Last February, the President of the European Council, Donal Tusk, said on Twitter: “I’ve been wondering what the special place in Hell looks like, for those who promoted #Brexit, without a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely.”
It is Malebolge, and we have arrived.
Malebolge is Dante’s name for the eighth Circle of Hell, the only one that has a proper name. It is filled with deceivers who gave false or corrupt advice to others for personal benefit; they roam the pit, wrapped in a flame. Today we are there, just one remove from the final and last circle of the inferno.
Like Dante, we may yet find a way back. But we should know the danger.
There is a great tradition of counselling power — an essential quality of just rule, as opposed to arbitrary power, which by definition is tyrannical is that just rule is always counselled.
The king had an obligation to listen to his councillors, and to act within the law. Henry VIII was careful to remake the law, rather than act arbitrarily in the great matter of his marriage to Anne Boleyn.
His counsellor, Thomas Cromwell, paid with his life in the form of a horribly botched beheading. He had made himself into a mini-king. He didn’t understand until too late the difference between a servant and a viceroy. England, though not the United Kingdom, is now effectively ruled by a viceroy, Boris Johnson’s adviser, Dominic Cummings.
The moment is not yet, but it may come soon. His undoing will be because he makes Johnson look weak. In humiliating the chancellor of the exchequer by firing his adviser, he belittled his own prime minister.
The minions of another minister are only reported to their master in private and then in the lowered tone of voice that itself conveys the nature of the action required.
In hauling the said adviser from 10 Downing Street by a policeman, power itself was abused. It is the crudity of the politics, and the lack of capacity to see the consequence that will do in Cummings. Ministers and officials will put up with it — until the moment they don’t.
The greater issue which we grapple with today is the consequences of the castration of politics by technology.
The manipulation of big data as means of marketing decisions in our democracy has bypassed all forms of traditional discourse. Cummings is important not because he is Johnson’s main man now. His infamy rests on his engineering the Vote Leave campaign in 2016.
That manipulation of the masses was the moment parliament was undermined.
The issue for Britain now isn’t just Brexit. It is whether it can survive as a parliamentary democracy in the form is has operated since the Glorious Revolution in 1689-90.
The foundations of the union between England and its other parts and the rivalry between parliament and the plebiscite means that Brexit regardless, nothing will be the same.
What Cummings represents is class warfare. His class are the techno-experts bestriding a world where facts are collateral and algorithms are the currency.
Having no past, few boundaries and roaming virtually unpoliced in cyber-space, their contempt for precedent, let alone tradition, is complete. For them, people who play by the rules are fools.
What he clearly doesn’t understand, however, are the instincts of politicians. In advising them, one should never lose an opportunity to abase oneself. Even amid the bonhomie of daily intercourse, there is an always-on sixth sense detecting the pretensions of any adviser overstepping their station.
Flexible to a fault, politicians adapt to changing contours with remarkable facility. What they never lose, no matter how far they recoil, is the instinct for power.
For reasons of state, the implements of torture, even the means of execution may be temporarily entrusted to an adviser. But they can never act in their own name. Any power they have is not only temporary, but it is also entrusted to them only as the prerogative of the patsy. It is not just a matter of walking on eggshells. It is knowing that most of those eggs are unexploded grenades. Like close personal servants, political advisers enjoy intimacy, but never part of the family.
The plebiscite is an arch example, but all decisions marketed as clickbait require the sort of stunning simplicity that pre-empts debate. True believers and I write here of serial monogamy, not consistency, are marshalled as troops to dumb down debate and drive out detail. Expertise on anything is driven out by proficiency in just one thing.
The expert manipulator of algorithms and the money to fund them can convey all knowledge as a slogan. Having mastered the campaign, they are indispensable to implementing it in government. But ignorant of the art of government and contemptuous of the politicians they have made themselves indispensable too, they have made a pact destined to fail.
Advisers as cult figures are symptoms of a crisis of legitimacy. They personify the danger posed when the legitimacy of government as the safeguard of the nation is undermined. Curdling lies and half-truths into a successful referendum campaign, and using that campaign as the basis to prorogue parliament is a vertically integrated coup.
Not having been summoned for years, parliament dramatically reasserted its rights with the attainder and execution of Thomas Wentworth, Charles I’s minister in 1641. Having assured him of his protection in all circumstances, the king then abandoned him. He went to the block on Tower Hill advising “put not your trust in princes”.
CIVIL war eventually followed, and having given up his servant, the king lost his head too.
His family and fortune descended through his daughter, flowed in time into the greater fortune of the Fitzwilliam family. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s wife is, through her mother, an heiress to that history and wealth.
When he went to Balmoral last week and asked the Queen to prorogue parliament, he stood there as a man clothed in shop-bought traditions but lacking all sense of history.
Rees-Mogg, and others with sharp opinions, and insatiable ambition are easy prey for the new class Cummings represents. It is not the king, but the court of public opinion they must please.
The son of a respected newspaper editor himself, the newly minted minister can only access and influence opinion if his carriage is drawn by forces he cannot control, and is unlikely to understand.
In these hours we are seeing the complete prostitution of politics and the real beginning of resistance.
Rees-Mogg reminds me of the remark made after the French revolution that “the fiercest royalists are not perhaps the nobles, nor the priests, but the hairdressers”.
What Dominic Cummings, who carved the plinth the British cabinet is standing on, will find out, is that the manipulation of their vanity and ambition was easy. Government is complexity that cannot be reduced to clickbait.