What does Dominic Cummings want (and what did he get into the Tory manifesto)?
In Channel 4’s Brexit: The Uncivil War, Dominic Cummings is presented as a ruthlessly effective strategist and organiser, filled with a desire to heave the British establishment off its rails, and prepared to utilise very dubious tactics to achieve that. What’s strange is that, beyond “change”, the Cumberbatch Cummings is unable to express what he actually wants, whereas the real-life Cummings kindly provides us with a ten-zillion-word blog in which he lays out in enormous detail precisely what he wants.
I read most of this blog in September — my interest piqued by the media commentary of Cummings as the Rasputin of the new Boris premiership — and was disturbed by how persuasive it was, and how different from all the other Brexiteer arguments I’d heard, and rejected, over the last three years. I kept my affinity secret and took comfort from the total absence of Cummings’ ideas in the election campaigning. Whatever Cummings might personally want, the Brexit we were getting was a pointlessly damaging one — Britain shooting itself in the foot, oblivious and indifferent to the collateral damage, and drunk on a nationalist cloud of magical thinking — lately mashed together with a Conservative Party experimenting with a little “cops & nurses” populist borrowing. In this framework the referendum question might as well have read “too much foreign? yes/no”. Deeply depressing, but at least I wouldn’t need to confront any troubling thoughts deviating beyond the boundaries of my Remain bubble of moral acceptability.
Imagine my shock on discovering that key elements of his agenda have found their way into innocuous looking corners of the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto. As these little sentences look likely to shape the future of Britain, and as I’ve seen absolutely no coverage of them in the media, I thought they’d be worth highlighting and connecting up with the Cummings thoughts that appear to have conceived them, so that you too, if you are as weak as I, can be troubled by thoughts that you should not have.
An autonomous research agency inspired by the foundations of Silicon Valley
Some of this new spending will go to a new agency for high-risk, high-payoff research, at arm’s length from government. — 2019 Conservative Party manifesto
This obscure pledge, which surely says absolutely nothing to any normal voter, can only be explained by the Cummings factor. Cummings is deeply inspired by the Palo Alto Research Cente (PARC), Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) and Bell Labs — three organisations which in their original iterations were fantastically fruitful: providing in a short span of years the transistor, the internet, graphical user interfaces, laser printing, the modern personal computer, object-oriented programming and other such revolutionary innovations too numerous to list. Cummings identifies the root cause of their extraordinary inventiveness as organisational. They recruited extremely talented and driven scientists who were then trusted to self-organise and get on with things however they thought best, with generous long-term funding and minimal bureaucracy.
So how can we create new industries quickly? A clue lies in a small number of institutes that produced a strikingly large number of key advances… There are simple rules of thumb about how great science arises, embodied in such institutes. They provided ambitious long-term funding to scientists, avoided unnecessary bureaucracy and chased high-risk, high-reward projects — On the referendum #26: How to change science funding post-Brexit [updated with comment by Alan Kay
If you trust people, you do not micromanage them and how they spend money. — #29 On the referendum & 4c on Expertise: On the ARPA/PARC ‘Dream Machine’, science funding, high performance, and UK national strategy1
Cummings wants to recreate the conditions of ARPA and PARC in a new British R&D agency and wants the state to pay for it. He adopts the position of economists such as Mariana Mazzucato in arguing that market innovation cannot be left to market forces alone:
‘The Right’ tends to ignore that the high tech market ecosystem depends on government funded basic science… Almost every significant element of things like the iPhone were first developed by basic science funding. VC companies rarely take technology risk in the way some simplistic free-marketeers imagine — they take market risk… VCs wait until there is a working prototype before they fund… Apple Computer, for example, did not have technical risk: the technology worked before the company was funded… Successful research has little inherent connection to successful business. You can do great research and fail at business and become the world’s most valuable company without innovating at a deep level. — #29 On the referendum & 4c on Expertise: On the ARPA/PARC ‘Dream Machine’, science funding, high performance, and UK national strategy1
While he expects the long-term economic payback to be astronomical, part of the intended DNA of such a research organisation is that it be “explicitly shielded from commercial pressure” or attempts to tie research to quantifiable end results:
Every attempt since the 1950s to copy ARPA… in the UK has been blocked by Whitehall. The latest attempt was in 2014 when the Cabinet Office swatted aside the idea. Hilariously its argument was ‘DARPA has had a lot of failures’ thus demonstrating extreme ignorance about the basic idea — the whole point is you must have failures and if you don’t have lots of failures then you are failing! — On the referendum — #23, a year after victory: ‘a change of perspective is worth 80 IQ points’ & ‘how to capture the heavens’
When thinking about how to fund science now, it would be obvious today to put a load of money into, say, AI/machine learning/deep learning. These fields clearly should be funded. But it would not be following the ARPA-PARC approach just to shovel more money behind existing projects looking for incremental improvements, particularly when industry is funding this anyway.
Applications deriving from big advances in basic science — like, say, lasers from quantum mechanics — tend to be unpredicted and largely unpredictable in principle. Restricting focus to ‘practical applications’ means in practice ‘things we can hazily see the outlines of at least today’ and this means you are inherently cutting yourself off from wondrous things you cannot see at all and therefore cannot budget for. Labs like Bell Labs, which nurtured many hugely important breakthroughs, have largely been closed because of financial pressures.Those on the Right tend to think of this as a ‘natural’ product of market forces but we should be asking — why are we structuring incentives so that we stop making valuable discoveries?
Cummings even finds inspiration in the radically non-commercial ethos of certain Soviet Union institutions:
The failure of the Soviet Union’s centralised institutions to match the decentralised information processing of competitive markets led many on the ‘free market Right’ to assume that all its institutions were inferior… This is a mistake. The old Soviet Union, and to some extent modern France relative to America, lacked the institutions to create great companies building on great science but that doesn’t mean we should ignore how they fund science. Competitive markets in the Anglo-American tradition would be even more successful if their political institutions provided some funding for maths and science modelled on the Soviet and French institutions… to supplement existing activity. — #29 On the referendum & 4c on Expertise: On the ARPA/PARC ‘Dream Machine’, science funding, high performance, and UK national strategy1
What Dominic Cummings doesn’t mention is that the EU already has a “blue skies” research fund (which the Tory manifesto pledges to “continue collaboration” with, along with the rest of the EU’s science framework), although I’ve no idea how closely that institution’s processes resemble ARPA’s.
Reducing science bureaucracy
We will reform the science funding system to cut the time wasted by scientists filling in forms — 2019 Conservative Party manifesto
We’re used to proclaimed Tory bonfires of red tape for business, but applying this cliché specifically to scientists is novel, and can only have come from Cummings:
ARPA… wanted to build a community then return to it themselves, not build a powerful bureaucracy and live in it. They did not have the modern machinery of grant forms in which scientists have to set out detailed plans in advance then have a huge regulatory structure watch their every move which is how almost all contemporary UK science funding works with all the inevitable bureaucracy, conservatism, waste and so on — #29 On the referendum & 4c on Expertise: On the ARPA/PARC ‘Dream Machine’, science funding, high performance, and UK national strategy1
Multi-sector hubs of expertise in robotics, clean energy, AI, space, neuroscience and genomics
The science budget will be used to drive forward the development of technologies of critical importance to the UK, by investing in clusters around world-leading universities and spreading knowledge…
We will focus our efforts on areas where the UK can generate a commanding lead in the industries of the future – life sciences, clean energy, space, design, computing, robotics and artificial intelligence. In particular, we will make the UK the leading global hub for life sciences after Brexit…
And we’ll also have 20 Institutes of Technology, which connect high-quality teaching in science, technology, engineering and maths to business and industry…
We will invest in world-class computing and health data systems that can aid research, such as the ground-breaking genetic sequencing carried out at the UK Biobank, Genomics England and the new Accelerating the Detection of Disease project, which has the potential to transform diagnosis and treatment…
We will make finding a cure [for dementia] one of our Government’s biggest collective priorities — one of the ‘grand challenges’ that will define our future along with the impact of climate change or artificial intelligence.
Beyond high-risk science funding, Cummings also wants strategically planned relationships between government, education, and industry to foster growth in specific areas. In other words, he thoroughly rejects the Thatcherite mantra, accepted by 35 years of British governments, of abandoning industrial strategy to the winds of global markets, and instead demands a nurturing state-funded hand to consciously plant and cultivate the high-tech industries of the future:
Science defined the last century by creating new industries. It will define this century too: robotics, clean energy, artificial intelligence, cures for disease and other unexpected advances lie in wait. The country that gives birth to these industries will lead the world, and yet we seem incapable of action. — On the referendum #26: How to change science funding post-Brexit
Fields such as machine learning, robotics, energy, neuroscience, genetics, cognitive technologies — #29 On the referendum & 4c on Expertise: On the ARPA/PARC ‘Dream Machine’, science funding, high performance, and UK national strategy
We will never be the most important manufacturing nation again but we could lead in crucial sub-fields of advanced technology. As ARPA-PARC showed, tiny investments can create entire new industries and trillions of dollars of value... Sadly politicians of Left and Right have little interest in science funding with tremendous implications for future growth, or the broader question of productivity and the ecosystem of science, entrepreneurs, universities, funding, regulation etc. — On the referendum #30: Genetics, genomics, predictions & ‘the Gretzky game’ — a chance for Britain to help the world
Regulatory environment is an area where Cummings sees the UK as having a distinct strategic advantage:
America has political and regulatory barriers holding it back on genomics that are much weaker here. Britain cannot stop the development of such science. Britain can choose to be a backwater, to ignore such things and listen to MPs telling fairy stories while the Chinese plough ahead, or it can try to lead. — On the referendum #30: Genetics, genomics, predictions & ‘the Gretzky game’ — a chance for Britain to help the world
The very specific reference to genomics in the Tory manifesto appears to have been plucked straight out of a Cummings blog post, in which he quotes physicist Stephen Hsu:
The UK could become the world leader in genomic research by combining population-level genotyping with NHS health records… The US private health insurance system produces the wrong incentives for this kind of innovation… The NHS has the right incentives, the necessary scale, and access to a deep pool of scientific talent. The UK can lead the world into a new era of precision genomic medicine. — Precision Genomic Medicine and the UK
We could make Britain the best place in the world to be for those who can invent the future… that is something for Britain to do that would create real long-term value for humanity, instead of the ‘punching above our weight’ and ‘special relationship’ bullshit that passes for strategy in London. — On the referendum #23, a year after victory: ‘a change of perspective is worth 80 IQ points’ & ‘how to capture the heavens’
Our politicians are sleeping, yet have no dreams. To solve this, we must change emphasis from creating “growth” to creating the future: the former is an inevitable product of the latter… While Britain built much of modern science, today it neglects it, lagging behind other comparable nations in funding, and instead prioritising a financial industry prone to blowing up. Consider that we spent more money bailing out the banks in a single year than we have on science in the entirety of history. — On the referendum #26: How to change science funding post-Brexit
Focus is hard to hold in politics. After 1945, Dean Acheson quipped that Britain had failed to find a post-imperial role. It is suggested here that this role should focus on making ourselves the leading country for education and science… Who knows what would happen to a political culture if a party embraced education and science as its defining mission and therefore changed the nature of the people running it and the way they make decisions and priorities…. Progress could encourage non-zerosum institutions and global cooperation — alternatives to traditional politics and destruction of competitors. — Some thoughts on education and political priorities
Funding for the NHS
Within the first three months of our new term, we will enshrine in law our fully funded, long-term NHS plan. This is the largest cash settlement in NHS history… Between 2018 and 2023, we will have raised funding for the NHS by 29 per cent. By the end of the Parliament, that will be more than £650 million extra a week. — 2019 Conservative Party manifesto
This increase in NHS funding is slightly less than the increases promised by Labour and the Liberal Democrats, but it is notable in size for a Tory manifesto, and notable for any manifesto in giving a three-month deadline to lock it in law. This is another likely consequence of Cummings, who has repeatedly berated the Tories on this issue:
Any Tories who did not like us talking about the NHS reverted to type within seconds of victory and immediately distanced themselves from it and the winning campaign… Until people trust that the NHS is a financial priority for Tories, they will have no moral authority to discuss management issues. — On the referendum #21: Branching histories of the 2016 referendum and ‘the frogs before the storm’
Lots of what Corbyn says is more popular than what Tory think tanks say and you believe (e.g nationalising the trains and water companies that have been run by corporate looters who Hammond says ‘we must defend’)…Ask yourselves: what happens when the country sees you’ve… failed to deliver on the nation’s Number One priority — funding for the NHS. — On the referendum #25: a letter to Tory MPs & donors on the Brexit shambles
While favourable to free trade and entrepreneurship, Cummings seems generally sceptical of privatisation and of the motivations of most Conservative MPs:
I very much opposed any talk in No10 of profits. Given my views of the competence of Cameron and his team, do you really think I wanted them to try to voucherise the school system and allow profits?! No way Jose” — A few responses to comments, misconceptions etc about my Times interview
Tory MPs largely do not care about these poor people; they don’t care about the NHS, and the public has cottoned on to that. Boris and Michael realised this and I think, not only from the self-preservation point of view but also from the political smart point of view; they understood the power of actually delivering. — Dominic Cummings said Tory MPs do not care about poor people or NHS
Neither of the… two main political parties… now really have a clue what to do. The left won’t face the scale of the debt, it won’t face the problems of large bureaucracies… it often doesn’t have a very good understanding of the amazing ability of markets to solve problems. And the right also has an awful lot of blank spots. It won’t face the scale of inequality, problems with financial markets, bloated pay in the private sector… and the way the rich cheat their taxes, lots of problems like that… It doesn’t understand why people are resistant to the spread of markets. — Dominic Cummings speech at IPPR — The Hollow Men (2014)
He could perhaps be described as a radical centrist, but as most self-identified centrists consider him their nemesis, this seems ridiculous.
My motivation was the issue itself — not personal antipathy for Cameron or anybody else. I’ve never been a party person. I’m not Tory, libertarian, ‘populist’ or anything else. I follow projects I think are worthwhile. — On the referendum #21: Branching histories of the 2016 referendum and ‘the frogs before the storm’
I make judgements about people and ideas individually — for me parties are just a vehicle of convenience, not something that define my choices, likes, and ideas. — A few responses to comments, misconceptions etc about my Times interview
The signature message of Cummings’ Vote Leave campaign was that Brexit would free up £350 million of cash to spend on the NHS. This is nonsense and Dominic Cummings knows it— he doesn’t make any argument along these lines on his own blog. However he does argue that the Tories should prioritise funding the NHS and in this he seems sincere.
High-skilled immigration & international co-operation
Our new system gives us real control over who is coming in and out. It allows us to attract the best and brightest from all over the world…
Only by establishing immigration controls and ending freedom of movement will we be able to attract the high-skilled workers we need
to contribute to our economy, our communities and our public services…
We want the UK to be a magnet for the best and brightest, with special immigration routes for those who will make the biggest contribution. We will create bespoke visa schemes for new migrants who will fill shortages in our public services, build the companies and innovations of the future and benefit Britain for years to come…
…actively recruiting leaders in their field to come to the UK. The small number of the best technology and science graduates from the top universities in the world and those who win top scientific prizes will be offered fast-track entry to the UK — these people can do more than any others to drive scientific progress and help our NHS and our economy…
We will support international collaboration and exchange and ensure UK teams can recruit the skills and talent they need from abroad.
We will continue to collaborate internationally and with the EU on scientific research, including Horizon.
The idea that high-skilled workers can only enter the country if barriers are raised against low-skilled workers is obviously nonsense, but the repeated pledges to attract immigrants represents a very marked change of tone and policy from the Cameron/May years. In particular, the 2019 manifesto drops the target to bring down immigration to the tens of thousands, which Cummings specifically attacked many times:
In order to be the nation where new discoveries are made, we must take decisive steps to make the UK a magnet for talented young scientists… If the government had funded the NHS, ditched the ‘tens of thousands’ absurdity, and, for example, given maths, physics and computer science PhDs ‘free movement’ then things would be very different now — On the referendum #26: How to change science funding post-Brexit
At the moment government immigration policy is arguably the most stupid policy that we have… it stops physicists from Caltech or software engineers from India coming in who can build things, who can contribute in valuable ways to this country as immigrants have done historically. That is extremely stupid and extremely damaging — An interview with Dominic Cummings
We want a country MORE friendly to scientists and people from around the world with skills to offer and you give us ignorant persecution that is making our country a bad joke — On the referendum #24J: Collins, grandstanding, empty threats & the plan for a rematch against the public
Despite his contempt for Farage and his methods (mirrored in equal measure by Farage) Cummings clearly did exploit fear of mass immigration as a weapon in the referendum campaign. In particular, he used the false insinuation that freedom of movement from Turkey was imminent as a key pillar of the campaign:
If Boris, Gove, and Gisela had not supported us and picked up the baseball bat marked ‘Turkey/NHS/£350 million’ with five weeks to go, then 650,000 votes might have been lost. — On the referendum #21: Branching histories of the 2016 referendum and ‘the frogs before the storm’
His implicit attitude seems to be that since voters are “incapable of abstract reasoning” and the media environment compounds that, effective campaigns need to focus on the issues that speak to people, not the issues he thinks actually matter.
He reprises the baseball bat in his most recent post (which, with its rabble-rousing tabloid-style headline, stands in stark contrast to the rest of the blog). However he has never actually criticised immigration of any kind. The response he advocates is a temporary reduction in unskilled immigration:
The best practical policy is to reduce (for a while) unskilled immigration and increase high skills immigration particularly those with very hard skills in maths, physics and computer science — On the referendum #21: Branching histories of the 2016 referendum and ‘the frogs before the storm’
He expresses regret that Brexit has become so associated with animosity towards immigration and globalism, brazenly ignoring the fact that this is in large part a direct result of the of the “Turkey” pillar in his own successful campaign.
One of our campaign’s biggest failures was to get even SW1 to think seriously about this, never mind millions of voters. Instead the false idea spread and is still dominant that if you are on the side of free trade, think controlled immigration generally a positive force, and want more international cooperation rather than a return to competing nation states then you must support the EU. — On the referendum #21: Branching histories of the 2016 referendum and ‘the frogs before the storm’
The kind of international collaboration Cummings favours centres, predictably enough, on ambitious scientific endeavours and grappling with global risk:
Developing the solar system for commerce and science could give humanity a joint endeavour that increases fundamental knowledge and demands new forms of international cooperation helping to suppress natural tendencies towards traditional international relations which will be fatal in the long run…Eventually our luck avoiding the near misses of 1962 (thanks Vasili Arkhipov), 1979, 1983, 1995 and so on must run out. Given the number of near-misses over the past 60 years how likely is it we will keep dodging them for another 100 years? — The unrecognised simplicities of effective action #2: ‘Systems engineering’ and ‘systems management’ — ideas from the Apollo programme for a ‘systems politics’
Though he often compares the UK and the EU unfavourably with the vaulting technocratic success of modern China, he does not see this power shift as leading inevitably to conflict:
There are powerful interests urging Washington to aggression against China. The nexus of commercial and military interests is always dangerous, as Eisenhower famously warned in his Farewell Speech. They will be more dangerous as jobs continue to shift East driven by markets and technology regardless of Trump’s promises. The Pentagon will overhype Chinese aggression to justify their budgets, as they did with Russia. — Review of Allison’s book on US/China & nuclear destruction, and some connected thoughts on technology, the EU, and space
And though he has no confidence in the institutions of the EU to create the future he wants, he also condemns the belligerent tone of the UK’s traditional diplomacy with the EU:
Our approach to the EU now — whining, rude, dishonest, unpleasant, childishly belligerent in public while pathetically craven in private, and overall hollow.— Gesture without motion from the hollow men in the bubble, and a free simple idea to improve things a lot which could be implemented in one day (Part I)
We will improve the use of data, data science and evidence in the process of government. — 2019 Conservative Party manifesto
Cummings spends far more of his blog attacking Whitehall bureaucracy, not that of Brussels. He is scathing of its leaders, though not, as is sometimes implied in the media, of civil servants in general:
I saw some excellent civil servants in the DfE, particularly women 25–35 in private office who kept the show on the road, but the HR system generally promoted middle-aged male conservative mediocre apparatchiks — The Hollow Men II: Some reflections on Westminster and Whitehall dysfunction
We were greatly helped by exponential improvements in the Private Office — the unsung heroes, often women 25–35 working in the early hours to fix errors made by middle-aged men (on 2–3 times PO salaries) who left at 4 not caring if something works or doesn’t. — A few responses to comments, misconceptions etc about my Times interview
Like in all broken organisations, in some parts there was an interesting mismatch between the quality of some of the people and the abysmal outcomes. In other parts, senior people were hopeless. — Times op-ed: The Gove reforms
His central frustration is that people outside of government imagine a level of expertise and efficiency that does not exist. The most important decisions in the country, he says, are bumbled-through, not planned:
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. — What’s Got into Number 10?
I have found there is overwhelmingly more interest [in the study of experitse and prediction] in high technology circles than in government circles, but in high technology circles there is also a lot of incredulity and naivety about how government works — many assume politicians are trying and failing to achieve high performance and don’t realise that in fact nobody is actually trying.– Effective action #4b: ‘Expertise’, prediction and noise, from the NHS killing people to Brexit
Much thinking and discussion in Westminster is either a) vague ‘dinner party’ speculations about the distant future, or b) gossip about the daily crisis — amazingly little involves concrete operational planning to get from A to Z. Most media commentary on politics overstates the extent to which news derives from ‘plans’ (‘strategy’ being the most abused word) and understates the extent to which news derives from panic driven by chaos exacerbated by lack of operational grip… We do not have a problem with “too much cynicism” — we have a problem with too much trust in people and institutions that are not fit to control so much. —My essay on an ‘Odyssean’ Education
In place of this Cummings proposes systematically learning from abroad, using data where available, highlighting uncertainty where it is unavoidable, and learning from past mistakes:
Most activity in Whitehall occurs without asking ‘who, somewhere in the world, has already solved this problem?’, and people can be remarkably resentful if one asks this question — My essay on an ‘Odyssean’ Education
An alpha data science unit in Downing Street, able to plug into the best researchers around the world, and ensure that policy decisions are taken on the basis of rational thinking and good good science or, just as important, everybody is aware that they have to make decisions in the absence of this. — On the referendum #30: Genetics, genomics, predictions & ‘the Gretzky game’ — a chance for Britain to help the world
Whitehall is not only parochial about other countries, it is parochial about its own past. One of the most useful questions one can ask is not only ‘who has already solved this problem?’ but ‘have we already tried to do X and failed?’ In the DfE there is no system to answer this question reliably…. An obvious thing that is desperately needed in Whitehall is the creation of a network of ‘libraries plus internal historians’ connected to departments’ analysis teams that could not only answer the question ‘did we already fail with X?’ but would also be able to make public, on proper websites, as much information as possible for researchers and the general public to examine — The Hollow Men II: Some reflections on Westminster and Whitehall dysfunction
Prior to his existing role in Number 10, Cummings’ only government role was in the Department of Education 2010–2014, so it’s possible that his experiences there were unrepresentative of other departments, and are now out-of-date.
Without reference to his own penchant for lacing public debate with provocation and confusion, Cummings extols attempts to clarify decision-making and debate:
It’s incredibly powerful but incredibly hard to structure arguments so people pursue truth, not ‘winning’… Taylor insisted that fierce disagreements always kept to the issues and avoided personality and motive... Taylor built a culture in which people converted ‘Class-1 arguments’, in which people don’t really understand the other’s perspective properly (i.e most normal conversations), into ‘Class-2 arguments’ in which both sides had to be able to explain the other person’s view to the other person’s satisfaction… In politics, nobody even tries to structure discussions to learn. People don’t try to keep track of what is being discussed, what assumptions are made, what predictions are implicit and so on. Political discussions normally bounce all over, from politics to policy to communication to personal anecdote to immediate crisis to distant speculation before being curtailed for people to run to the next meeting without having resolved anything. They rarely end with any agreement even on disagreement. They tend to be just jibber- jabber. Imagine if people tried to structure discussion more sensibly as happens in other fields and combine it with Class-2 arguments and ‘Tetlock processes’ for auditing decisions. #29 On the referendum & 4c on Expertise: On the ARPA/PARC ‘Dream Machine’, science funding, high performance, and UK national strategy1
He is fascinated by the science of prediction and verifiable expertise:
To know whether you can trust a particular intuitive judgment, there are two questions you should ask: Is the environment in which the judgment is made sufficiently regular to enable predictions from the available evidence? The answer is yes for diagnosticians, no for stock pickers. Do the professionals have an adequate opportunity to learn the cues and the regularities? The answer here depends on the professionals’ experience and on the quality and speed with which they discover their mistakes…
Some did better than others and he identified two broad categories which he called ‘hedgehogs’ (fans of Big Ideas like Marxism, less likely to admit errors) and ‘foxes’ (not fans of Big Ideas, more likely to admit errors and change predictions because of new evidence). Foxes tended to make better predictions.They are more self-critical, adaptable, cautious, empirical, and multidisciplinary. Hedgehogs get worse as they acquire more credentials while foxes get better with experience.The former distort facts to suit their theories; the latter adjust theories to account for new facts.
Besides systematic attention to data and the possibility of being wrong, Cummings endorses the use in government of data visualisation tools:
Here is a panoramic photo of the unified control centre for the Large Hadron Collider — the biggest of ‘big data’ projects. Notice details like how they have removed all pillars so nothing interrupts visual communication between teams… Here is the Cabinet room. I have been in this room. There are effectively no tools. In the 19th Century at least Lord Salisbury used the fireplace as a tool. He would walk around the table, gather sensitive papers, and burn them at the end of meetings. The fire is now blocked. The only other tool, the clock, did not work when I was last there. Over a century, the physical space in which politicians make decisions affecting potentially billions of lives has deteriorated. — On the referendum #33: High performance government, ‘cognitive technologies’, Michael Nielsen, Bret Victor, & ‘Seeing Rooms’
Cummings’ previous government role was in education, and he sees systematic measurement and iteration as fundamental in this sphere also:
Money poured into the school system and its accompanying bureaucracy at an unprecedented rate but, other than a large growth in the number and salaries of everybody, it remained unclear what if any progress was being made. This bureaucracy spent a great deal of taxpayers’ money promoting concepts such as ‘learning styles’ and ‘multiple intelligences’ that have no proper scientific basis but which nevertheless were successfully blended with old ideas from Vygotsky and Piaget to dominate a great deal of teacher training. A lot of people in the education world got paid an awful lot of money (Hargreaves, Waters et al) but what happened to standards? — Effective action #4a: ‘Expertise’ from fighting and physics to economics, politics and government
If English state schools are to improve substantially, it will require good Academy chains to integrate… the use of frequent testing to see if pupils are learning, particularly ‘Concept Inventory‘ tests… these tests show whether students have actually understood fundamental concepts or the teaching was a waste of time… a learning feedback loop (idea-experiment-learn-embed-new idea) inside the chain that is connected to a broader external network (including the research community) which allows incremental improvements in performance based on solid information about what works. — My essay on an ‘Odyssean’ Education
I got Ben Goldacre into the DfE to do a report a) to spark a debate about evidence-based policy, and b) revamp the DfE’s analysis division. All the people who write endlessly ‘Gove’s an ideologue who ignores evidence’ never mention or refer to this. It was attacked by many (inside and outside DfE) including the unions. Many are cross about it because the thought of randomised control trials proving that their pet theory is rubbish is not appealing — A few responses to comments, misconceptions etc about my Times interview
There is hostility to treating education as a field for objective scientific research to identify what different methods and resources might achieve for different sorts of pupils.The quality of much education research is poor. Randomised control trials (RCTs) are rarely used to evaluate programmes costing huge amounts of money. They were resisted by the medical community for decades (‘don’t challenge my expertise with data’) and this attitude still pervades education. There are many ‘studies’ that one cannot rely on and which have not been replicated. — Some thoughts on education and political priorities
Evidence-based educational streaming
We will continue to support innovation, like our successful maths schools, set up for the most gifted young physicists and mathematicians. — 2019 Conservative Party manifesto
This specific celebration of maths schools in the manifesto is significant because it was a Cummings-Gove creation which he holds up with pride in his blog:
The idea for these schools came when I read about Perelman… Perelman went to one of the famous Russian specialist maths schools that were set up by one of the most important mathematicians of the 20th Century, Kolmogoro. I thought — a) given the fall in standards in maths and physics because of the corruption of the curriculum and exams started by the Tories and continued by Blair, b) the way in which proper teaching of advanced maths and physics is increasingly limited to a tiny number of schools many of which are private, and c) the huge gains for our civilisation from the proper education of the unusual small fraction of children who are very gifted in maths and physics, why not try to set up something similar. — Specialist maths schools — some facts
The idea of sorting children into ability levels and teaching them according to those ability levels is controversial, but Cummings unapologetically champions it as part of his vision for making the UK the best place in the world for science and education:
Almost nobody with power in education policy cares about what ‘useful thresholds for important skills’ even are, never mind ‘educating the most able’. There is no scientific program to investigate what children with below average above intelligence are able to learn.We do know from SMPY that ome children can absorb entire year-long normal school courses in a few weeks but the mainstream education policy world ignores such research… It should be a post-Brexit UK goal that risk/uncertainty literacy, defined in different ways for different abilities, becomes as normal in schools as reading. Near-universal reading used to be a controversial goal. This was achieved. There is no intrinsic reason why we could not do something similar with basic quantitative reasoning. — #29 On the referendum & 4c on Expertise: On the ARPA/PARC ‘Dream Machine’, science funding, high performance, and UK national strategy1
We will support start-ups and small businesses via government procurement, and commit to paying them on time— 2019 Conservative Party manifesto
Procurement is the single issue which most fully captures Cummings’ frustrations with government:
MPs constantly repeat the absurd SW1 mantra that ‘there’s no money’ while handing out a quarter of a TRILLION pounds every year on procurement and contracting. I engaged with this many times in the Department for Education 2010–14. The Whitehall procurement system is embedded in the dominant framework of EU law (the EU law is bad but UK officials have made it worse). It is complex, slow and wasteful. It hugely favours large established companies with powerful political connections — true corporate looters. The likes of Carillion and lawyers love it because they gain from the complexity, delays, and waste. It is horrific for SMEs to navigate and few can afford even to try to participate… Occasionally incidents like Carillion blow up and the same stories are written and the same quotes given — ‘unbelievable’, ‘scandal’, ‘incompetence’, ‘heads will roll’. Nothing changes… The media caravan soon rolls on… The recent Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood assured us all that the civil service could easily cope with Brexit and the civil service would handle Brexit fine and ‘definitely on digital, project management we’ve got nothing to learn from the private sector’…The fact that Heywood could make such a laughable claim after years of presiding over expensive debacle after expensive debacle and be universally praised by Insiders tells you all you need to know about ‘the blind leading the blind’ in Westminster... Management, like science, is regarded contemptuously as something for the lower orders to think about, not the ‘strategists’ at the top. — On the referendum #31: Project Maven, procurement, lollapalooza results & nuclear/AGI safety
In 2018 he specifically cited the Carillion procurement fiasco in an attack on a Conservative MP:
We want you to take money away from corporate looters (who fund your party) and fund science research so we can ‘create the future’, and you give us Carillion and joke aircraft carriers. — On the referendum #24J: Collins, grandstanding, empty threats & the plan for a rematch against the public
What did Dominic Cummings NOT get into the Tory manifesto?
Streamlined & cohesive government
Cummings’ blog is a labyrinth but echoing through every passage is a railing against what he sees as the myopic ineptitude of British leaders and institutions. He wants a sweeping transformation of every last dusty corner of Whitehall and Westminster. This obsession is distinctly absent from the Tory manifesto, presumably because it would not be a good look for the party that has governed Britain for most of the enormous sweep of history that Cummings disparages:
For the next 150 years, those at the apex of British politics made colossal error after error… The records show Whitehall in chaos over what to do… and it watched in bewilderment as Bismarck changed the course of world history… Forty-four years later in 1914, the confusion over guarantees to Belgium, often expressed in almost identical language to 1870, resurfaced. Whitehall was overwhelmed by the crisis… Despite 44 years to think about the crisis of 1870, we screwed up very similar questions… We failed to formulate a new national policy… In area after area, we either consciously abandoned trying to be a serious player (e.g. satellites and space) or cocked it up and frittered away big advantages (e.g. aerospace, computing)… After our next disaster — Suez — the Conservative Party made another grand historical error — it begged to join the European Community, seeking in membership a way to avoid thinking about hard problems… Having run the world’s monetary system pre-1914, we spent 1945–1992 botching monetary policy (unlike Germany and Switzerland), we lurched from crisis to crisis, and eventually threw ourselves into the ERM only to be ejected in ignominy shortly afterwards. Then we were told that we had to join the euro or we would be ruined. — Gesture without motion from the hollow men in the bubble, and a free simple idea to improve things a lot which could be implemented in one day (Part I)
Although Cummings focuses on the UK, his critique is applicable to bureaucracies in general, and his concern is global as well as national in scope:
Large bureaucracies, including political parties, operate with very predictable dynamics. They have big problems with defining goals, selecting and promoting people, misaligned incentives, misaligned timescales, a failure of ‘information aggregation’… People externally ask questions like ‘how could X go wrong?’, assuming that millions are spent on X so everyone must be thinking about X, but the inquiries usually reveal that nobody senior was thinking about X… These dynamics are well-understood but are very hard to change. Bureaucratic institutions tend to change significantly only in the event of catastrophic failure (e.g. 1914, 1929, 1945, 1989) — catastrophes that they themselves often contribute to. — The Hollow Men II: Some reflections on Westminster and Whitehall dysfunction
We must try to escape the current system with its periodic meltdowns and international crises. These crises move 500–1,000 times faster than that of summer 1914. Our destructive potential is at least a million-fold greater than it was in 1914. Yet we have essentially the same hierarchical command-and-control decision-making systems in place now that could not even cope with 1914 technology and pace. We have dodged nuclear wars /by fluke/ because individuals made snap judgements in minutes. Nobody who reads the history of these episodes can think that this is viable long-term, and we will soon have another wave of innovation to worry about with autonomous robots and genetic engineering. Technology gives us no option but to try to overcome evolved instincts like destroying out-group competitors. — The unrecognised simplicities of effective action #3: lessons on ‘capturing the heavens’ from the ARPA/PARC project that created the internet & PC
Cummings argues that because there is a level of failure which state institutions (unlike non-monopolistic private organisations) can sustain indefinitely without collapse, there is little incentive for anyone in government to take on the challenge of correcting such problems.
This is a system failure — the political system possesses few error-correcting features seen in markets and the scientific method so it cannot fix itself. — The unrecognised simplicities of effective action #2: ‘Systems engineering’ and ‘systems management’ — ideas from the Apollo programme for a ‘systems politics’
Individual entrepreneurs and firms do not necessarily learn — they can and do persist with doomed ideas — but the damage they do is contained, they go bust, and resources are diverted to new ideas, while bureaucracies can keep ignoring reality and keep ploughing more and more resources into disastrous enterprises. — Some thoughts on education and political priorities
Cummings’ solution is to turn the British state into a new form of government modelled on NASA in the 1960s, when a desperate US government was persuaded to suspend normal bureaucratic processes in order beat the USSR to the moon.
I think it is possible to create something new that could scale very fast and enable us to do politics and government extremely differently, as different to today as the internet and PC were to the post-war mainframes. This would enable us to build huge long-term value for humanity in a relatively short time (less than 20 years). To create it we need a process as well suited to the goal as the ARPA/PARC project was and incorporating many of its principles. — On the referendum #23, a year after victory: ‘a change of perspective is worth 80 IQ points’ & ‘how to capture the heavens’
We can actually sort out Whitehall and do what we used to do which is be a model of good governance for countries around the world. We will also then be in a position to build the kind of networks you need between basic science, venture capital, universities etc which are impossible to organise now with modern Whitehall. — An interview with Dominic Cummings
The simple philosophy underlying this new kind of government is to bring in exceptionally effective people, and then minimise bureaucratic processes in order to trust them to implement management systems promoting speed, information-sharing, and a unified approach. These kind of systems are obviously much easier to demand than to implement, but Cummings backs up his ideas with considerable substance.
Schriever then had to fight to remove endless tiers of the government bureaucracy demanding the right of approval and endless people who could say ‘no’ but not ‘yes’ that immediately stymied progress despite the supposed ‘top priority’. There were about 40 different branches of government that could interfere and a mindset dominated by normal regulation and lawyers. He went to Gardner and explained the problem and said he ‘could not possibly get the … job done if I have to go through all this crap’… Schriever now only needed a single approval of a single document each year. Schriever and TRW were given great scope to evade normal government rules including for personnel and procurement… this was a first for the Air Force ‘where the project manager had both technical and budgetary authority’ as previously every project drew funds from several budgets and required separate processes for making decisions…
Saving time saves money. Schriever and Mueller focused on speed and saving time.Whitehall now works on opposite principles: its default mode is to go slower and those who advocate speed are denounced as reckless. Repeatedly in the DfE I was told it was ‘impossible’ to do things in the period I demanded — often less than half what senior officials wanted — yet we often achieved this and there was practically no example of failure that came because my time demands were inherently unreasonable…
Armed with his unprecedented authority, Schriever pursued what became known as ‘concurrency’ — pursuing several options in parallel ‘in the interest of compressing time — our most critical commodity’…
Whitehall now works on opposite principles: its obsession is bullshit process for buck-passing and it fights with all its might against simplification and focus.
Cummings also moots pairing empowered managers with incentivising evidence-based policy:
Instead of trying to solve problems centrally and manage complex projects, Whitehall ought to reconsider what goals it incentivises centrally while decentralising decisions about methods. Other fields have developed empirical design rules and quantitative models (such as aircraft engineering). Whitehall needs to devise rules that encourage evidence-based policy where feasible and decentralised decision-making as a default mode. — My essay on an ‘Odyssean’ Education
And urges innovative ways of tackling unpredictability in the financial system:
I read blogs by physicist Steve Hsu from 2005 that were prescient about the sort of collapse that came with the ‘quant meltdown’ of August 2007 and the crash of September 2008, though the issues were so technical I could not assess them usefully. Almost nobody inWestminster who I emailed them to paid any attention.— Some thoughts on education and political priorities
[Whitehall] needs new methods to regulate, monitor, and when necessary intervene in complex systems: e.g. financial markets (high speed ‘algorithmic trading’, involving automated conflict at the microsecond scale, is likely to spark crises…). This requires the development of artificial immune systems (i.e. systems that produce robust defence via evolved decentralised solutions) and equivalents to products being developed to deal with manufacturing failure such as statistical stress modelling software. — My essay on an ‘Odyssean’ Education
More tangibly, he emphasises the necessity of shared and rigorously prioritised organisational goals, and rapid information-sharing:
The speed and precision of information sharing were rapidly improved. Instead of monthly updates, Mueller wanted daily updates. All data were displayed in a central control room that had automated displays from other field centers… Information was updated fast and shared widely… Overall, there was a complex mix of centralisation and decentralisation with Mueller giving people very wide powers to make decisions themselves and devolve further…
Everybody in a large organisation must understand as much about the goals and plans as possible. Whitehall now works on opposite principles… This is partly because most ministers fail at the first hurdle — developing coherent goals… There must be an overall approach in which the most important elements fit together, including in policy, management, and communications. Failures in complex projects, from renovating your house to designing a new welfare system, often occur at interfaces between parts… Extreme transparency and communication, horizontally as well as hierarchically… Break information and management silos… There is very little that needs to be kept secret in government and different processes can easily be developed for that very small number of things… Anything ‘cross-government’ is an immediate clue to the savvy that it is doomed and rarely worth wasting time on. A ‘matrix’ approach could and should be applied to break existing hierarchies and speed everything up… [Whitehall] is hopeless at assembling interdisciplinary teams and elevates legal advice over everything in relation to practically any problem, causing huge delays and cost overruns… The central problem is known to all experts and is shown in almost every inquiry: IT projects fail repeatedly in the same ways because of failures of management, not ‘lack of investment’ — The unrecognised simplicities of effective action #2: ‘Systems engineering’ and ‘systems management’ — ideas from the Apollo programme for a ‘systems politics’
He goes into more detail about frustrations and solutions for government in a 2014 speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research.
If there is anything uncontroversial about Cummings’ record in and out of government, it is that he has been an exceptionally effective organiser. He is often depicted as the evil genius/mastermind behind the curtain, but Cummings credits his success to organisational principles he copied from others, and wants to see copied in British government:
I am not clever, I have a hopeless memory, and have almost no proper ‘circle of competence’. I made lots of mistakes in the campaign. I have had success in building and managing teams. This success has not relied on a single original insight of any kind. It comes from applying what Charlie Munger calls unrecognised simplicities of effective action that one can see implemented by successful people/organisations. — On the referendum #21: Branching histories of the 2016 referendum and ‘the frogs before the storm’
If Cummings has modesty, he does not yoke it to deference:
Political institutions tend to become dominated by narcissists and bureaucrats. What sort of people are selected by parties to be MPs and (in the UK) form the pool from which ministers are chosen? MPs are seldom selected for their ability to devise policy, prioritise, manage complex organisations, or admit and fix errors. Elected representatives are often chosen from a subset of people who have very high opinions of themselves and who really enjoy social networking. While some who seek election are motivated at least partly by genuine notions of public service, many representative bodies are full of people motivated mainly by ambition, vanity, and a strong desire that others watch them talking. The social aspect of being an elected representative inevitably repels some personality types and attracts others — some are energised by parties and public speaking, others are drained by it… they select for those who pursue prestige and suppress honesty (a refusal to admit errors can be a perverse ‘asset’ in politics)…
At its worst, therefore, students leave university for politics and the civil service with degrees that reward verbal fluency, some fragments of philosophy, little knowledge of maths or science, and confidence in a sort of arrogant bluffing combined with ignorance about how to get anything done. They think they are prepared to ‘run the country’ but many cannot run their own diaries. In the absence of relevant experience, people naturally resort to destructive micromanagement rather than trusting to Auftragstaktik (give people a goal and let them work out the means rather than issue detailed instructions) which requires good training of junior people. This combination of arrogant incompetence is very widespread in Westminster and responsible for many problems. When such people surround themselves largely or solely with advisers who are very similar to themselves, we know from large amounts of research that the odds are high that groupthink will make these errors and problems even worse…
Further, ministers have little experience in well-managed complex organisations and their education and training does not fill this huge gap. Even most of the ones who have good motives — and there are many, though they struggle to advance — have a fundamental problem of scale.
There is a terrible mismatch between the sort of people that routinely dominate mission critical political institutions and the sort of people we need: high-ish IQ… a robust toolkit for not fooling yourself including quantitative problem-solving… determination, management skills, relevant experience, and ethics. — Unrecognised simplicities of effective action #1: expertise and a quadrillion dollar business
Bashing politicians is a popular sport but Cummings is unusual in proposing some specific and plausible fixes (some with acknowledged risks):
British PMs should appoint ministers from outside the Commons, put them in the Lords, and give Lords ‘rights of audience’ to speak in the Commons while simultaneously strengthening the Select Committee system… This would be a simple way to escape the problem of picking Secretaries of State expected to manage complex projects from the limited talent pool of the Commons. Arguably Britain should move to a directly elected PM and explore limits on the power of political parties… The most important change in Whitehall is HR rules: until it is possible to replace people quickly, in the same way that healthy armies fire bad generals fast, and close whole departments and organisations, major improvements are impossible… Embedding people with advanced modelling and statistical skills as part-time advisers to ministers would force Ministers and officials to confront the issue of acting on, against, or in the absence of, evidence. Allowing Ministers to hire specific project management people from outside Whitehall, and without Whitehall HR, could greatly improve quality of management. Massive changes are vital to a) our relationships with the EU and ECHR, b) judicial review, c) the role of lawyers and legal advice in Whitehall.There are hard trade-offs between the benefits and costs of transparency and scrutiny. Some parts of government need much more of both (including a stronger Freedom of Information Act), others much less. — Some thoughts on education and political priorities
Consistent with his overall priorities, Cummings sees education as a key element in providing better leadership for the long-term.
Universities need new inter-disciplinary courses. For example, in March 2014 Stanford announced new undergraduate degrees such as Computer Science and English. It would be great if Oxford created alternatives to PPE such as ‘Ancient and Modern History, Maths for Presidents, and Coding‘. Instead of bluffing through essays on competing views of macroeconomics, future leaders should be rigorously trained to understand and apply probabilistic reasoning to problems — and know when the situation is so uncertain there is no useful help from the sciences. New courses could embed students with leaders managing complex projects. Schools need to change their curricula to provide the building blocks for such courses. — My essay on an ‘Odyssean’ Education
Sending bankers to jail
The mystery surrounding Dominic Cummings (which is itself a mystery given his overwhelmingly informative blog) is sometimes filled with a blithe assumption that he is a rabid Thatcherite libertarian. In fact he frequently refers to people she might have called “wealth creators” as “coporate looters”:
Many Tory MPs and ‘free market’ pundits think tankers are living in a fantasy world in which they want hostility to big business to end even though everybody can see that those who failed largely escaped responsibility and have even gone back to doing the same things. (I’ve argued since 2001 for big changes on executive pay to almost zero effect. SW1 is full of people who think they’re ‘defending markets’ but are actually defending the opposite — corporate looting. In the 1930s Britain put people in jail because of what happened in the 1920s. We should have done the same after 2008.) — On the referendum #21: Branching histories of the 2016 referendum and ‘the frogs before the storm’
There is amazingly little thought about the legal and financial structure that has evolved for companies… we see that big businesses really do an awful job in adapting… we could experiment with different types of legal structure that create different incentives and therefore different rates of adaptation and internal culture. Charlie Munger has pointed out that Britain incubated the Industrial Revolution without modern public companies and he and Buffett have often pointed out how the incentives in public companies are destructive. Nobody listens. .. Free of EU rules, this is another area the UK could usefully experiment with post-Brexit — #29 On the referendum & 4c on Expertise: On the ARPA/PARC ‘Dream Machine’, science funding, high performance, and UK national strategy1
One of the few establishment figures Cummings admires is Andrew Holdane, chief economist at the Bank of England, known for his critiques of corporate governance, the gig economy, and support for the Occupy movement, trade unions and stronger action on gender and ethnicity pay gaps:
Andrew Holdane… gives some extremely interesting lectures… I wonder if anyone in Whitehall takes what he says seriously. I hope they do. He’s almost the only senior person who is involved with that sort of intellectual agenda… I think it’s very good that he’s there at the Bank of England. — Dominic Cummings speech at IPPR — The Hollow Men (2014)
For some reason nothing of this nature found its way in to the Tory manifesto.
Intelligent media debate [!]
Cummings directed his side to provoke, dumb down and misdirect in order to win the referendum in a way that, arguably, went below the usual low standards of politics. In this context, it is bizarre to read his thoughtful critique of the dire quality of political debate in the media:
TV coverage of politics rarely illuminates much because there is no clear way to decide who is right about anything. The format makes it almost impossible for any useful discussion to happen. Interviewers, politicians, and pundits talk past each other with no clarity about assumptions. Questions are vague, often meaningless, posed by interviewers who rarely have more than a thin bluffer’s understanding of any policy issue and the same is usually true of those answering — On the referendum #21: Branching histories of the 2016 referendum and ‘the frogs before the storm’
He accepts that the referendum was part of this:
Most of the ‘debate’ was moronic as political debate always is. Many hours of life I’m never getting back were spent dealing with abysmal infighting among dysfunctional egomaniacs. — On the referendum #21: Branching histories of the 2016 referendum and ‘the frogs before the storm’
Again, Cummings is unusual in going beyond the usual hand-wringing to prescribe specific and original remedies:
Shows should require precise quantitative predictions about well-formed questions as Superforecasters do. Newspapers should do the same when interviewing people. The next step is using this process to push people towards admitting conditional errors like ‘if I am proved wrong about X by date Y then I will admit I was wrong to claim Z’. If political shows pushed their guests to do this and kept track of the predictions it could have a big positive effect…
Rip up the format for political shows and base broadcasts on a) an empirical assessment of what people actually know and b) the science of how people really learn and how best to communicate. Instead of the tedious low-information interviews, imagine what could be done if one had a mix of artists, scientists, and policy specialists trying really hard to use the possibilities of film to explain things, then used cutting edge data science to test how effective they were as part of a learning cycle driving higher quality.
It’s a beautiful idea, but I would predict myself that the average Brexiteer pundit would generally do much worse out of this system than his Remainer equivalent.
Why does Dominic Cummings actually want to leave the EU?
So Cummings is obsessed with science, making British government less crap, and thinks high-skilled immigration is vital. Why does that mean the UK has to rip itself away from its allies and neighbours, sacrifice years to renegotiating every international relationship it has, offend the talented immigrants Cummings wants to attract, and damage economic growth with years of uncertainty and the installation of new borders? Don’t all these things make building the technotopia harder? How could any of this justify a campaign based on claims its leader doesn’t even believe in. Here’s how I believe he sees it:
“A necessary though not sufficient condition”
Cummings sees Brexit is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
I spent a year on the referendum in the belief that winning it was a necessary though not sufficient condition for Britain to play a part in improving the quality of government dramatically and improving the probability of avoiding the disasters that will happen if politics follows a normal path. I intended to implement some of these ideas in Downing Street if the Boris-Gove team had not blown up. — Unrecognised simplicities of effective action #1: expertise and a quadrillion dollar business
ARPA said ‘Let’s get rid of all the wires’. How do we ‘get rid of all the wires’ and build something different that breaks open the closed and failing political cultures? Winning the referendum was just one step that helps clear away dead wood but we now need to build new things. — The unrecognised simplicities of effective action #3: lessons on ‘capturing the heavens’ from the ARPA/PARC project that created the internet & PC
This is just as well because, for those who welcome freedom of movement and place no value on maximal sovereignty, Brexit offers nothing but damage. Brexit+vision however, might just possibly be a different story.
Brexit makes the reinvention of Britain unavoidable
UK institutions are in the process of experiencing a ‘hard reboot’ as the legal basis for their operation is radically changed… The parties and officials are having to reconsider many policies and operating assumptions that they were much happier ignoring.There are therefore many opportunities to change the basic orientation of the country and to improve normal government bureaucracies and policies more radically than has happened since World War II.There is also an urgent need to replace EU membership with a new national strategy and strong public support for a very different direction to anything offered by the parties and Whitehall. MPs and officials trundle through their days as if ‘working normally’ is reasonable but the public and the business world know that the same people operating in the same parties and bureaucracies will produce the same results: persistent failure. Brexit only happened because a critical mass realised the system has failed and had a sense that ‘The fish rots from the head’. Most of the necessary new thinking will have to come from outside Westminster/Whitehall and somehow be inserted into its institutions, as helpful viruses are now inserted to kill cancer cells. — #29 On the referendum & 4c on Expertise: On the ARPA/PARC ‘Dream Machine’, science funding, high performance, and UK national strategy1
I thought that Leaving would… require and therefore hopefully spark big changes in the fundamental wiring of UK government including an extremely strong intelligent focus on making Britain the best place in the world for science and education — On the referendum #21: Branching histories of the 2016 referendum and ‘the frogs before the storm’
Ironically, one of the very few people in politics who understood the sort of thinking needed was … Jean Monnet, the architect of the EEC/EU! Monnet understood how to step back from today and build institutions. He worked operationally to prepare the future… Monnet was one of the few people in modern politics who really deserve the label ‘genius’. The story of how he wangled the creation of his institutions through the daily chaos of post-war politics is a lesson to anybody who wants to get things done. — On the referendum #23, a year after victory: ‘a change of perspective is worth 80 IQ points’ & ‘how to capture the heavens’
This much is true. Remainers and Leavers can agree that Brexit wrenches the UK from innumerable institutional connections and well-established global economic and diplomatic positioning, and forces everything to be rethought. The act of Brexit in itself however, does nothing to stipulate the direction of that recreation — the only certainty is the cost incurred by upheaval.
Defeating the far right
Though he consciously exploited people’s fears about mass immigration, the only argument Cummings himself makes against it is that it fuels the the rise of nativist extremists. By ending freedom of movement, Cumming expected to end Nigel Farage et al.:
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. — Can Brexit End the Scourge of British Nativism? Dominic Cummings Thinks So.
Too bad he injected a fresh dose of poison as part of his cure, one which prompted a dramatic spike in racist hate crime:
There was a “clear spike in hate crime” around the time of the EU referendum, according to the Home Office… racially or religiously aggravated offences around the time of the referendum… were 44% higher in the month following the referendum result compared to the same month in the previous year. — Hate crime in England and Wales
Still, in expecting Brexit to weaken the power of immigration as an electoral weapon, Cummings has so far been proved correct:
On the first three measures, there is a consistent story: the public have become more positive about immigration… The positive shift in attitudes seems to be occurring across the political and social spectrum…. The share spontaneously naming immigration as a top priority has fallen continuously since the Brexit vote. It is now at its lowest level since the financial crisis and recession in 2008–9 — if the fall continues it will soon be at its lowest level since before the accession of the A8 EU countries in 2004. — Professor Rob Ford, How have attitudes to immigration changed since Brexit?
Speed of error-correction
Cummings reveres streamlined government organisations like 1960s NASA, where decisions, experiments and reforms took place fast enough to put a man on the moon in the space of a few years. He sees EU institutions as inherently too cumbersome and bureaucratic to solve problems with this level of speed and decision.
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. NB. This most fundamental question played effectively no role in the debate. — On the referendum #21: Branching histories of the 2016 referendum and ‘the frogs before the storm’
Moreover, he claims that these blockages extend into all aspects of government, not just those obviously tied to EU agreements:
I think it was Lord Denning who said EU law is like water running up a river and flooding through all the tributaries. It was a very good metaphor. If you work in government, as I have, you see that disentangling ourselves from this bureaucracy can be a very difficult process. Even in a department like the education department you deal with the EU every day, far more than people realise. — An interview with Dominic Cummings
One of the things that is most striking is how much of a Cabinet Minister’s box is filled with EU papers… all these EU papers are circulated in the red boxes. Nominally, these are ‘for approval’. They have a little form attached for the Secretary of State to tick. However, because they are EU papers, this ‘approval’ process is pure Potemkin village. If a Cabinet Minister replies saying — ‘I do not approve, this EU rule is stupid and will cost a fortune’ — then someone from the Cabinet Office calls their Private Office and says, ‘Did your Minister get pissed last night, he appears to have withheld approval on this EU regulation.’ If the Private Office replies saying ‘No, the minister actually thinks this is barmy and he is withholding consent’, then Llewellyn calls them to say ‘ahem, old boy, the PM would prefer it if you lie doggo on this one’. In the very rare cases where a Minister is so infuriated that he ignores Llewellyn, then Heywood calls to explain to them that they have no choice but to approve, so please tick your box and send in your form, pronto. Game over. — My report for Business for Britain on the dynamics of the debate over the EU, and a small but telling process point on the EU
I’m not at all convinced that it’s impossible to make most of the drastic reforms Cummings envisages within an EU context, but I have no meaningful insight on that question.
A change in the regulatory environment, in favour of science, technology and their application in business
Cummings believes the EU’s technological stagnation relative to the US and China is due in large part to an unfavourable regulatory environment:
High-tech breakthroughs are increasingly focused in North East America (around Harvard), West Coast America (around Stanford), and coastal China (e.g Shenzhen). When the UK leaves the EU, the EU will have zero universities in the global top. EU politicians are much more interested in vindictive legal action against Silicon Valley giants than asking themselves why Europe cannot match America or China. On issues such as CRISPR and genetic engineering the EU is regulating itself out of the competition and many businesspeople are unaware that this will get much worse once the ECJ starts using the Charter of Fundamental Rights to seize control of such regulation for itself, which will mean not just more anti-science regulation but also damaging uncertainty as scientists and companies face the ECJ suddenly pulling a human rights ‘top trump’ out of the deck whenever they fancy (one of the many arguments Vote Leave made during the referendum that we could not get the media to report, partly because of persistent confusion between the COFR and the ECHR). Organisations like Y Combinator provide a welcoming environment for talented and dynamic young Europeans in California while the EU’s regulatory structure is dominated by massive incumbent multinationals like Goldman Sachs that use the Single Market to crush startup competitors… If you watch this documentary on Shenzhen , you will see parts of China with the same or even greater dynamism than Silicon Valley and far, far beyond the EU. The contrast between the reality of Shenzhen and the rhetoric of blowhards like Macron is one of the reasons why many massive institutional investors do not share CBI-style conventional wisdom on Brexit. The young vote with their feet. If they want to be involved in world-leading projects, they head to coastal China or coastal America, few go to Paris, Rome, or Berlin. The Commission publishes figures on this but never faces the logic. — Review of Allison’s book on US/China & nuclear destruction, and some connected thoughts on technology, the EU, and space
Few scientists and even fewer in the tech world are aware of the EU’s legal framework for regulating technology and the implications of the recent Charter of Fundamental Rights (the EU’s Charter, NOT the ECHR) which will give the ECJ the power to regulate any advanced technology, accelerate the EU’s irrelevance, and incentivise investors to invest outside the EU. — On the referendum #30: Genetics, genomics, predictions & ‘the Gretzky game’ — a chance for Britain to help the world
There should be a systematic improvement in the ecosphere of school curricula, universities, venture capital, high skilled immigration policy, planning policy, tax policy, the structure (and incentives) of public companies, intellectual property law (which in important ways supports rent- seekers and undermines innovation and is particularly badly understood by politicians/officials), and so on, combined with a systematic attack on the rent-seekers that both parties suck up to.We could play an extremely valuable role as an experimental testbed for scientific regulation outside all three major blocks (USA, EU, China) without having to obey awful EU rules like GDPR (which Whitehall obviously want us to promise to keep forever). — #29 On the referendum & 4c on Expertise: On the ARPA/PARC ‘Dream Machine’, science funding, high performance, and UK national strategy1
Well-intentioned regulations like GDPR can indeed complicate research but so does every country having its own unique regulations: “Freedom of movement and a common legislative framework help make cross-border collaboration much easier”. What counts for more in developing hubs of research and related entrepreneurship: A hypothetical tech-worshipping regulatory environment in one country? Or membership of a huge existing international regulatory environment that most scientists and tech companies seem okay with. I’m not in a position to have a clue.
Institutions, not market access, as the engines of economic growth
The economic argument against Brexit, which the overwhelming majority of economists agree upon, is that the increased friction between the UK and EU markets will be damaging, that the UK alone can never enjoy the EU’s trade negotiating power, and that Britain will squander its strategic position as a pro-business and relatively pro-migrant entrepot inside the vast EU market.
Cummings more or less acknowledges that this argument is valid, pouring scorn on the handful of economists who offer a different pro-Brexit narrative:
A small faction of pro-Brexit MPs (which also nearly destroyed Vote Leave so they could babble about ‘Global Britain’ in TV debates)… were an asset to Remain in the referendum and they’ve helped sink a viable policy since. A party that treats this faction… as a serious authority on the law deserves everything it gets… This set of problems cannot be solved by listening to charlatans such as the overwhelming majority of economists and ‘trade experts’ who brand themselves pro-Brexit, live in parallel universes, and spin fantasies to you.” referendum-and-the-frogs-before-the-storm-2/ — On the referendum #25: a letter to Tory MPs & donors on the Brexit shambles
He doesn’t spell it out, but Cummings’ implicit argument is that the effectiveness of institutions — their ability to run public services, build ecosystems of entrepreneurship, education and research, regulate markets and generally make and implement good decisions — can have a far greater impact on economic growth than marginal differences in market access. He also implicitly argues that certain types of economic growth — those associated with breakthroughs in technology — are more valuable in terms of impact on living standards and future growth than others — financial services for example. Both of these positions are persuasive. The question is whether Cummings’ attempts at them could ever be sufficiently transformative to outweigh the damage of Brexit, or whether Britain will simply continue along its existing unremarkable trajectory, distinguished only by the anger and distrust of Brexit and an occasional burst of technocratic froth and verbiage.
The Cummings conundrum
As someone who voted, marched and ranted for Remain, and a paid-up Swinson-admiring member of the Liberal Democrats, my discovery of what I do consider to be clear and visionary thinking in Cummings’ blog has been disorientating. I hate the nonsense, distortions and fear-mongering of his campaign, but I am certain no-one else with his single-minded obsession with strategic thinking, effective organisation and the dynamics of innovation will ever appear again at the heart of British politics. These three objects of obsession can have a practically all-determining indirect and long-term impact on people’s lives and those of future generations (in that without innovation there can be no leaps in living standards and no fixes to disease and pollution, and without a data-based and effective government apparatus pursuing a joined-up strategy there can be no effective public services, state intervention, or mitigation of global risks) but they have practically no impact on short-term suffering and aspirations and so there is no incentive for politics or the public to ever prioritise them. It takes a maverick/monster like Cummings to do that.