Inside Dominic Cummings’ mind and project.
By Christopher Stanley.
On a sunny English Whitsun Bank Holiday afternoon we would have been ordinarily watching The Eagle has Landed or Ice Station Zebra. On ITV10 there was a (further) repeat of Midsomer Murders – how appropriate for these death-ridden Covid-19 strange and sad times. But no, we waited and waited for Boris Johnson’s chief advisor’s television explanation of why he drove to Durham instead.
In one sense Dominic’s Passion in The Rose Garden was the final out-workings in his Mind of his Project, in which the media plays no part. But ironically of course the only audience permitted to this performance was the media.
By the final out-workings of his Project I mean that in an unprecedented political-media-Covid-19-stained event an unelected, unaccountable, ‘political advisor’ took centre stage…eventually; it was his first public performance in years, he said, and he was late. He did not find a tie – why should he? His confession and contrition never came – why should it?
This was a moment of significant political transition in the political waft and weave of the English constitutional system – whether Dominic Cummings survives or not. It was a moment of dedicated and profound contempt. One which left Dominic Cummings stronger and more powerful because the English constitutional system of checks and balances, of trust and accountability, failed and a new more malevolent form of politics was exposed with Cummings as its incarnation: a new elitism, a new contempt, a post-modern managerial Machiavellianism, with Cummings stronger because he went back to work the next day. Even after he was exposed in all the calibrated contempt.
In Downing Street. London. SW1A.
Dominic Cummings His Mind and His Project
Let us look at his Twitter profile first.
Let us look at his Wikipedia entry second.
Let us look at his Mind third.
Let us look at his Project finally.
Twitter BUT THIS IS A PARODY ACCOUNT (perhaps or simulation when Dominic is in charge of the narrative?)
“BoJo’s best bud, bus lie writer, government tinkerer, not Benedict Cumberbatch”
53 following 4,881 followers
It’s true, I’m #NotSorry. Now get back to work poor people! #ToriesLovePoories
Phew, well done
thanks for covering my back! #StayAtHome
BTW: Bus Lie Writer: The Spectator 31 October 2017 (last accessed 26 May 2020)
Not sure whether or not to resign, can’t find
to discuss it so might go and see my folks, they’ll know what to do
“After attending state primary school, he was privately educated at Durham School and Exeter College, Oxford, where he studied under Norman Stone, graduating in 1994 with a First in Ancient and Modern History. One of his professors has described him to the New Statesman as “fizzing with ideas, unconvinced by any received set of views about anything”. He was “something like a Robespierre – someone determined to bring down things that don’t work.” Also in his youth, he worked at Klute, a nightclub owned by his uncle in Durham”.
Note: Maximilien Robespierre: “England! Ha! What good are they to you, England and its depraved constitution, which may have looked free to you when you had sunk to the lowest degree of servitude, but which it is high time to stop praising out of ignorance or habit!”.
“After university, Cummings moved to Yeltsin’s post-Soviet Russia from 1994 to 1997, working on various projects at the encouragement of Stone. He worked for a group attempting to set up an airline connecting Samara in southern Russia to Vienna in Austria which was ‘spectacularly unsuccessful’. He subsequently returned to the UK”.
Note: Norman Stone once said “I wear my enemies like medals”.
“In December 2011, Cummings married Mary Wakefield, sister of his friend Jack Wakefield, former director of the Firtash Foundation. Mary Wakefield has worked at the weekly magazine The Spectator for decades, since Boris Johnson was editor, and is now commissioning editor. She is the daughter of Sir Humphry Wakefield, 2nd Baronet, of Chillingham Castle in Northumberland. Her mother is Katherine Wakefield, née Baring, elder daughter of Evelyn Baring, 1st Baron Howick of Glendale.”
“Cummings is reportedly an admirer of Otto von Bismarck, Richard Feynman (see further on), Sun Tzu, and U.S. fighter pilot and military strategist John Boyd. Journalist Owen Bennett claimed that Cummings “is a Russophile, speaks Russian, and is passionately interested in Dostoyevsky”, while Patrick Wintour in The Guardian reported that “Anna Karenina, maths and Bismarck are his three obsessions.”
Note: Fyodor Dostoevsky: “Right or wrong, it’s very pleasant to break something from time to time.”
“Cummings has said he has never been a member of a political party Despite this, he was second in a list by LBC of the ‘Top 100 Most Influential Conservatives of 2019’.”
“He is now the country’s de facto project manager, but what does he actually believe?” (Stefan Collini) (The Guardian 6 February 2020) (last accessed 26 May 2020).
In that question Stefan Collini identifies what is central to The Project of Dominic Cummings – he is The Project Manager of the New Model Polity for England but he is not political (unless he is post-political) – he is so over politics. He is an expression of a new form of ideologue. This means his Project is a project to implement a new kind of post-political system – it is about planning and a form of quasi-scientific rationality – in which the role of the democratically elected and accountable politician, and indeed those of all other parts of the Executive – including the Civil Service, are negligible.
Dominic Cummings is a Type similar to the ‘Types’ who succumb to Communist Party rule in Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz’s ‘The Captive Mind’ (1953). Which is why if he does depart it does not signify much as he will be replaced by the same form of functionary/synthesiser.
He is an intellectual with a good academic pedigree. Collini notes: “Dominic Cummings is the best-known unknown historian of ideas in the country”.
He has a big vision. He is interested in education and methods of learning and analysis. He believes in Odyssean education: “The aim would be to ‘train synthesisers’”. Because of this he appears contemptuous of most politicians, almost all media commentators, and all civil servants: none of these people really understand statistical modelling, quantum computation, synthetic biology, and so on”. (Collini)
“At times, he can make this seem like the merest common sense; at other times he sounds like CP Snow on speed (Snow’s Two Cultures lecture of 1959 is mainly remembered for its ardent advocacy of the need for scientific literacy among policymakers). So much of what others think of as ‘culture’ he regards as ‘noise’”. (Collini)
It would appear, at least per Collini, that he is post-political because he has no politics save for a brand of anarchic libertarianism and impatient individualism (add an injection of nineteenth-century Russian Existentialism and Durkheimian anomie – the absence of the usual ethical and social standards) tempered excitingly through the forge of twenty-first-century science and technology.
More important is that he is the ideologue of managerialism, technocracy and bureaucracy (unshackled from the dead hand of the Mandarins) transported from the 1950s to incorporate twentieth-century science and technology – the apparatus and practice of progress – of systems subject to Project Management by skilled experts (not legislators but interpreters).
Here enters something more associated with the right: Friedrich Hayek, upon whose shoulders stood Thatcher and Joseph. Hayek argued in ‘The Road to Serfdom’ (1944) that central planning was inimical to liberty as well as ultimately self-defeating. Cummings quotes with approval Hayek’s dictum that “order generated without design can far outstrip plans men consciously contrive”. (Friedrich Hayek, ‘The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism’ (1988)).
There is no room for law in Odyssean education. Legal reasoning is too specific to be practically useful in this universe. Precedent is too inflexible to accommodate change and relies upon judicial thinking that is too narrow in this world.
This is perhaps how Dominic Cummings interpreted the rules of lockdown because a) he formulated them b) as there is no space for law in the Odyssean universe it does not apply to him (anomie and the positivity of the transgressive act by the existential anti-hero) c) he decided and took the risk – he was not subject to being managed (either in terms of Stalinism or Cartesianism). He was infamously declared in contempt of Parliament for refusing to appear before the House of Commons committee of privileges over his leadership of the Vote Leave campaign itself a breaker of any rule it could lay its hand on. Cummings works for a boss who leaves trails of unpaid parking fines. Ignoring rules is a commonplace for these Great Men.
In short Cummings is his own Project Risk Manager and would expect to be also without susceptibility to any utilitarian fallacy of balance (more Nonsense on Stilts).
“If Cummings has some claims to be regarded as an intellectual among technocrats, there is also a sense in which he is a technocrat among intellectuals. He is far more interested in abstract ideas than most technocrats, but he is far more interested in results than most intellectuals”. (Collini)
In The Rose Garden, Dominic Cummings explained his role in public life. It didn’t really seem sincere since he doesn’t really distinguish between the public and private save in terms of operational needs and demands. These are competing spheres subject to differing matrices of influence and risk (and power) – fiscal, emotional, social (only to the extent that society is a non-concept).
He contributes to Effective Government. He is the Gate-Keeper of the Great Dictator in The Elective Dictatorship. If we drill down in into these two ideas we may glimpse the operation of The Project in action.
Elective Dictatorship: A government that is elected by so many votes that it can do what it likes (Cambridge Dictionary). The term was first defined by Lord Hailsham, later to be Lord Chancellor, in 1976. Julian Petley notes:
“Since Hailsham wrote these words, this state of affairs has only become more embedded: prime ministers have acted in an increasingly presidential style; there has been a proliferation of ‘spads’ (special advisers, described in the code governing their behaviour as ‘an additional resource for the minister providing assistance from a standpoint that is more politically committed and politically aware than would be available to a minister from the permanent civil service’)” (LSE Blog).
This would indicate a paradigm shift in the ‘practices’ of government, from the traditional (and therefore arcane which is the antithesis of the disposition of Conservatism until at least Brexiteer Michael Oakeshott), the English Constitutional Separation of Powers with its checks and balances, trust and accountability, codes and conventions to the dominance or supremacy of the Executive in the ‘practices’ of effective government. Or government tinkering by Cummings-trained synthesisers.
Effective Government (or Governance). There is a correlation between Elective Dictatorship and Effective Government: Delivering the Mandate. As Nat le Roux observes:
“The democratic underpinning of executive authority in Britain is in reality indirect, qualified and compromised, and the concept of democratic mandate, the dominant trope of much contemporary political discourse, has arguably become dangerously over-extended”. (LSE Blog)
The (Democratic) Mandate is the Government’s claim that once elected they have the right and responsibility to implement their policies. Cummings’ Project depends upon initial planning of the mandate, already achieved, and – now – upon implementation, project-management of the plan.
The right-leaning thinktank Policy Exchange (an Odyssean postgraduate school if ever there was one) suggests in its paper Whitehall Reimagined: A Strengthened Civil Service for a Post-Brexit Britain Whitehall Reimagined the following reforms of the Civil Service (a nineteenth-century institution not fit for purpose in Cummings’ twentieth-first century:
“More broadly, civil service systems and structures should be aligned with those used in the most effective organisations”;
“It is important to appoint leaders of public bodies whose own culture and values align with government’s strategic purpose for that organisation”;
“Organisational design, culture and processes are fundamental”;
“Whitehall culture, in particular the priority placed upon consensus and the inertia of ministry policy, can sometimes be inconducive to an incoming government or minister effectively implementing their policy programme”;
“Strengthen the role of specialists in formulating policy and advising ministers”;
“Actively seek out a wider range of experts, including practitioners, experts from other countries and those with alternative views within the academic community”;
“Increase the use of robust methods of evidence gathering, including the funding of randomised controlled trials and meta-analyses. Avoid ‘cargo-cult science’” (Richard Feynman Cargo Cult Science).
This is a snap-shot, but given Dominic Cummings moment in The Rose Garden it is clear that he is The Project Manager of this change in the practices of government. He is the unelected and unaccountable and inviolable ‘Type’ of New Government. As The Project Manager he is not bound – he cannot be bound – by notions of due diligence or impartiality. He contributes to the rule-making in the best interests of the processes of policy implementation but can transgress these rules as he is not bound by the advice of counsel who do not have his expertise synthesisers.
“When superior intellect and a psychopathic temperament coalesce … we have the best possible conditions for the kind of effective genius that gets into the biographical dictionaries”. (William James The Varieties of Religious Experience 1902 page 23)
I disagree with Stefan Collini that he “would hesitate to treat Cummings as representative of anything: he’s made being a one-off into an art form”. He may have a unique individualism but, more dangerous, he is a new interpreter for the Practice of Governance.
What we got in the Rose Garden was a new interpretation of politics.
Did you like it?
Update: “May 31 2020 – Writing in The Sunday Times (London edition) Tim Shipman, Political Editor noted that ‘ One of Cumming’s Vote Leave fraternity said ‘We need him. We took three years to get the gang in there. We can’t throw that away now.’ When one of his acolytes was asked what would happen if Cummings shot someone dead in the street the reply came : ‘It would depend whether anyone saw him do it.’ Cummings is a little chastened by events but now appears unsackable. He sits in whatever meetings he pleases and is blamed by Cabinet Ministers for killing audiences with Johnson and filtering the flow of papers and information to the prime minister’”
Christopher Stanley is Litigation Consultant with KRW LAW LLP, Solicitors, Belfast