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Is the Sun Finally Setting on the Idea of the British Empire?

19 Nov 2020
By Conor McLaughlin
A statue of Winston Churchill in front of London’s Big Ben. Source: Pxfuel

Brexit has undoubtedly encapsulated British politics for the better part of four years. However, the abrupt departure of the man behind Brexit signals a shift in political attitudes of the prime minister.

On November 14, 2020, an instrumental player in the Brexit campaign and Boris Johnson’s Chief Adviser, Dominic Cummings, resigned from his position at Downing Street. The decision followed the resignation of Cummings’ long-time ally, Lee Cain, from his position as Downing Street Director of Communications. In a January 2020 blog post, Cummings had stated his intention to make himself “largely redundant” by the end of the year.

Dominic Cummings was instrumental in both the Brexit campaign. He was campaign director of Vote Leave and Boris Johnson’s election to the Tory leadership, and subsequently as prime minister. Although Cummings was pivotal in Johnson’s rise, he appears to be too shrewd of a political operator to maintain Johnson’s position.

For any Prime Minister to maintain a strong hold on power, three groups are pivotal: government MPs, journalists, and the public. While representing Johnson, Cummings had already attracted resentment from both the British public and the media after he broke COVID-19 lockdown rules by travelling to Durham in late March 2020. In addition, he has caused splits within the Conservative Party between Johnson and a handful of Tory MPs, notably with the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid. However, Cumming’s apparent disregard for political rules speaks to a much deeper point about Cummings, Johnson, and Britain’s place in the world.

Journalist Owen Bennett has described Cummings as a Russophile, as he speaks Russian and is passionate about Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Dostoyevsky was an influential Russian writer at a time when Russia was undergoing a rapid transformation. During Russia’s political transformation, one question remained paramount: What is Russia?

Similarly, both Cummings and Johnson have a set idea about what Britain is, or at least, what Britain was. Both were born during a time when Britain was in a period of decline, when the peak of the British Empire was a story of the past. Still, the question remains, how does Britain restore pride in the nation?

Cummings, a very strong political operator, adopts Dostoyevsky’s analysis that a nation has to be destroyed in order to be reset and to rebuild. For Cummings, the point of decline for Britain was its entrance into the European Community. Britain for centuries had operated under conditions of sovereignty and independence, amassing the largest empire the world had ever seen. However, on the prelude to British decline, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, off the back of an allied victory during World War II, argued in 1946 for the creation of a “European Family” within a regional structural setting, that is, a United States of Europe.

Britain’s apparent decline from superpower status, within this frame, coincides with British integration with the European project. Therefore, for Cummings and Johnson, there is a firmly held belief that Britain needs to break away from the EU at all costs. Leaving the EU would mean a point of departure for a return to British sovereignty, independence, and, over all, pride.

But for Cummings, there not only needs to be a revival of the question, What is Britain? There also needs to be a shift in what it means to be a Tory. Boris Johnson, through his style of leadership, has changed the understanding of what it means to be a Conservative. Dominic Cummings has never been a member of the Conservative Party, nor any political party for that matter. Therefore, Johnson’s decision to expel long-standing establishment Tory MPs such as Kenneth Clarke, Philip Hammond, and Dominic Grieve stands as a firm example of his destruction of this established order for the benefit of Britain.

The result of these actions was seen in the 2019 election, in which Boris Johnson gained the Conservative Party their largest majority since 1987. For this political fortune to remain, however, Johnson will need to keep his Conservative MPs on side. Ideas that often galvanise the public, such as “Get Brexit Done,” are often influential in the path to the prime ministership. But in the long-run, ideas often give way to politics. For this reason, Dominic Cummings’ time in Downing Street has come to an end, as Boris Johnson is a politician, not an idealist.

Although Johnson is the leader of the governing party of the United Kingdom, Dominic Cummings, to many, is the leader of an idea: the idea of restoring Britain to its once proud status. However, Cumming’s exit will not spell a stagnation in British politics. As Winston Churchill once said, “The maxim of the British people is ‘Business as usual.’”

Conor McLaughlin is a Research Analyst in the Defence and Research Engagement portfolio at Edith Cowan University.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.