In UnHerd, Kathleen Stock provides a thoughtful analysis of Cummings’s testimony at the Covid Inquiry and the significance of language and communication style in politics, suggesting that focusing on how individuals express themselves at work is not tangential to the Inquiry’s main purpose. Here’s an excerpt:
It was Halloween on Tuesday, and over at the Covid Inquiry the party theme for witnesses seemed to be ‘Nineties crime movie’. Though the presumed intention of Dominic Cummings was to appear suitably funereal, in his white shirt and skinny black tie he put one in mind of an extra from Reservoir Dogs. And with exposure to his profanity-strewn emails and private messaging, spectators were plunged into a retro world of adolescent play-acting – quite possibly due to its protagonists watching too many mob movies at a formative age.
The preferred idiom was very sweary. According to Cummings’s communications from 2020, Government ministers and civil servants dealing with the Covid crisis were “useless fuckpigs”, “morons”, and “cunts”. Everyone mentioned seemed to have a nickname, as if planning a heist: “Sonic” the Hedgehog Special Advisor; “Frosty” the Snowman Minister of State at the Cabinet Office; “Trolley” the Problem Prime Minister, and so on.
Sexist bravado also apparently abounded, with Cummings threatening, in one exchange with Trolley and Director of Communications Lee Cain, to “personally handcuff” Deputy Cabinet Secretary Helen MacNamara and “escort her from the building”. In cadences reminiscent of a made man arranging concrete shoes for a troublesome foot soldier, Cummings continued: “We gotta get Helen out of [the Cabinet Office] She’s fucking up Frosty. She’s fucking up me and Case. She’s trying to get Spads fired and cause trouble on multiple fronts. Can we get her in Monday for chat re. her moving to [the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government]… we need her out ASAP. Building millions of lovely houses.”
Yet in the flesh at the Inquiry, Cummings was more penitent schoolboy than would-be gangster, apologising repeatedly for his previous “terrible” and “appalling” language. And the contrast was also stark with his written submission, in which, as others have also noted, he came across more like Adrian Mole than Harvey Keitel. (A characteristically mournful extract: “Although I was/am often described as ‘all powerful’ in No10 in 2020 this is false and very misleading regarding Covid… For example, in January 2020 I could not even stop Chris Grayling being appointed by the PM to chair the Commons intelligence committee”.)
Equally, when the next day MacNamara herself appeared at the Inquiry, giving us first sight of Cummings’s much-maligned female nemesis, the deep histrionics running through his communications about her became even more discernible. For if his own fictional lodestar seems to be Nineties Tarantino films, MacNamara’s seems to be Bridget Jones Diary – even down to the fact of having once brought a karaoke machine to a lockdown party at Downing Street. …
Some dissatisfaction has been expressed among the commentariat about the extent to which the Inquiry’s KCs – often sounding like gently disappointed headmasters – have focused on the bad language of dramatis personae like Cummings. Writing in the Spectator, witness Professor Carl Heneghan complained of the Inquiry that he “had submitted a 74-page statement on what I thought it should discuss. Instead the main topic was rude words in old WhatsApp messages”. For many, understandably tired of endless trivial complaints about hurt feelings stemming from inappropriate word choices, it perhaps feels like a capitulation to focus less on what a person said or did and more upon how, exactly, he said it.
Still, I don’t think that focusing on the way Cummings and others expressed themselves at work is wholly tangential to the main business of the Inquiry. For a person’s words are one of the main sources of evidence we have in judging their character, understood as a relatively fine-grained collection of personality traits. And there is a definite public interest in knowing which characters, precisely, are supposed to be running the country.
Worth reading in full.