In the weeks preceding the furore over Dominic Cummings breach of lockdown rules, a row took place over the vagueness of the government’s new ‘stay alert’ guidance – a revision of the simpler ‘stay at home’ message.
Nicola Sturgeon said “I don’t know what ‘stay alert’ means,” and Wales and Scotland refused to change their own messaging. Ministers defended themselves by saying that one had to, as Dominic Raab put it, “use common sense”. In doing so, the Conservatives and their outriders hoped to repeat a formula that was so successful last year over Brexit: to suggest that their opponents were bogged down in bureaucratic detail, while the Conservatives were aligned with ordinary people.
But this defence swiftly came undone. Even Piers Morgan pointed out there was something nonsensical in the idea that one could go to work, but not to the house of their parents. He challenged former Conservative MP Edwina Currie, “I want you, as the epitome of common sense,” he said, to tell me “if I can hire a son as my cleaner,” so that he could see his son. Under pressure, Currie replied, “Yes, I would’ve thought so, that seems common sense,” which Morgan pointed out, was “completely against the rules”.
In The Spectator, Patrick O’Flynn bristled against this line of questioning: “this is… Dribbling Britain – a nation, or at least a segment thereof, which expects every conceivable social scenario to be specified within a set of official rules and regards as strangers those traditional notions of common sense and personal responsibility”.
While rounding up an extraordinary press conference last Monday, in which he endeavoured to explain why he had disregarded the rules, Cummings said much the same thing as O’Flynn. When responding to the charge that he had introduced discretion to orders, he said, “I am not introducing discretion or judgment, the rules necessitate discretion and judgement”.
Stay at Home.
We might think the common sense defence couldn’t apply in the case of Cummings, as he flouted the ‘stay at home’ guidance when it remained unambiguous, with Matt Hancock at the time calling it an “instruction”. But the argument is still there, lurking beneath the surface. In Boris Johnson’s statement on 24 May, he insisted that his advisor had done what “every father and mother would do” – insulting the sense shared by many parents (their common sense) that the sensible thing to do was to stay at home. So who is being sensible here?
Curiously, those purveyors of so-called common sense, from Johnson, to Cummings, to Hancock, are the ones who have caught the virus. Neil Ferguson, the now sacked government epidemiologist tweeted, “Sigh. Developed a slight dry but persistent cough yesterday… There is a lot of COVID-19 in Westminster”.
Why is it that everyone who was preaching common sense got the virus? Probably because ‘common sense’ is no defence against Covid-19.
Throughout last Monday’s press conference, Cummings kept referring to “reasonable people”. It is these imagined people (who concede Cummings “weighed things up” fairly) who he deems to have common sense, whereas his upset neighbours do not. This reveals much about how Conservatives conceive of the ordinary person – most often a white man, outside of the metropolitan elite, who plays rugby league and wants to protect “wife and child”.
In the Conservative usage, ‘common sense’ is a licence to exercise personal freedoms, specifically freedoms from state regulation, for elites and, supposedly, for the everyday “Workington man” so frequently invoked during the election.
Conservative ‘common sense’ is a libertarian worldview promoting individual freedom, imbued with whiteness and patriarchal values. It emphasises family above law and society – with Michael Gove unsurprised that Cummings drove across the country rather than ask him for help with childcare, let alone contact a local mutual aid group.
The “wife and child” defences of rule breaking trotted out by ministers are particularly egregious given that the safeguarding clauses exploited by Cummings were fought for by women’s organisations and child abuse charities to ensure abuse survivors could legally flee their homes.
For many, the cabinet’s defences for Cummings’s ‘reasonable’ behaviour carried unpleasant echoes of the first week of the 2019 General Election. First, Jacob Rees-Mogg said that the victims of Grenfell lacked ‘common sense’ for following the ‘stay put’ advice; then Andrew Bridgen compounded this by saying he’d expect someone as clever as Rees-Mogg to be able to escape Grenfell Tower.
In this libertarian model of ‘common sense’, freedom from the state extends limitlessly, so that even when there’s a fire outside your door, you should prioritise individual judgement and discretion over the fire brigade’s instruction. Rees-Mogg was benched for the election campaign but piped up after the story broke about Cummings, to say “caring for your child is obviously reasonable”. Common sense rhetoric thrives on its claim to not have to explain itself, to say ‘end of story’; but it isn’t the end of story by any means.
Already, a study by Liberty Investigates and the Guardian has shown that BAME people in England are 54% more likely to be fined under new coronavirus rules that white people. A freedom of information exercise by Novara Media revealed even worse figures in some parts of the country. The CPS has issued dozens of wrongful convictions, and in London, “stop and search incidents surged by 22% from March to April despite fewer people being on the streets”. Rightwing governments around the world have imposed discriminatory versions of the rules, from Brazil, to Hungary, to India.
In the last few days the phrase “one rule for the PM’s closest advisor, and one rule for everyone else” has been repeated so often its reproachful sincerity is becoming exhausted – even funny – but the reality is that ‘common sense’ is a license for white men to roam, and a disciplinary weapon to wield against minorities.
The ‘spirit of the law’: common sense and English exceptionalism.
Rhodri Marsden explains that the term ‘common sense’ is on its own empty, and has been deployed by all sides of the political spectrum to appeal to a shared morality, from writer Thomas Paine’s common sense pamphlet in the 18th century, to John McCain’s ‘common-sense conservatism’ of 2006.
Antonio Gramsci uses the term referring to the philosopher Giambattista Vico. Vico in turn believed that ordinary people developed an ever evolving, natural and common wisdom which needed to be reflected in their laws and institutions. His thinking resembled that of his contemporary, Montesquieu. Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Law (1748) also argued that ordinary people’s shared morality and cultural values should be reflected in their institutions.
This idea of the spirit of the law is something the English especially prize, as quickly became evident in the Cummings case.
Robert Peston specifically asked whether Cummings had broken the ‘spirit’ of the law, rather than the letter, to prod as to whether Cummings was out of touch with our shared morality. On Friday Theresa May emerged to say he hadn’t followed ‘the spirit’ of the rules.
As Ash Sarkar pointed out on The Burner, English conservatives can be a tad superior about their individual freedoms, quick to deride countries which implemented lockdowns rapidly and effectively.
Commentators such as Emily Maitlis have said that either Cummings broke the rules or we are all fools. However, we – when that ‘we’ includes minorities – are not, in fact, fools for abiding by the rules, and bearing the anguish of not attending funerals.
The reason we haven’t done so is exactly because we are aware that we do not have the special license granted to the elite. We probably wouldn’t sign in as “Osama bin Laden” at a place of work after being sacked, as Cummings claimed to have done, either, or brazenly re-edit a blog to make it seem that we had forecast coronavirus.
Instead, we have to stay alert when Conservative common sense is deployed. When Conservatives say, implicitly or explicitly, that they have ‘common sense’, and that others do not, what they are really saying is that they have the licence to roam free; we, on the other hand, better stay put.
Ameya Tripathi is a writer and a PhD candidate at Columbia University.