A couple of weeks ago the editorial in this newspaper was headlined “O tempora, O mores” the title of some verses written by Edgar Allan Poe. What times, what customs, it said. What times indeed! Every form of government on this planet suffered or is still trying to recover from the shock each received when [...]


The powerful don’t care for rules


Number 10 special advisor Dominic Cummings leaves his residence in north London on May 28, 2020. (Photo by Justin TALLIS /AFP)

A couple of weeks ago the editorial in this newspaper was headlined “O tempora, O mores” the title of some verses written by Edgar Allan Poe. What times, what customs, it said.

What times indeed! Every form of government on this planet suffered or is still trying to recover from the shock each received when the coronavirus engulfed it.

As many thinkers predict, the world’s lifestyles will change and the way it will function will be turned on its head. Perceptible changes would be made to the way we live and work.

However, much old ways will be uprooted and new ways take their place one habit will remain deeply etched into the way people govern themselves. However systems of governance change as countries recover from this corona catastrophe it is unlikely that the fundamentals of human behavior will be obliterated and be replaced by a new behavioural architecture.

My thoughts were drawn to a political uproar that erupted last week involving Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s chief adviser and strategist Dominic Cummings. The comings and goings of Dominic Cummings at the height of the corona pandemic when British people were dying in their thousands — partly or mainly because of the Johnson government’s early neglect and later tardiness in dealing with it — had already been the subject of criticism by the media and medical professionals and experts among others.

As the virus spread, the British people were placed in a “lockdown” mode and a number of other measures were brought into play to mitigate the spread of the virus and bring it under control as quickly as possible.

As a result many thousands of people were jobless or temporarily out of work but they still mostly followed the government and medical guidelines.

But when two newspapers, the Guardian and The Mirror broke the story of Cummings and his wife who was also suspected of having symptoms of the corona virus ignored the lockdown instructions and drove 260 miles to Durham to his ancestral estate and later visited a touristic castle with his four-year old son, the excreta really hit the fan.

Generally speaking over the many weeks of the lockdown the British people acted with responsibility, adhering to government instructions and messages from the health officials.

What angered the public — including MPs and members of the Tory Party — was that government instructions on lockdowns and other restrictions applied to the general population but not apparently to those who were close to the prime minister and to the seats of power.

Those who have lived through decades of political change in Sri Lanka will know that whatever the nomenclature under which governments rule and whatever the ideological flavour of the government in power there are those who wield power and influence and survive because they are “untouchables”.

There was a fear that Cummings and family with their symptoms of the virus could have infected others in the family home or when he drove to Barnard Castle.

The Cummings saga or episode, depending on who is looking at it, might not have erupted into a full blown political issue if Boris Johnson had been a little more circumspect and Cummings a modicum of contrition.

The problem was that while Tory politicians and constituents were calling for Cumming’s blood the Conservative Party high command led by Johnson were circling the wagons round the prime minister’s chief adviser who had already earned himself the name of a Machiavelli hovering behind the No 10 curtain.

Trying to save Cummings from being sacrificed to save Tory popularity in the opinion polls which had dipped considerably last week is unlikely to happen. The High Tories if I may coin a phrase, have built a cordon sanitaire round Cummings who Johnson considers indispensable to him, will rescue this Rasputin from his misadventures.

But the lesson from this sub plot, as it were, of the corona drama is that those who wield power and influence will not only survive but continue to flourish under any system.

Those who wield power and influence often flout laws and rules because by their very nature, they have power and influence and wish the people to know it. Others do it more surreptitiously.

It matters little under which form of government they live and operate with impunity. Be it a democracy, an autocracy or some type of ‘ism’, is of little concern as its leaders manipulate a system not to serve the national interest but for personal and political interest.

It is to this system that those who seek power and influence hang to tenaciously through personal or entrepreneurial relations for their mutual benefit. It is such accumulation of power that bloats the egos of those who wish the world to know how far they can throw their weight.

They will throw their power around, laws or no laws to show the country who they are and what they can do.

If one might adapt some Orwellian words all men are equal. But some are more equal than others.

They could flout the laws and regulations that the rest of the population are asked by the government to adhere to at the pain of being fined or some other consequence, but nothing ever happens to them.

If politicians can swing from one party to another with grace or disgrace what is to stop those who seek power or to get close to power from changing their own positions and parade under new colours.

However much one might blame the colonial powers and castigate them for exploiting the countries they lorded over, the Cummings episode drives home an important point. The political system under which governments function provides opportunities to hold the executive accountable for its actions.

Those who are responsible for governments in power might not agree with or like their actions in government being questioned and exposed to public view.

Equally, the presence of media which are relatively free and provide a panoply of views and news often prevents executive excesses and keeps government in check. As stated it was the media that broke the story about the Cummings affair.

Under governments, which are less free, this story might have been suppressed as would the indiscretions of politicians like their dipping into public funds.

All this is possible because the system of governance provides for that. Leaders of countries who do not like such scrutiny and exposure are not the only ones who would like to see such openness destroyed. These are the persons who love to cling and display their power to the rest of the country while burying their own misdeeds.

(Neville de Silva is a veteran
Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor, Diplomatic Editor and Political Columnist of the Hong Kong Standard before moving to London where he worked for Gemini News Service. He was later
Sri Lanka’s Deputy Chief of Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London before returning to journalism.)


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