the thrust of that purpose but the fact of the matter is that he achieved something many on all sides of the political spectrum had long called for: a revolution in democratic participation. People who never voted before used to ballot box to send a signal to politicians across the political spectrum to say they had enough. We may scoff at the simplicity of the political message. But the fact is that Cummings managed what others had long failed at. He revived moribund political life in the UK and drew people into the political debate as never before.
I can hear the shrieks of horror. But at what cost! you may say. So? The fact is that we will all do better if our public debate has more voices in it, not fewer. Cummings has demonstrated to all of us the rewards of listening to the disadvantaged, the ones who stopped shouting for help long time ago. We may not like what we hear, but forcing us to listen to the ones in need is at the heart of a healthy political discourse. It is however, also challenging our misconceived democratic credentials that are often based on the exclusion of those we do not agree with.
And so we return why we should not gloat about Cummings’ departure. His desire to make us listen to those we disagree with should be reason enough to us in the North West of England to regret his leaving. It may signal a retreat to the status quo ante. And that can only be bad for people living in a corner of England that receives a fraction of the investment that London gets.
That’s why I worry when I hear Bernhard Jenkins and others, on the liberal side of politics, rejoicing that things will go back to normal now. Where I live, in Walton (Liverpool), this ‘normal’ has not served the people well. It is officially the most deprived constituency of England and Cummings was the first one to be interested enough to listen up. That does not make him a crusader for the dispossessed. But it makes him a champion of democracy. The irony!