What is the fuss about? What difference does it make if someone paid for Boris Johnson to have the flat decorated? Where does such behaviour rank compared to ministers awarding friends contracts? All of it is a diversion, it is what Dario Fo would have called a burp to relieve indigestion, he would have regarded the spat between Johnson and Cummings as manure that fertilises democracy.
Dario Fo used his humour to ask fundamental questions about our political systems. His play Accidental Death of an Anarchist was published in 1970. Set in Milan, it was inspired by the death of an anarchist in the city in 1969, who mysteriously flew out of a fourth floor window of a police station during questioning. The play has gone through constant adaptations, Fo allowed directors to alter the script to reflect the current situation in the country in which it was being performed.
In the original script, one of the more reflective sequences suggests that the free press functions as no more than a tool of fundamentally corrupt governments.
JOURNALIST: So in other words he’s saying that even when there aren’t scandals, they need to be invented, because it’s a good way of maintaining power and defusing people’s anger.
MANIAC: Correct. A liberatory catharsis of tension… And you journalists are the privileged high priests of the process.
JOURNALIST: Privileged? You must be joking! Not in the eyes of our government! Every time we discover a scandal, they go potty trying to stop the truth getting out.
MANIAC: Certainly… our government… But our government is still pre-Napoleonic… pre-capitalist… You should take a look at the governments of more developed countries… in Northern Europe, for example. You remember the ‘Profumo’ scandal in England? A minister of defence, caught up with drugs, prostitution and spying…!!! Did the state collapse? Or the stock exchange? Not a bit of it. If anything they came out of it stronger than before. People thought: ‘The rot’s there, so let it float to the surface…’ We’re swimming about in it – even swallowing some of it – but nobody comes round telling us that everything’s fine and dandy, and that’s what counts!
SUPERINTENDENT: Surely not. That would be like saying that scandal is the fertiliser of social democracy!
MANIAC: Spot on! Manure! Scandal is the fertiliser of social democracy! In fact I’d go even further: scandal is the best antidote to the worst of poisons – namely when people come to realise what’s really going on. When people begin to realise what’s going on, we’re done for! But look at America – a truly social-democratic society. Did they ever try to censor the true facts about the massacres carried out by the American troops in Vietnam? No they did not! It was on the front pages of all the papers – photos of women butchered, children massacred, villages destroyed. And do you remember the scandal of the nerve gas? The Americans had manufactured enough nerve gas in the US to wipe out the entire population of the world three times over. But did they try to hide the fact? Not a bit of it! In fact, when you turned on the TV, there they were. Trains. ‘And where are those trains going?’ ‘To the seaside.’ ‘And what are those trains carrying?’ ‘Nerve gas. It’s going to be dumped at sea… A few miles off the shoreline!’ So that supposing there’s a little earthquake one day, the containers will crack, and the nerve gas will come bubbling up to the surface, glug-glug-glug, and we’ll all die. Three times over!
They’ve never tried to hush up these scandals. And they’re right not to. That way, people can let off steam, get angry, shudder at the thought of it… ‘Who do these politicians think they are?’ ‘Scumbag generals!’ ‘Murderers!’ And they get more and more angry, and then, burp! A little liberatory burp to relieve their social indigestion.
Fo may be right, Western democracy may be held up by the illusion that we somehow make a difference. The longer the spat with Cummings continues, the more delighted Boris Johnson will be, the substance will be discounted as mere sour grapes, and the indignation aroused will convince people that their opinion matters.