The idea that real power resides behind the throne, with inscrutable advisors making the decisions that really count, is far from new. Yet the traction this centuries-old trope has gained in contemporary British politics is telling. By looking at why the narrative endures and what purpose it serves, we can learn a lot about the liberal worldview and the systems of power it seeks to uphold.
Like so many shifts in the country’s recent history, the idea first crept into the public consciousness in relation to Number 10 during Margaret Thatcher’s time in charge. It began when only one member of the shadow cabinet, Keith Joseph, supported her leadership bid. Both Thatcher and Joseph had, by the standards of the day, obscure views on issues like monetarism, unions and the role of the state in the economy. Both were close to heterodox think tanks, particularly the Institute for Economic Affairs and, today, would be described as neoliberals. This shared affinity wasn’t lost on Thatcher’s critics who, with sexist undertones, pushed the notion that Joseph provided the intellectual heft and political nous for an otherwise naive ingenue. This lazy explanation transcended the party divide, with key figures on the left and the right suggesting Thatcher was beholden to Joseph, his nefarious grip the principal explanation for her ideological zeal and commitment to the free market. Labour’s Dennis Healey referred to him as “a mixture of Hamlet, Rasputin and Tommy Cooper” while Chris Patten, later the Governor of Hong Kong, called him “The Mad Monk”.
During Tony Blair’s time in charge, the media made similar claims about Peter Mandelson, although, in contrast to Thatcher, Blair didn’t possess an overt ideology that needed attribution, with Mandelson instead regarded as embodying a politics of pure expediency – a persona more Blairite than Blair himself. According to Alistair Campbell’s diaries at the time this was both unfair and inaccurate, but even Mandelson himself often indulged the idea.
Since Brexit the narrative of an éminence-gris, the real power in government, has asserted itself with perhaps greater ferocity than ever before. It was observable in the coverage of Theresa May’s chief advisor Nick Timothy, the Birmingham son labelled an enigmatic genius, although for precisely what was never clear. It was projected too on to Seamus Milne. Yet both these examples pale in comparison to the apotheosis of this form: Dominic Cummings – the man without whom, so we are told, Brexit can never happen.
The endurance of the shadowy courtier trope in Westminster politics can partly be explained by England not possessing a democratic political culture, history or institutions. That similar claims barely exist in the United States, for example, is instructive. Outwardly at least, that polity rests on a set of egalitarian commitments, whereas Britain, and particularly England, is a constitutional monarchy where traditional ideas of kingship are easily transposed to a modern context. Take, for example, the way that the children of Labour politicians – be it Will Straw or Stephen Kinnock – are often referred to as “red princes”, the political imagination still shaped by the country’s archaic, pre-democratic institutions.
But there is another reason too, for the persistence of the narrative, one that was extremely clear in the response, particularly from the political centre, to Cummings demise last week.
“Dom Derangement Syndrome” – as some on the right have termed the liberal obsession with Cummings – bears a family resemblance to the obsession with Russian interference in elections and Cambridge Analytica tipping the odds in favour of Brexit. All three should be viewed as part of a broader conspiracist turn by people who previously identified as not only moderate but supremely rational. And what explains that? In a world set to be increasingly defined by climate change, inequality, technological innovation and a crisis of elderly care, perceiving political outcomes to be the result of bad people making bad decisions is both alluring and easily fits with a liberal worldview which abjures from structural change. This means substantial change is not necessary, that extensive alterations to a status quo that is otherwise favourable, at least to them, need not take place – and that the disappearance of the likes of Donald Trump and Cummings from centre-stage instead precipitates a return to politics as usual.
Except things won’t go back to normal. Whatever your political views, serious thinking now needs to be done. How will we adapt to a world two degrees warmer than today? Is social stability guaranteed when the perceived covenant between classes and generations is steadily eroded? How will we care for a growing number of elderly people with complex care needs at the very moment the working-age population begins to shrink? The left has thought about all of this, the ultra-nationalist right too – albeit with very different conclusions. Those who view themselves as society’s administrators by default, generally have not.
Cummings is not to blame for the many crises visited on Britain in recent years, principal among them austerity – which proved rocket fuel for both Brexit and the fragmentation of the union. What is more, he was not the architect for the former: Euroscepticism has always been a major current in British politics, inevitable given how the country’s relationship with the continent reflects its imperial decline. In the 2014 European election, when virtually nobody had heard of Cummings, Ukip still came first.
Cummings, for all the media scrutiny these last several years, will likely be remembered as a minor figure in a tumultuous few decades for this country. Rather than the man himself, it is the obsession with him that is most historically instructive. Hatred of one individual is easy – it means not having to think about the multiple, looming crises set to define society for the rest of our lives. Crises which Britain, as a result of both its pre-modern institutions and how it conceives of itself, will inevitably feel harder than most.
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.