One less acknowledged irony of the musical Hamilton is that the eponymous hero Alexander takes pains to obscure his origins as a poor bastard who spent his early years struggling in the Caribbean. Had he been born 200 years later his humble background would have been a political asset that money couldn’t buy, even if his whiteness is a sin that could not be atoned for.
That the founding father is also the discarded son of landed gentry, and that this element is not dwelt on in Hamilton at any length, could form many an unread undergraduate thesis. But it is enough for this piece to note that if a Briton had written the musical it would have dwelt on little else, as evinced by the response to one political advisor exposed last weekend for breaking lockdown rules.
Until the scandal Dominic Cummings was a largely unknown figure outside of the world of political fanboys and girls. Political advisors are not supposed to be public figures – indeed, that is part of the job’s attractiveness – and it is usually bad news when they become the story.
Cummings has nevertheless been a hate figure for devout remainers ever since the referendum campaign in which he persuaded the UK to vote to leave the EU. His portrayal as a Sherlock Holmes-esque genius by Benedict Cumberbatch upset many conspiracy theorists who think he cheated by using internet advertising and putting a dubious spending figure on the side of a coach.
What also appears lately to have upset many is Cummings’ portrayal as anti-establishment. Even the society magazine Tatler weighed in on the matter, with Chris Stokel-Walker (note the double-barrel) grumbling that the Vote Leave campaign chief has “managed to recast himself as being the champion of the overlooked, and from strong working class stock”.
Cummings, of course, comes from money. He was the nephew of a Lord Justice, Sir John Laws – who died with Covid-19 last month – and the son of an oil rig project manager and a teacher. He went to Durham School, and Oxford University. He married Mary Wakefield, the daughter of Sir Humphry Wakefield, an English baronet and expert on antiques and architecture.
I can’t actually recall anyone claiming that Cummings is from “working class stock”. An early story about Cummings in the Guardian in July 2002 has one source calling him a “jumped-up oik”, but sets the scene at a party with canapes and notes Cummings’ alleged £100,000 salary and that Oxford education. None of this suggests a horny-handed sons of toil.
Even if there was a time where Cummings wasn’t seen as privileged, that surely has passed. Owen Jones of the Guardian has called him the face of “an out-of-touch, contemptuous Islington elite”, reversing the charges repeatedly brought against Labour’s leadership. Even the usually apolitical London newspaper the Metro ran a front page that read “Stay Elite”, playing on the government’s coronavirus messaging.
This kind of backlash would have been termed ‘populist’ if it were ranged against a figure who shared the opinions of the Economist. Instead it is a vindication for people who have always thought that Cummings was an establishment figure pretending not to be.
My objection to all this is that it seems to rest on a crude and archaic definition of what it means to be ‘establishment’. To quote Henry Fairlie, another Spectator journalist and someone credited with popularising the term:
By the ‘Establishment’ I do not mean only the centres of official power—though they are certainly part of it—but rather the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised. The exercise of power in Britain (more specifically, in England) cannot be understood unless it is recognised that it is exercised socially.
What Fairlie is describing here are the informal connections of family and friends that facilitate the exercise of power, sometimes by people who hold no office. It’s worth reading his entire piece, but roughly summarised he’s talking about men of a certain status being allowed to do what they like, partly because of in-group loyalties but bolstered by an old-school deference.
Cummings has certainly enjoyed a privileged life, but little of what has been written about him would suggest he has enjoyed a free hand because he went to the right school. Rather than inspiring class loyalty he seems to have alienated all but a small group of allies. Not for nothing did Alex Deane, a former Tory aide, say that he found it “completely believable that [Cummings] could not find someone in a 200 mile radius to help him” with childcare if he’d fallen ill.
The abrasive manner of Cummings’ is paired with his radical plans to reform education, the civil service, and scientific research. In all this areas he can legitimately claim to be outside establishment opinion, because each of these areas have their own vested interests whose opinions are against him.
Those who claim that despite being excluded from such in-groups that Cummings is establishment seem to be merely pointing out that he is privately educated. Much the same logic is applied to Nigel Farage, who attended Dulwich College before working as a metals trader. But what makes Farage anti-establishment is not his background: it’s his opinions, which contrast with the default view of most Westminster politicians, Whitehall civil servants, and the journalists who write about them.
That Cummings is now at the heart of British political power is not in dispute. But so long as his opinions remain uncommon in Westminster he is no member of the in-groups that remain influential whoever sits in 10 Downing Street. Such distinctions may not matter in the public’s impression of him as just another posho, but they matter in terms of how power is actually exercised.