A couple of weeks ago, I took the London Overground for the first time since the beginning of the lockdown. It was June 15th, the first day of the “new Government guidance” which, according to the TfL website, stated that “face coverings must be worn for the full duration of journeys on the public transport network”. This is England, where it takes roughly half a year for the powers-that-be to accept what other countries have already worked out: that when dealing with a disease significantly transmitted by air-borne droplets, a barrier to such transmission has a protective effect. Worth a try, no? Especially when countries which have contained the virus have generally required citizens to wear masks in public. Still, this is England where ignoring the obvious is often a point of pride.
England does, of course, also have a notable tradition of analytical rigour and sober administrative competence, but this has long competed with a rival tendency towards theatrics, attention-seeking displays of sang-froid and last-minute recklessness. The week before my Overground expedition, I had spent a good deal of time reading Dominic Cummings’s famous blog. I was struck by what seemed to me a quite remarkable, discovery (although, on reflection, it should hardly have surprised me). In all the hundreds of thousands of words that the eminence grise of our current government has hammered out on his laptop, none, as far as I could see, addressed either the process of Brexit (that is, how Brexit was to be negotiated, organised and put into practice), or the gains that would flow from it, other than in the most general and propagandistic terms. Cummings, it seemed, wasn’t interested in that.
Instead, he poured scorn on his political enemies while promoting promethean schemes for transforming the UK into a futuristic techno-utopia. The news this last weekend of the resignation of Sir Mark Sedwill, the UK’s top civil servant — cabinet secretary, national security adviser as well as head of the civil service — fits neatly into the Cummings method. Unnamed Downing Street sources, it was reported, had claimed Sir Mark had failed to get a grip on the coronavirus crisis. But wasn’t this a major government responsibility? Isn’t it shameful for the government to seek to shift the blame for its failures onto a civil servant, who is forbidden to reply by the Civil Service code? I had always thought it was the job of ministers to instruct civil servants, rather than to hide behind them, sniping from the sidelines.
According to the Guardian, Sedwill had been regularly “briefed against” in the months leading up to his resignation. Figures like Cummings — courtiers who accumulate power through offering improbably comprehensive solutions — deal with setbacks by arguing all would have been perfect if they’d only had more power. Sedwill was a necessary sacrifice on the altar of Cummings’s career. Someone had to be the scapegoat for the UK’s coronavirus death toll. In a rational world, Cummings’s failures — taken together with his flouting of the lockdown rules he had helped impose on the whole country — might have led to his dismissal. In the world we live in, he has translated his shortcomings into an argument for his own indispensability.
The highly capable, politically neutral and incorruptible civil service has long been one of Britain’s proudest institutions. While the details of administration can, no doubt, always be reviewed, it’s highly debatable whether the central flaw in the British system is the quality of its civil service. A rather more obvious issue is the country’s method of selecting politicians, ministers and prime ministers, which allows individuals like Boris Johnson to assume power and appoint inexperienced zealots like Cummings. Having read most of his blog, I’d be amazed if anyone with the country’s best interests at heart could think Cummings suitable for a senior position.
Cummings’s writing is bitterly critical of all manner of people and institutions, but it betrays hardly any self-awareness. On March 27, 2019, while opposing a “second referendum” on membership of the EU, he opened his remarks with a standard, derisive reference to “SW1” (his shorthand label for the political establishment — MPs, civil service, mainstream media, and so on, from all of whom he naturally excludes himself). In a characteristic passage, beneath the menacing headline “Actions have Consequences”, he wrote: “Watching SW1 these days reminds me of the scene in Citizen Kane when Boss Jim Gettys confronts Orson Welles (Kane).”
It’s a complicated but revealing reference, complete with youtube clip from said movie, in which Kane, confronted with the threat of scandal, throws out both his political enemy and his wife with the words: “There’s only one person in the world who’ll decide what I’m going to do, and that’s me.”
The implied megalomania was not coincidental. Cummings continued by recalling his first political victory in the 2004 North East devolution referendum, during which he opposed the formation of a regional assembly. He is still clearly chuffed to bits with his victory. He is not a guy to forgive and forget. Referring back to the denizens of “SW1” and the push for a “second referendum”, he commented: “These guys didn’t learn from the 2004 referendum before 2016 and even now very few seem to realise that a ‘second referendum’ would, given minimal competence from ‘Leave’, be a mega-repeat of 2004 in which ‘the EU’ would not even be the main issue…”
“The intricacies of the Regional Assembly were not central to how the campaign developed, just as the EU will not be central to a second referendum — it will be about YOU AND YOUR PARTIES, dear MPs, and if you think 2016 was bad, you will find the next one somewhere between intolerable and career-ending. They didn’t learn from expenses or from 2008. They didn’t learn from Vote Leave. They need more than one lesson and they’re gonna get more than one lesson…”
If you should wish to understand how Cummings views the commitments made by British governments (in this case, that of Theresa May), you might note the concluding paragraph on the possibility of a second referendum: “Also, don’t worry about the so-called ‘permanent’ commitments this historically abysmal Cabinet are trying to make on our behalf. They are not ‘permanent’ and a serious government — one not cowed by officials and their bullshit ‘legal advice’ with which they have herded ministers like sheep — will dispense with these commitments and any domestic law enforcing them.”
Is this a man who can be entrusted with power? The impatience with opposition, the lack of respect for convention, authority, conflicting opinions, prior commitments and law are hardly concealed features of the Cummings persona: they are the man entire, as demonstrated, not only by his published words, but by many of his actions. Due to Johnson’s well-attested idleness and reluctance to take responsibility, Cummings now has an extraordinary opportunity to exercise power. Reading his blog — receiving an intravenous dose of Cummings’s lack of humility, compassion and clarity — it is hard to believe that he will use it wisely.
Cummings is a passionate admirer of certain historical figures, but his understanding of them is inevitably, given his personality, highly partial. One is Bismarck. What Cummings seems to admire in Bismarck is his manner of changing the rules of the game to cut the ground from beneath the feet of his opponents. Bismarck was a powerful intellect; no one reading Cummings’s blog could come to a similar conclusion about him, not because he’s unintelligent but because his approach to the world is so shrill and narrowly instrumental.
Bismarck served semi-autocratic rulers, initially as Minister President to the King of Prussia and later, after 1871, as Chancellor of the united Germany. Meanwhile Britain is still a democracy, although a limping one since the introduction of direct democracy via referenda as a rival source of legitimacy to that of elections to the House of Commons.
In September, 2019, Christopher Clark, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge and one of the English-speaking world’s leading specialists in German history, wrote a perceptive note on Cummings’s view of Bismarck for the London Review of Books, in which he observed:
“‘What would Bismarck do?’ It can be instructive and fun to escape the tyranny of the moment by taking the ‘long view’ of our current predicaments. But when you trawl the past in search of timeless power plays, the differences in context are apt to be lost to view.”
In his piece, Clark suggests a more pertinent comparator for Cummings is not Bismarck but “the sometime theatre director and senior Putin adviser Vladislav Surkov, composer of geeky dystopian fictions and prophet of ‘non-linear warfare’.” It is not a comparison that Cummings would welcome.
Apart from settling scores with his enemies, Cummings’s main concern in his blogs is to sketch out his vision of a nation transformed by the application of science and technology. In these lengthy, sometimes interesting, often obsessive screeds, the gulf between his transformational preoccupations and the grimly attritional detail of governing is only too apparent. This bug in the Cummings system leaked out into the public consciousness when, in early January this year, he published his celebrated job advertisement for the bright and pliable to aid him in his long march through the institutions. The advert stated that: “Two Hands are a lot — we’re hiring data scientists, project managers. policy experts, assorted weirdos…”
It went on: “‘This is possibly the single largest design flaw contributing to the bad Nash equilibrium in which… many governments are stuck. Every individual high-functioning competent person knows they can’t make much difference by being one more face in that crowd.’ Eliezer Yudkowsky, AI expert, LessWrong etc.”
“‘[M]uch of our intellectual elite who think they have ‘the solutions’ have actually cut themselves off from understanding the basis for much of the most important human progress.’ Michael Nielsen, physicist and one of the handful of most interesting people I’ve ever talked to.”
And the last one:
“‘Two hands, it isn’t much considering how the world is infinite. Yet, all the same, two hands, they are a lot.’ Alexander Grothendieck, one of the great mathematicians.”
These minatory fragments from Cummings eclectic reading were followed by the case for an administrative revolution expressed with his characteristic bombast:
“There is a huge amount of low hanging fruit — trillion dollar bills lying on the street — in the intersection of…”
Before looking at what intersects with what, it’s worth noting two points about this opening sentence of the pitch: first, the hyperbole (in Cummings’s world, bills don’t come in measly billions — nothing but trillions will do); and second, the currency (we’re not talking about dreary old Blighty here, are we? We’re chasing none other than the American dream). Cummings here comes across as the eternal nerd in an American high school movie, casting furious, surreptitious glances at the smarter, richer, more popular members of the class.
And then come those intersections:
- the selection, education and training of people for high performance
- the frontiers of the science of prediction
- data science, AI and cognitive technologies (e.g Seeing Rooms, ‘authoring tools designed for argung from evidence’, Tetlock/IARPA prediction tournaments that could easily be extended to consider ‘clusters’ of issues around themes like Brexit to improve policy and project management)
- communication (e.g Cialdini)
- decision-making institutions at the apex of government.
You get the idea — a dash of jargon sprinkled with appeals to those in the know, the mathematicians, physicists, digital specialists who will build Cummings’s imagined technocratic palace of the future. He clearly wants to come over as super-clued up, not one of those PPE bluffers he despises but a guy who’s at the cutting edge. Yet, as an arts graduate, he can’t escape the suspicion that, while he may know the lingo, he sure as heck can’t do the sums. Perhaps, though, despite his unarguable lack of qualifications, he possesses some precious insights?
The final verdict may not be in yet but the signs aren’t promising. Philip Ball — who has a PhD in condensed-matter physics and has been an editor of Nature for the past twenty years — wrote a devastating piece for The Article in which he trawled through the references in Cummings’s job ad, analysed their sources and decided it was mostly an exercise in pretentious, self-advertising PR:
“The concepts Cummings floats are all familiar fare to anyone who has followed this field for the past two decades… [But] I see little reason to imagine that Cummings’s stream-of-consciousness meander will conjure anything more effective from a complex-systems approach to governance. This does not look like a man with a vision.”
Ball gives, as an example, a 2016 study cited by Cummings that “looked for precursory signals to the onset of… phase transitions in a rather exotic physics experiment on a ‘thermo-acoustic’ system.” The aim apparently was to find clues as to how “social phase transitions” (meaning episodes of large-scale collective decision-making) might be spotted in advance. Ball comments: “The link between those and this ‘subcritical Hopf bifurcation occurring in a thermoacoustic system’ [is] tenuous and utterly speculative…”.
Surveying the range of citations offered by Cummings, Ball remarks:
“There’s no apparent reason why these papers in particular have been selected, or where they are going, or how they fit into any broader picture. While to outsiders Cummings’s blog might seem like sheer geeky gobbledygook, the truth is that, for anyone familiar with this field, it reads more like the efforts of a rookie postgrad spouting a breathless stream of buzzwords and random citations, devoid of depth or context, in the hope of convincing his supervisor that he knows his stuff.”
I certainly don’t have Ball’s qualifications but it is not too hard for a general reader, trawling through Cummings’s writings, to pick up the signs of ostentation, mystification and desperate insecurity. In Cummings’s view, frequently repeated in his blogs, government is effectively a matter of “systems management”. For him, the appropriate models are either public programmes devoted to achieving singular, precisely-defined outcomes with virtually-unlimited resources (ie. the Manhattan Program during the Second World War which led to the atomic bomb, and the Apollo Program which put men on the moon) or private companies devoted to profit like Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger’s Berkshire Hathaway. His general stance seems to be that things will only start to work properly once he has the reins of power in his hands.
See for instance his blog of June 12, 2017: “Unrecognised simplicities of effective action — the Apollo programme, the Tory train wreck, and advice to spads starting work today.” Here Cummings, addressing newly-recruited Special Advisers, refers to an earlier paper of his, with the unimprovable title — “‘Systems engineering’ and ‘systems management’: ideas from the Apollo programme for a ‘systems politics” — which lays out his absolute contempt for the British civil service:
“The heart of the paper is about the principles behind effective management of complex projects. These principles are relevant to Government, politics, and campaigns… You will see that Whitehall operates on exactly opposite principles to those organisations where high performance creates real value. You will also soon see that you are now in a culture in which almost nobody is aware of this and anybody who suggests it sinks their career. In your new department, failure is so normal it is not defined as ‘failure’. Officials lose millions and get a gong. There is little spirit of public service or culture of responsibility. The most political people are promoted and the most competent people… leave. The very worst officials are often put in charge of training the next generation. For most powerful officials, the most important thing is preserving the system, closed and impregnable…”
It does not seem to occur to him that government in a democracy is not solely about achieving project outcomes but about managing contending aims and demands in a constantly shifting environment. Could there be a better example than what has happened so far in 2020? And would any reasonable observer of the efforts of Cummings and his boss to manage just one of the challenges they have faced this year — the pandemic (leaving entirely aside the grotequerie surrounding the Brexit non-negotiation) — suggest that Cummings’s “systems management” approach in Number 10 has been a notable success?
On the contrary, if it has been tried, it has been a stunning failure. Naturally, Cummings would blame this on “the system”, because that is what he does. Yet failure is the predictable outcome of the Cummings approach, for in his blog he makes it quite clear that he is essentially uninterested in the detailed, careful, attritional business of governing. He is all about fantasies of mastery, about transformative systems and “genius-mavericks” sailing in and showing how it’s done. Not only has he hardly any interest in the prosaic complexities of government, he has little in politics either, in so far as politics has to do with the reconciliation of disparate perspectives and beliefs. Cummings couldn’t be less attracted by such an idea. His whole schtick is imposing his will and winning the future.
The pandemic has provided a resonant illustration of the fallacies at the heart of his philosophy. It’s palpable that he, his boss and indeed the whole government feel they’ve been somehow victimised by having to deal with something at once so “unprecedented” and yet, to their minds, also so essentially trivial as a virus. True, the virus has so far, in a matter of months, caused over 60,000 deaths in this country but for Johnson and his team it has meant that, instead of flying around in expensively-painted red, white and blue aeroplanes making vacuous speeches about trade, they have been visibly failing to come to grips with an insidious, invisible organism.
Instead of frankness, competence and humanity, the strategy seems to have been to crush the virus with a “shock and awe” public relations push, where exaggerated claims, unachievable or irrelevant targets and the exclusion of dissenting voices were all camouflaged by the unconvincing pretence of supporting the NHS. At the same time, major aspects of the response were outsourced to private companies, some of which had little significant experience of organising healthcare services and struggled to provide the services they’d been commissioned to supply (Deloitte, KPMG, Serco, Sodexo, Mitie, Boots and the US data mining group Palantir are among those which have received tax-payer funded contracts to contribute to the Covid-19 response).
The difficulty of dealing with a hitherto unknown, lethal virus is undeniable, but the government’s general approach and mentality was always likely to lead to the failings we have seen. Given the death-toll and confusion, the final verdict is unlikely to be favourable. It may still take a while before the country realises it has fallen into the hands of people who are neither capable nor trustworthy, but it will get there in the end.