These are spooky times in a little grey house off Whitehall. Here we are in high summer, which in England can mean anything from sweating in one’s bed to resorting to a hot water bottle, and yet everyone is talking about Halloween.
In the little house on Downing Street, a ghostly prime minister has at long last been exorcised, replaced by the very solid, dependably corporeal figure of Boris. A grateful nation need shudder no more at the sight of Mrs May’s dance of political death. Johnson comes with a reputation for being happy in his skin, not so much BoJo as mojo. He smiles and bounces about, Churchillian stoop notwithstanding, with all the amorous vigour of a man half his age. His eyes, perpetually on the qui vive for any possible conquest in range, glitter with the certain prospect of being able to cure the ailments of all womankind with a courtesy visit from the great doctor. As a previous Johnson might have said, when a man is tired of women, he is tired of his wife. With his young girlfriend in tow, Boris is living proof that power is an aphrodisiac, a larger than life embodiment of the Marxian principle that you’re only as old as the woman you feel.
Yet, oddly, no one is fooled. The new leader of the Liberal Democrats – a woman, no less – said the prime minister was ‘all words and no trousers.’ She probably meant to say ‘all mouth and no trousers’, but by subtly mis-speaking the old jibe she managed to hint at the new prime minister’s priapic reputation. Given the right reception, he would happily go naked into any chamber. He is a shameless love rat, a serial breaker of hearts, the kind of charming upper-class cad Jo Swinson’s mother would have warned her about. But that’s not the half of it. Lloyd George, the old Welsh wizard, was definitely a Liberal, yet no one imagines he wasted any of his time in Number 10 pining for the valleys. Even an elder stateman like Sir John Major was, while he resided in Downing Street, naughtier than he oughta. The problem with Boris goes far deeper than his horizontal misdemeanours. In this permanently overcast Love Island we inhabit, no one gives a toss about the looseness of the premier’s morals.
The real scandal is that so few people were involved in electing Boris to the highest office in the land. Just over nine thousand in fact, or not quite as many as live in Nuneaton. He has no mandate, the people cry. It matters not how animated and physically real he is, how flushed with the vivacity of a personal bedroom farce which could yet outrun The Mousetrap, having no mandate is the political equivalent of incorporeality. More to the point, he has a tiny and ever-dwindling majority. Johnson is only phallic in the same way as a tall building resembles part of the male anatomy. He can look the part, by just standing there, but he has no actual power. Like the imperial phallocrat of the fable, his apparent grandeur is not real. He looks like a political apparition, and to make matters even spookier, his special adviser actually is one.
Cast your mind back, if you can bear, to the day that Boris, in all his deceptive corporeality, finally arrived on the doorstep of Number 10. Outside the famous shiny black door, just as this magazine predicted, he began by mumbling some high-sounding phrases, then turned his back to the lectern and delivered a faultless rendition of “Ah, sole mio!” through his lower stratum. It was a moment of perfect carnival. He even, in a nod to ‘our European friends’, delivered it in his best Italian accent. It was his very own cheerful version of that wartime classic ‘Very well, alone’. How the nation cheered. Then, having promised several types of cake we could have and eat simultaneously, he rolled up his Churchillian sleeves and barrelled through the front door, exactly as Fate had decreed he would, more than ready for the great task ahead: sneaking through a no deal Brexit under the noses of a remainer parliament.
David Low’s cartoons were never more topical than they are today
Once through the door, the Downing Street staff greeted him with a round of applause. The staff are there to assist him, as they assist all prime ministers, regardless of their political allegiances and however minuscule their majority.
There was also a photographer at hand to record the uplifting scene. But here I should let Ian Leslie, from The New Statesman, take up the breathless story:
‘…the cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill, plumply suited and pocket squared, greets the new prime minister. Johnson looks away from him, even as he shakes his hand. At the edge of the picture, leaning against a wall, is a wiry figure in T-shirt and combat trousers. At first you think it’s the IT guy, accidentally caught in shot. Look again and you see that it’s Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s de facto chief of staff, and scourge of the mandarins.’
And below is the photographic evidence that finally, after years of vain effort by psychics with all the best equipment and a dedicated indifference to losing sleep, an actual ghoul has been captured on film, and what’s more, in broad daylight.
You would not know, from the complacent smile on his face, that Sir Mark had any idea what was lurking in the corner. “He’s behind you!” It’s the ghost that only becomes visible when they develop the negatives, the weird creature who masterminded Brexit, the Mephistopheles to whom this new incumbent had to sell his soul for the privilege of stepping into the leopard-skin shoes of his deceased predecessor. There he is, in the corner, ready to pounce: the scourge of the mandarins. Now, finally, we have reached the bitter end of this whole Brexit saga. The man whose brain child it was, whose mind gave birth to it soon after his wife gave birth to their son – the origin, we are told, of the phrase ‘take back control’ was a manual for sleep-deprived parents – has taken back control from the flailing politicians. Let the machinations commence.
One would be forgiven for thinking the whole country (or maybe only just less than half of it) is spooked by Dominic Cummings. Ever since he was spotted in this unlikely context, fear has gripped (half) the land. Why is that, exactly?
Well, for a start he has never been elected, not even by as many people as reside in Nuneaton. In fact, not even by as many people as belong to Christchurch golf club – I mention Christchurch merely because it is the Tories’ safest seat. Cummings is a special adviser, commonly known in Westminster as a ‘spad.’ These spads have the ears of our tribunes and are unaccountable. But there have been many such advisers before, and none of them were elected either, so why the particular horror over this one?
Some of the horror is purely on the level of optics. Cummings is unusually creepy. In fact, he is on a level of creepy that actually makes Boris Johnson seem reassuringly droll and harmless. This is a spad who, by his own account, spent two years on his father’s farm, in a bunker, trying to understand the world. He displays scant regard for dress sense and speaks with a surly Durham accent.
But the real reason, the one that has the ability to give liberals the collywobbles, is simple: he was the mastermind behind the Vote Leave campaign. It was Cummings who came up with that fateful formula of Take Back Control, whether from a parenting guide or just from the dark recesses of his own evil imagination. This is the poltergeist who first went bump in the night on the 23rd June 2016, and whose nocturnal mutterings have been disturbing the sleep of Europhiles ever since. He has a clairvoyant tendency, as if he has some unique, almost supernatural influence over events. He says things that resemble spine-chilling portents, such as: MPs have left it too late to stop a no-deal Brexit. The man’s so… ugh! Horripilation all round. Someone fetch a vicar. In short, Cummings is the spectre that has been haunting Europe, and now, the saints preserve us, he’s even managed to infiltrate Number 10.
A BAD PRESS?
Unsurprisingly, given Dominic Cummings’ indubitable influence over the country’s recent history, he has his detractors. He has variously been called a Svengali (not very imaginative), a ‘crap Rasputin’ (probably as a way of needling him over his enthusiasm for all things Russian), Cromwell (the 1640s are very much in vogue), a ‘maverick populist’ (by Peter Kyle MP), Dom X (by Andrew Rawnsley, because he quoted Malcolm X in asserting that he would get us out ‘by any means necessary’), a ‘career psychopath’ (by David Cameron, whose career his campaign abruptly terminated), a ‘loopy individual’ (by Nick Clegg, with whom he did not agree) and Gollum (by me, after yet another bad night’s sleep).
The columnists, whose opinions we await so eagerly now that the world’s gone mad, have not been kind; nor have they always been temperate. Here, for example, is Marina Hyde writing in the Guardian:
‘Every photo of Cummings going into Downing Street sees him shiftily meeting the camera’s gaze with the same defensive sneer you’d see on the proprietor of a holiday caravan park who has just been released on police bail after a fatal gas explosion thought to have been caused by poor maintenance’ (9 August, 2019).
Not one of her best. It’s almost as if the Dorothy Parker de nos jours was trying her hardest not to be witty, brevity being the soul of wit (with the obvious exception of Twitter), but then she had used up so much of her wit already on Boris who, at one point, having run out of zingers, she rather desperately referred to as ‘a discarded sofa.’
Or maybe she was slightly over-keen to outdo her rival, Tom Peck, the sketch writer for the Independent whose commentary she had so admired, even tweeting (with no wit, natch) to that effect. Peck had been more intemperate still. After explaining, in an extravagant flourish of inverted snobbery, that this supposedly anti-Establishment anti-hero had married into the aristocracy, he really went for the jugular:
‘Cummings is merely the latest in a long line of geniuses to run things for the Conservatives in 10 Downing Street. First there was Andy Coulson, whose genius took him to prison. Then there was Steve Hilton, whose genius took him to a life of Donald Trump fanboyism on Fox News. Then there was Craig Oliver, whose genius took him to losing the referendum campaign. Then there was Nick Timothy, whose genius took him to tirelessly writing self-exculpating columns for the crime of accidentally detonating the full holy trinity: his career, his prime minister and his country’ (Tom Peck, The Independent, 7 August – my italics).
If sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, one may as well get hanged for a sheep as a mere lamb. I reckon that ‘merely’ must have been a tad more hurtful to its target than being accused of having too much wealth and status.
Aside from the snide remarks of the opinion writers, Cummings has had to cope with the inaccurate portrayal of his ideas by the great and the good. When Lord Adonis heard that the special adviser was interested in Otto von Bismarck, he fired off a disgruntled piece denouncing the Iron Chancellor and, by extension, the contemptible Gollum, who happily quotes the Prussian autocrat and doesn’t even mention Bismarck’s British contemporary, William Ewart Gladstone, the ‘People’s William’:
‘It is hard to conceive a more dangerous inspiration. Bismarck’s motto was “blood and iron.” He hated not just socialists and the French but liberalism and European co-operation on any basis of human rights and conciliation. He believed in master and inferior races, the inferior being all but the Prussians, and distrusted Germany’s churches for their ethics and alternative authority. He disliked Britain as a hotbed of “parliamentaryism” and as an unreliable ally for reactionary conservatism. Cummings laps all this up’ (The New European, 8 August).
This is the nub, then: while he ignores a famously great parliamentarian from his own country’s history, the despicable Cummings proposes to model his policy on that of an arch enemy of representative democracy:
‘Surprise, surprise, Cummings is already scheming to override parliament and this week “spat out his drink laughing” when it was suggested that parliament could force Johnson (and him) to resign if they attempt to force through no-deal.’
I suppose this anecdote is plausible. One imagines a choleric individual like Cummings has often had cause to spit out his drink laughing, or ‘cackling’ as Marina Hyde would say. People like that are invariably on the verge of laughing like a pantomime villain. It also fits perfectly with his professed hatred for elected representatives and his contempt of parliament (his refusal to attend a committee hearing, for instance) that he would be a fervent admirer of the nineteenth century leader of the Second Reich. Here he is having a go at his usual targets:
‘So far, the MPs have botched things on an epic scale, but it’s hard to break into the Westminster system — they rig the rules to stop competition. Vote Leave 1 needed Cameron’s help to hack the system. If you guys want to run with Adonis and create another wave, be careful what you wish for. ‘Unda fert nec regitur’ and Vote Leave 2 will ride that wave right at — and through — the gates of Parliament’ (from the blog).
Hacking the system, dreaming of riding a wave through the Houses of Parliament – could it be that Lord Adonis had got wind of this kind of attitude from the spectral adviser? Oh, and when he writes ‘Unda fert nec regitur’, by the way – rough translation: one can ride a wave, but not make it – he’s actually quoting one of the Iron Chancellor’s favourite tags.
Unfortunately, however, the convenient charge of hero-worship just doesn’t survive contact with reality. Unless, of course, it counts as hero-worship to call your hero ‘diabolical’, or ‘a monster’, and to wish he’d come to a sticky end before he had the chance to do any more damage:
‘Bismarck was a monster and the world would have been better if one of the assassination attempts had succeeded, but he also understood fundamental questions better than others. Those responsible for policy on China should study his advice. They should also study summer 1914 and ponder how those responsible for war and peace still make these decisions in much the same way as then, while the crises are 1,000 times faster and a million times more potentially destructive’ (also from the blog).
I would respectfully suggest that Lord Adonis did not read the blog with the greatest scholarly application. At the very least, it would appear that he has got his knickers in a twist for nothing.
It hardly needs stressing that Cummings can probably take all this criticism and a lot more in his stride. One of the things he must have been doing in the two years he spent in his father’s bunker, apart from studying how the world works, was developing a skin of exceptional thickness. Besides, he can give at least as good as he gets. He called David Cameron (also quoting Bismarck) ‘a sphinx without a riddle’, his chief of staff, Ed Llewellyn, a ‘classic third-rate, suck-up-kick-down sycophant’ and Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, a ‘revolting character’. As for Nigel Farage, don’t get him started.
To be fair to Lord Adonis, there are not many people alive today who have managed to read the entirety of Cummings’ musings. One or two may even have died in the attempt. According to Jonathan Heawood (a survivor), the blog, taken with its attachments,
‘…has a higher word count than Ulysses. Like Ulysses, it is both focused and digressive, obsessive and uncontainable; all emphatic italics and BLOCK CAPS and (1) numbered points leading to (2) apocalyptic conclusions’ (The Guardian, 15 August 2019).
If it didn’t seem inappropriate for such a wiry-framed individual, one might accuse Cummings of ‘infobesity’. However, unlike Ulysses, the inner stream of thoughts is never relieved by humour. At no point does Cummings, like Leopold Bloom before him, become fixated on the anatomical accuracy of a classical statue. Clearly, long years in your father’s bunker are not conducive to facetious digressions. Heawood, having slogged through a fair portion of this intractable material, arrives at the following conclusion:
‘To his detractors, Cummings is a monster. To his fans, he is a guru. On the evidence of the blog, he is neither. He is an extreme rationalist, who is prepared to share his ideas in the form of this sprawling work-in-progress.’
In fact, ‘work-in-progress’ was the way people used to refer to Joyce’s epic before they were allowed to read it. Thereafter, they called it a masterpiece. The same cannot be said of the blog.
A STAR IS BORN
One other person who appears to have read the blog is James Graham, the playwright who did most to bring the character of the sinister spad to the general public’s attention. He proves his capacity for research in the early stages of the drama with references to Cummings’ key phrases. Oddly, none of these made any impact on me the first time round. The phrases washed over me like harmless gobbledygook, merely signifying the term ‘wonk’. Yet, having dipped into the man’s stream of consciousness since, I now wonder how I could have missed ‘Odyssean education’, for example. ‘Branching histories’ are also there, on the gibbering lips of Benedict Cumberbatch.
The Cummings of the play is a fanatic. Convinced he is right about the desire of Britain to leave the European project, he nonetheless spurns the populists, is intolerant of the old campaigners and appears to prefer the sanctuary of a broom cupboard to normal human intercourse.
In fact, it took his wife, Mary Wakefield, to quash rumours that he was in the closet in the figurative sense, back in the days when he worked so closely with Michael Gove. His wife was philosophical:
‘Gay rumours follow like vapour trails in the wake of any star: in politics, sport, Hollywood, and I’ve never before paused for long enough to wonder if they’re nonsense. I’ve thought: no smoke without some romantic spark, and more often than not passed them on’ (Spectator, 19 November 2016).
Shame on you, Mary!
At the time, Gove had to rubbish the rumours strenuously in a public declaration. Now we have it from the one person in this world who should know, that his best pal Cummings is not gay. But the word ‘star’ is the real giveaway. By the time these words were written the stardust had already been sprinkled over her husband’s bald pate like glitter over a bauble, and she seems to have enjoyed the transformation. Her contentment with Cumberbatch’s performance is perhaps the ultimate accolade. Writing in the Spectator last month, she described an evening in the summer of 2018 when the actor popped round for a dinner of ‘vegan pie’. She was relieved to find that he had not come to judge her husband (no mention of refugees then), but ‘to become him’.
“He looks so like him in the trailer,” she gushed. “His mannerisms are so perfect that it’s hard not to imagine he’s having Dom-ish thoughts.”
Now that is acting.
BlOGGLING AGAINST 'the BLOB'
To return to Ian Leslie’s account of the man for a moment, here he is, still reflecting on that uncanny photograph of the ghoul in Downing Street:
‘The casual clothes signal that this is an alien to Whitehall who is determined to remain so. Cummings is enthralled by Silicon Valley. The T-shirt he is wearing advertises OpenAI, a company founded by Elon Musk. Its aim is to make AI (artificial intelligence) a creative force, instead of the destructive one some fear it will be. In political terms, the same question hovers over Cummings. He moves fast and breaks things. Can he build them too?’
You have to admire the level of scrutiny here. Look again at the photograph and marvel at the sort of man who can interpret T-shirts so authoritatively. But Leslie is that sort of man. So, the spad is a fan of that dreadful tech entrepreneur. Can things possibly get any worse? Apparently, yes. Leslie adds, ‘there is a kind of naivety to Cummings. He has a boyish reverence for mathematicians and physicists.’
At this juncture I would love to be able to say, as they do in the shampoo adverts: “And now, here comes the science bit.” But alas, this particular chimp brain is not really up to the task. I can however, see why Cummings might quote Carl Sagan when he considers the
‘…mismatch between a) the growing reach of technology and the fragility of our civilisation, and b) the quality of elite decision makers and their institutions’ capacity to cope with these technologies and fragilities. Carl Sagan called this mismatch ‘a combustible mixture of ignorance and power’. If this mismatch persists, if we continue to pursue ‘traditional politics’ in the context of contemporary civilisation, it will sooner or later blow up in our faces’ (the blog, his italics).
It didn’t take an eminent astronomer to point out this mismatch – who doesn’t rage once in a while at the idiocies of our decision makers? There sometimes appears to be an inverse law between the collective wisdom of the species (as manifest in scientific discovery) and the conspicuous inanity of the powerful. Cummings has seen the inner workings of what he and Michael Gove used to call ‘the blob’ and has decided that, in order to change the world for the better, the blob must be resisted. Another word for blob might be ‘omnishambles’:
‘…in Whitehall: most of everybody’s day is spent just battling entropy – it is not pursuing priorities and building valuable things. Priorities slip unless you remain dementedly focused and demented focus is an alien concept in Westminster’ (the blog, also his italics).
Peter Capaldi playing Malcolm Tucker, the man who gave the world ‘omnishambles’
‘Demented focus’ is a telling phrase. The notorious testiness of the man when confronted by politicians or bureaucrats derives from long experience of this kind of thing. However,
‘Contrary to the media story, I dislike confrontation and rows like most people, but I am very strongly motivated by doing things in a certain way and am not motivated by people in SW1 liking me. This is often confused with having a personality that likes fighting with people. One of the basic reasons so much in politics is mismanaged is that so often those responsible are more interested in social relations than in results and unlike in other more successful fields the incentives are not structured to control this instinct’ (the blog).
‘Delusions and vanity dominate “rationality” and “public service”. Progress, when it comes, is driven by the error-correcting institutions of science and markets when political institutions limit the damage done by decision makers at the apex of centralised hierarchies’ (the blog).
‘Healthy and effective systems like our immune system and the English common law allow constant and rapid error-correction. Unhealthy and ineffective systems like the EU and modern Whitehall departments block error-correction. They are extremely centralised and hierarchical, therefore information processing is blocked and problems are not solved. In politics, this often leads to disasters when more and more resources are devoted to reinforcing failure’ (the blog).
All this means it’s hardly surprising that one Tory special adviser told The Guardian Cummings was ‘absolutely running the show’ and was even more ruthless and difficult to work with than Theresa May’s former advisers, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill: “The level of terror is greater than Priti Patel would like to exert on the criminal classes. It is far, far scarier than under Nick Timothy. He is two Fionas plus a Nick rolled into one. It’s the worst of both worlds in one person” (The Guardian, 7 August 2019).
Cummings has never hidden his disdain for the workings of Whitehall and the Palace of Westminster. In 2014, after leaving the DfE, he told the Times: “Everyone thinks there’s some moment, like in a James Bond movie, where you open the door and that’s where the really good people are, but there is no door.” And yet the problem is not simply one of poorly-qualified individuals. It is an illusory conception of the world. As the Marxists used to say, for those who are lost in it, ideology is reality:
‘Traditional cultures, those that all humans lived in until quite recently and which still survive in pockets, don’t realise that they are living inside a particular perspective. They think that what they see is ‘reality’. It is, obviously, not their fault. It is not because they are stupid. It is a historical accident that they did/do not have access to mental models that help more accurate thinking about reality. Westminster and the other political cultures dotted around the world are similar to these traditional cultures. They think they are living in “reality”. The MPs and pundits get up, read each other, tweet at each other, give speeches, send press releases, have dinner, attack, fuck or fight each other, do the same tomorrow and think “this is reality”. Like traditional cultures they are wrong. They are living inside a particular perspective that enormously distorts reality’ (the blog).
It would be hard not to quote such stuff with approval. Maybe, you think sometimes, he just needs a good editor.
A SPHINX WITH A RIDDLE
Just another harmless blogger (Peter Nicholls, Reuters)
But what is this man’s political agenda? I ask since, oddly enough, in all the Ulysses-length ramblings of the ‘Odyssean’ educator, scarcely a word is breathed on the subject of his political aims. This is at least curious given the way that, ever since the referendum on membership of the European Union, Cummings has had a uniquely powerful influence over the country’s politics.
He claims to have no political affiliations. He even ponders (someone else found this passage, not me, so I will have to take their word for it) whether the world would be a better place if parties were banned. Yet there he is, at the heart of government for the second time, and at the service of very right-wing people with an agenda that includes lower taxes for the rich, the setting up of free ports in Britain, even a possible trade deal with the US that would threaten the National Health Service. A chap would have to be very naïve indeed not to notice the kind of company he was keeping. Besides, his wife writes for the Spectator. When he quoted Bismarck and described Cameron as a ‘sphinx without a riddle’, he might have been describing his own condition, the difference being that Cameron was genuinely conviction-free; the inscrutable Mr Cummings is probably just not letting on.
This was the mystery that made me seize on Ian Leslie’s article, promisingly entitled ‘What does Dominic Cummings want?’ That’s the whole problem, I thought, what the hell is he after? Unfortunately, like Freud’s notoriously bewildered discussion of what women want, the essay fell well short of a definitive insight. Here is Leslie’s conclusion:
‘Cummings isn’t a right-wing radical – he rails against private sector bonuses and despises Nigel Farage. Rather than being anti-government, he wants a different kind of government: faster, fitter, future-focused. He is now at the centre of power […] courtesy of a man who embodies everything he despises about politics. If he is at peace with that it’s probably because he sees an opportunity to set fire to the system that overpromotes people like Johnson’ (New Statesman, 31 July 2019).
It seemed utterly implausible that the most prominent outsider ever to infiltrate the bowels of Downing Street was an accident, yet I knew that Cummings had accused the Tories of having no interest in the poor, and just as little in maintaining the National Health Service. He didn’t bother to add that he thought differently, but that was easily inferred from his disapproving tone. Immediately after the Leave campaign achieved their stunning victory, partly on the basis of a dubious figure on the side of a bus, Cummings approached Boris Johnson. He presumed he was addressing the next prime minister, and he insisted the pledge of money to the NHS must be honoured forthwith. Johnson reportedly smashed his fist on the table and said “Absolutely!”
It’s very obvious that Cummings is not a true populist in the mould of Farage or Banks. He never gives vent to socially conservative views. He detests nativism. He is not Islamophobic, nor is he homophobic. His declared phobias are for career politicians and their helpers. I would not be shocked to learn that every bad dream he ever had was populated by well-meaning men in pin stripes and bowler hats. He even has a low opinion of the people who the Tory party serve, i.e. the rich. Consider this reflection on the privileged classes:
‘Not only are richer people healthier (less likely to have heart attacks or suffer mood disorders), but they also produce less cortisol (suggesting lower stress levels; cf. studies suggest those at the top of hierarchies suffer less stress because they feel a greater sense of control), they are less attentive to pedestrians when driving, and less compassionate when watching videos of children suffering with cancer’ (the blog).
These do not sound like the sentiments of a man who prised his country out of its neighbouring continent in order to usher in an age of tax havens and unbridled rentier capitalism. He depicts the rich as amoral hooligans. Also, notice, they already ‘feel a greater sense of control’ than us lesser mortals. Do they really deserve more?
There are those who are willing to give Cummings the benefit of the doubt, who take him on his word when he claims a different agenda to the ‘bad boys of Brexit’. Here, for instance, is Sahil Handa:
‘If Cummings succeeds, it would send a message to countries across the continent: Don’t be afraid to be agree with populists in order to defeat them—and don’t hesitate to revolutionise your tired institutions along the way’ (Foreign Policy, 10 August).
According to Handa, Cummings has even proposed ‘that a negative income tax along the lines of a universal basic income could help counter the wage stagnation that is likely to be prolonged by developments in artificial intelligence’.
His overarching aim, however, is to foster ‘healthy nationalism in the face of populist discontent.’
Could it be that Cummings really is naïve and that he has managed, against his own good advice, to fool himself that the Conservative party is the necessary vehicle for progress? Robert Trivers, who the blog refers to as ‘one of the most influential evolutionary thinkers of the last fifty years’, would quite possibly see Cummings as a classic case:
‘Trivers described how evolutionary dynamics can favour not just deception but self-deception: conflict for resources is ubiquitous; deception helps win; a classic evolutionary ‘arms race’ encourages both deception detection and ever-better deception; perhaps humans evolved to deceive themselves because this fools others’ detection systems (for example, self-deception suppresses normal clues we display when lying)’ (the blog).
If the relationship between self-deception and lying is this neat, Cummings must be a very highly-evolved creature, lying to himself the better to persuade us that he’s not lying. He has none of the raving lunacy of the extreme right, he despises the xenophobic populists, yet he has spearheaded the withdrawal of Britain from one bureaucracy (Europe’s), and is now doing battle with its homegrown bureaucrats, meantime handing power to swivel-eyed ultras in the process. For what, exactly? His blog gives us some clues:
‘The EU suffers a combination of huge debts, mass unemployment, a rapidly ageing population combined with unsustainable pension obligations, and an anti-entrepreneurial and anti-technology culture. It has created a euro that damages prosperity, undermines democracy, and encourages extremism’ (the blog).
The aims, then, are as follows:
- first, to minimise Britain’s exposure to the problems caused by the EU;
- second, to prod the Europeans into restricting free movement, which only encourages the growth of nativism;
- third, to spark a rewiring of UK government and a new focus on science and education, and
- fourth, eventually, to build new institutions for international cooperation against future disasters.
The fact that none of this sounds anything like the arch disrupter of the public imagination just shows you how wrong the public imagination can be. Either that, or we are witnessing the most evolved instance of self-deception known to science.
It was at the Nudgestock conference in Folkestone, a year after the referendum, that Cummings verbalised the very same aims that appear in his blog. An audience member asked him whether he felt guilty for what he had done. “Absolutely not,” he replied.
“For me … the worst-case scenario for Europe is a return to 1930s-style protectionism and extremism. And to me the EU project, the Eurozone project, are driving the growth of extremism. The single most important reason, really, for why I wanted to get out of the EU is I think that it will drain the poison of a lot of political debates … UKIP and Nigel Farage would be finished. Once there’s democratic control of immigration policy, immigration will go back to being a second- or third-order issue.”
Fast forward to a history class in the year 2070: And so, children, the poison was drained, the man of destiny was vindicated, a continent was saved from the horror of bad nationalism and they all lived happily ever after.
Or, to rephrase Woody Guthrie, these machinations kill fascists…
Woody Guthrie with his ‘machine’
It may be a measure of just how well Dominic Cummings has managed to deceive himself that, in every practical sense, he has become better at lying than his political masters. Quite a feat.
I’m not so sure, though. Repeatedly, throughout the blog, he reminds us of the dangers of fooling ourselves. He seems to have picked up the tip from Richard Feynman, the theoretical physicist: “The most important thing is not to fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”