UK Politics

Cleverer than you: How the elites practise a form of exceptionalism

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The scandal of Dominic Cummings’s lockdown journey from London to Durham, and then to the scenic beauty spot of Barnard Castle, has perhaps taken up a disproportionate amount of time in news headlines. 

Shocking though it is that someone would embark on a 60 mile round-trip simply to ‘test their eyesight’, the support Cummings has nevertheless been shown by senior Tories is perhaps nothing more than exhaustingly predictable. Though his actions have been met with dismay and outrage across the political spectrum, his continued entrenchment in the highest echelons of power indicates that Cummings is unlikely to face genuine repercussions for his behaviour. 

The public outcry has been hard to quell, hence the unending nature of the news storm. But we really should not be surprised that Cummings has not even been compelled to apologise. Alan Finlayson, writing in The Guardian, published an article entitled ‘In Cummings’ mind, clever people break the rules. The rest of us follow them.’ This may well be the case, but this phenomenon of thought does not stop with Cummings. Many of our political elite believe that sheer cleverness distinguishes them from the rest of us. And that cleverness not only affords them their powerful positions, but means that they are excepted from the rules and guidelines that the rest of us follow. This belief is not a fringe one; it is rooted in the fabric of the modern Conservative party.

Take Jacob Rees-Mogg. Admittedly, he’s not always popular in his own party, and is prone to making controversial statements. But on one particularly memorable occasion, Rees-Mogg claimed that it would have been ‘common sense’ for Grenfell Tower fire victims to leave the building, despite the fact that official fire brigade advice urged people to stay put inside. He claimed that he would have had the necessary ‘sense’ to leave the building had he been in such a situation. 

Rees-Mogg’s comments were roundly condemned, but fellow Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen decided to weigh in in support of his colleague. He explained that Rees-Mogg indeed would have left the burning building and ignored the fire brigade – adding that the reason Rees-Mogg would have done so was because he was ‘very clever’. ‘We want very clever people running the country, don’t we’ he added. 

Bridgen’s support indicates that this attitude is not just some eccentricity of Rees-Mogg’s. Both men clearly believe that political elites are somehow better and cleverer than ordinary people – and that this cleverness should afford them the right to be exempt from the rules. 

Another example of this exceptionalism is more recent. When Boris Johnson contracted coronavirus, members of his party were quick to cry (with something like surprise) that the virus was ‘no respecter of individuals, whoever they are’. Only a short while before, Boris Johnson had been proudly proclaiming that he had shaken hands with everybody, including coronavirus patients, on a visit to a hospital. 

The belief that led Boris Johnson to feel blasé about hand-shaking despite scientific advice urging people to refrain from the practice is the same as the belief that underpinned Rees-Mogg’s comments on Grenfell Tower and Cummings’s lockdown journey. These men, all elites in the world of politics and power, each practise an exceptionalism which sees them exempted from the rules that apply to most of society. But this is not an exceptionalism based purely on arrogance or sheer feelings of superiority, but on a genuine belief that their assumed ‘cleverness’ means that rule-following is at best unnecessary and at worst a mistake for people like them. 

This exceptionalism is not merely used to justify a failure to follow rules. It is a belief that has helped Conservative party philosophy justify inequality through the concept of meritocracy. When Theresa May became prime minister, she committed to making Britain ‘the world’s greatest meritocracy’, and in doing so, firmly entrenched the idea that supposed ‘cleverness’ should allow an individual to become distinguished in society – to the extent where the way they are treated is distinct

Meritocracy itself is of course a problematic concept. The first use of the term appeared in a 1958 satire by Michael Young, called The Rise of the Meritocracy, which portrayed a dystopian world in which success was explicitly linked to intelligence and merit, leaving unsuccessful and disenfranchised people feeling that they deserved their plight because of their lack of accomplishment. Young’s dystopia is one where ‘cleverness’ is used as a means to justify inequality and hardship, and where the supposedly ‘clever’ elite of society are shown to entrench their privileges for future generations to enjoy.

Thus when we see arguments about an individual’s supposed ‘cleverness’ being used by them or others to explain away their actions, we should be seriously concerned. These arguments belong to the same set of ideas which bolster phoney concepts of a ‘meritocratic’ society. They are genuinely believed by some of our political elite because it is nice for people, however delusional it may be, to convince themselves that they are deserving of wealth, good fortune or exemptions to the rules. Ultimately though, these arguments of exceptionalism by merit are simply manipulative methods of using the quality of cleverness to explain away inequalities – including those inequalities of behaviour we are now seeing.

So be alert to this exceptionalism. The belief that clever people do not need rules is both harmful to them and others, and patently untrue. More than ever at a time like this, it is important for citizens of a country to feel solidarity with each other. But the actions of a small elite seek to undermine this sentiment. Those actions tell us that we will never be equal, and that away from all the rhetoric, we are certainly not all in this together. 

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