There was a popular art motif in the Middle Ages called “The Three Living Meet the Three Dead”. In this tale three young people, usually aristocratic men, are out one day when they meet three decomposing corpses, one of whom tells them “We once were what you are now, what we are now, you will be.”
Cheery stuff — it dates to the 13th century but it became especially popular during and after the Black Death, when the whole dying business was on people’s minds a great deal.
I think of that tale while reading about American politics, which for many years has been a once-amusing but now just depressing form of entertainment to political junkies on this side of the Atlantic. And there was a definite staring-at-the-corpses feel over the weekend, as people gleefully sent around footage of Dominic Cummings being jeered by his neighbours as he walked home.
People disagree over whether what he did was a mortal or venial sin, but I can honestly say that if things had gone differently in December and a senior Labour MP or adviser had broken lockdown like Cummings, I would be horrified by that scene. Most conservatives would. I imagine it wouldn’t happen — indeed a Labour MP attended a funeral, an act far more irresponsible than anything Classic Dom may have done — because of the asymmetry of hatred in British politics.
In Cummings’s case people are especially angry and hateful because of his role in Brexit; I get that, but everything about the response is pushing us closer to the rotting cadaver that is American political debate. Partisans frightened to live in certain areas because they have become so tribal; institutions such as the civil service and Church being dragged into politics and so wrecking the power of social institutions; journalists losing all sense of proportion or pretence at even-handedness as the media heads towards hyper-partisanship.
I find the whole thing especially disturbing because I live not far from Cummings, in a neighbouring borough with a similar demographic profile; heavily Remain-voting, left-of-centre and filled with organic bakeries, hot yoga, independent coffee shops and all the other liberal elite status markers that conservative commentators affect to despise.
I talk about the area in my book, which is partly about being a small-c conservative in an English middle class becoming overwhelming liberal. Living in liberal areas is pleasant, as I argue, because liberals tend to be high in trust, a positive outlook that tends to blind them to the dangers of the world; indeed, paradoxically, the most international-minded people are also often very active locally.
But over the years I have come to voice my opinions less and less, and casual anti-conservatism seems to be expressed more openly and more tribally. And after the weekend’s scenes, I think I’ll be just a bit more inclined to keep my mouth shut.