The purpose of Brexit
London4Europe Committee member and former senior civil servant Michael Romberg has re-read Dominic Cummings’ blogs on the referendum and provided the annotated extracts below. This blog looks at Cummings on the purpose of Brexit, his analysis of the problems of the EU and his populist views. Companion blogs look at his views on campaign strategy and practical campaigning. A fourth blog looks at the implications for our campaigning.
Dominic Cummings' blogs
There are 32 blogs on his referendum page (with #33 added separately in June 2019), mostly lengthy and often with links to other Cummings articles. They are pretty unappetising to read - it is hard to find anyone or any institution that avoids Cummings' contempt, apart from the odd American professor with a resolutely C18th view of the American constitution, a handful of practical managers who have written science-based management theories and the trinity of Michael Gove/ Boris Johnson & Gisela Stuart. One has to aim off for the "I saved the world" tone. But they do tell us something of what it was all about and how it was done.
If you only wish to read one, then I suggest that #21 (January 2017) is the key (and very long) review of the referendum campaign. The group of blogs numbered #24 set out his view of the criticisms put forward by Carole Cadwalladr and the Guardian.
Lessons for us
Cummings had a clear view of the purpose of Brexit: it should lead to the break-up of the EU and a new way for countries to engage with each other. By ending freedom of movement it would safeguard trade and so prevent a return to protectionism. Brexit would provide the opportunity for the UK to revolutionise how it conducted its government.
Of course, that was only one of the purposes of Brexit that sections of its advocates supported. It has little in common with Lexiters’ socialism in one state, for example. And it – like all objectives for Brexit – was kept hidden during the campaign.
The Cummings project is failing. The EU shows no sign of breaking up as a result of Brexit or other pressures. The nationalism and protectionism of President Trump and President Xi Jinping is hardly the era of free trade and open co-operation that Cummings sought.
And let’s be clear what was required for Cummings’ vision to succeed: Brexit; break-up of the EU; a revolution in the British Government’s values and conduct; most major countries to fall into line with Cummings’ wishes for how the world should be organised; a new global international organisation to be set up.
At the very least one could say that he did not set out a clear path for how all this was to happen. Nor did a man so proud of his managerial competence deal with the risk that he might get Brexit but none of the rest of his necessary preconditions.
More importantly, you can only get societies to move if you are open about what you are trying to do and seek to take people with you. Consider Margaret Thatcher: she never lost an opportunity to argue for her vision of an enterprise society or to explain the steps she was taking to get there and how they linked to the objective. Brexiters have not only not agreed on an objective; they have not sought to obtain support for any of them.
Cummings' view of the purpose of Brexit
The overriding importance of preventing protectionism by cutting immigration and human rights
"I thought very strongly that 1) a return to 1930s protectionism would be disastrous, 2) the fastest route to this is continuing with no democratic control over immigration or human rights policies for terrorists and other serious criminals, therefore 3) the best practical policy is to reduce (for a while) unskilled immigration and increasehigh skills immigration particularly those with very hard skills in maths, physics and computer science, 4) this requires getting out of the EU, 5) hopefully it will prod the rest of Europe to limit immigration and therefore limit the extremist forces that otherwise will try to rip down free trade." (January 2017)
Why he joined the campaign: "I thought that Leaving would improve the probability of 1) Britain contributing positively to the world and 2) minimising dangers. I thought it would:
- minimise Britain’s exposure to the problems caused by the EU;
- improve the probability that others in Europe would change course before more big crises hit, e.g. by limiting free movement which is the biggest threat to continued free trade;
- 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;
- improve the probability of building new institutions for international cooperation to minimise the probability of disasters." (January 2017)
A new world architecture
His aim was sometimes to have a two tier EU: one group who were into supranational government; another group more concerned with free trade based on mutual recognition of standards rather than harmonisation. He also wanted a new Global Organisation for Security and Trade – a global alliance offering free trade, mutual defence, a pooled force for counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency and “state building. That would include the USA. It would eventually replace the UN. (September 2005 Cummings' introduction to a lecture by Professor Epstein)
"We need to explain why this 1950s bureaucracy is failing and how a ‘leave’ vote by Britain will help spark a much better political organisation for Europe. Ultimately, we need a European institutional architecture that a) can accommodate the Eurozone’s attempt to prop up the euro and build a political union, b) can allow the Eurozone and non-Eurozone countries to trade freely and cooperate in a friendly way, and c) helps much greater global cooperation on issues such as technological breakthroughs, a billion new people joining the global economy, and migration. The EU has neither the physical assets or legal structure it needs to cope with the forces changing the world. A ‘leave’ vote is a necessary but not sufficient condition for doing much better." (September 2015)
But he also envisaged EU collapse, because without the "dysfunctional and parochial EU" it would be possible to have better global co-operation. (June 2015)
"All those who think like me that the EU cannot cope with the profound economic and technological transitions reshaping the world should reflect on this. We need to present a picture of how the world could be organised much better, with 1950s bureaucracies like the EU replaced with dynamic institutions that can adapt fast and fix their errors rapidly. … We deserve better and we can do much better than the EU. We need to explain how" (September 2015)
Cummings here misses out a key part of the story. He is right: the competition between sovereign states brought benefits to Europe. The price was war and conflict. The EU maintains the benefits of competition – we can compare and learn from the different health, education, economic &c systems of EU countries; but we skip the war. "Thanks to the prominence of Farage the dominant story among educated people is that those who got us out of the EU want to take us back to the pre-1914 era of hostile competing nation states. Nothing could be further from the truth. The key people in Vote Leave wanted and want not just what is best for Britain but what is best for all humanity. We want more international cooperation, not less. The problem with the EU is not that it is about international cooperation but that it is so bad at it and actually undermines it. Britain leaving forces those with power to ask: how can all European countries trade freely and cooperate without subscribing to Monnet’s bureaucratic centralism? This will help Europe in the long-term. To those who favour this bureaucratic centralism and uniformity, reflect on the different trajectories of Europe and China post-Renaissance. In Europe, regulatory competition (so Columbus could chase funding in Spain after rejection in Portugal) brought immense gains. In China, centrally directed uniformity led to centuries of stagnation. America’s model of competitive federalism created by the founding fathers has been a far more effective engine of civilisation, growth, and new knowledge than the Monnet-Delors Single Market model.” (June 2017)
The future UK/EU relationship
"... it ought to be clear that Britain can have a free trade deal and cooperate from outside as other countries in Europe and elsewhere do" (September 2015)
A spur to UK domestic reform
Britain would be able to have a profound rethink of how we organise politically and enable us to develop new systems based on decentralised cooperation and distributed decision-making. He is keen on education and science funding (NB: largely UK competences). He believes that welfare reform has barely scratched the surface of waste and fraud. (June 2015 and October 2013)
"If we vote NO, we could do an awful lot to improve not just prosperity but also democratic government and the cause of international cooperation. We could, perhaps, help make a transition from the 1950s era that spawned the bureaucratic centralism of the EEC to a new desperately needed era of decentralised problem-solving networks that we need to help solve humanity’s challenges and exploit the tremendous properties of science and markets " (July 2015)
Error correction is a key to learning. Cummings believes that the common law (but not Whitehall) provides for error correction and that the "evolved institutions of the Anglo-American system" are better than the EU. (January 2017)
"If Britain were to focus on science and education with huge resourcesand a new-found seriousness, then this regulatory diversity [from the break-up of the EU] would help not just Britain but all Europe and the global science community. We could make Britain the best place in the world to be for those who can invent the future. … No country on earth funds science as well as we already know how it could be done — 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. How we change our domestic institutions is within our power …. We have the resources. But can we break the system open?" (June 2017)
Cummings' analysis of the EU
Cummings is thoroughly unimpressed by UK policy-making. So he is not motivated by some nostalgic idea of a glorious British past that Brexit should recreate. For example: "In the 1970s, the EEC was seen as a modernising project and connected to Britain’s recovery from basket case status. Echoes of this were still there during the euro battle 1999-2002. This feeling seems to have died." (September 2015)
For a man who has studied the EU he is quite capable of basic errors, talking for example of law-making by a bureaucracy. He also decries the cost of EU regulation without asking what would be the cost of UK regulation, leave alone the cost of 28 national regulations, or of not regulating. (Introduction to lecture by Professor Epstein May 2005)
His 2014 statement that "The policy that [voters in focus groups] raise and discuss most is ‘the Australian points system for immigration’ and many realise that membership of the EU makes this impossible." is at least too broad - it is entirely in the UK's gift for non-EU immigration.
He estimates the proportion of UK law that is EU-determined at about half – the high end of an admittedly pretty uncertain range. He also holds that Ministers have no option but to agree it. That of course is wrong - EU laws can be opposed in both the Parliament and by national governments in the Council of Ministers. British diplomats spend their time resisting or shaping EU proposals to make them ones that Ministers like. If Cummings has a basis for complaint it is about weaknesses in intra-Whitehall co-ordination before decisions are finalised - but my experience was that internal consultation was pretty good. Perhaps his concern was with the position of Ministers not directly involved (or their special advisors) who nonetheless wished to express a view.
His objection is that the EU is too willing to stop markets operating freely. He prefers the American Constitution on the principles of the philosopher Locke, at least as it was applied before Roosevelt's New Deal expanded the power of the Federal Government against the States. (Introduction to lecture by Professor Epstein May 2005)
A main complaint is that the EU is a big bureaucracy which is slow to adapt and liable to capture by monopolistic businesses. Institutions need to be more agile to deal with the world's challenges. (June 2015)
Cummings' anti-elite populism
Cummings is hostile to the liberal elite. For example, here he synthesizes anti-elite sentiments with reported worries about immigration, criticising an elite who can signal their virtue by being pro immigration because they "have little or no idea what it’s like to struggle on £18,000 a year in a part of Birmingham that has been radically changed by immigration in a short period knowing one has no reserves to call on." (August 2015)
His July 2016 victory blog has entirely conventional populist messages about the shadowy elite who rig everything in their favour: "We got to places that ‘politics as usual’ ignored. People who have been ignored, and have never been involved in politics before, suddenly spoke out and took action." "In 2008, the worst financial crisis since 1929 hit the world. The people who paid the bills were mainly those on P.A.Y.E. They are still paying. They are also paying the bills for the EU’s and the euro’s dysfunction. Meanwhile many with power and money who were responsible for the mistakes and were completely wrong in their predictions dodged their fair share of the bills and got rich out of the EU system. We spoke for those on P.A.Y.E." "The British political system is broken in many ways and needs big changes – the EU is not our only problem. Our campaign was never controlled by any party though there were great people from all parties who helped us. All the parties have very deep problems. The way they are structured incentivises MPs to focus on themselves and their party – not the public interest." "But we cannot be sure [Brexit] will happen. In particular, while there are many wonderful civil servants there are also many who regard our victory as a disaster. They will try to stop or minimise changes. " "Westminster cannot be relied upon. Taking back control to Britain is just the first step. The next step should be major political changes in Britain so that the broken Westminster and Whitehall system has to focus on the public interest in a way it does not now. If we increase the power of MPs and officials without changing how they behave, we will not solve our problems. We need organisations like Vote Leave to operate permanently to give a voice to those who otherwise won’t be heard."
Even in June 2014 he had said: "But even if people vote ‘out’, … who doubts that powerful forces that want us to remain may try to force a second vote?"
Cummings after the 2016 referendum on a further referendum
Writing in March 2019: "These guys [ie SW1/ MPs/ the political class in general] didn’t learn from the 2004 referendum before 2016 and even now very few seem to realise that a ‘second referendum’ would, given minimal competence from ‘Leave’, be a mega-repeat of 2004 in which ‘the EU’ would not even be the main issue." "The intricacies of the Regional Assembly were not central to how the [2004 referendum] campaign developed, just as the EU will not be central to a second referendum — it will be about YOU AND YOUR PARTIES, dear MPs, and if you think 2016 was bad, you will find the next one somewhere between intolerable and career-ending." "And next time we will not close down — we will try to ensure that votes are respected and the malign grip of the parties and civil service is broken, as Vote Leave said should happen in 2016."
But the good news is that in June 2019 Cummings did write: “A second referendum in 2020 is quite possible”
Post referendum: Cummings on the Brexit negotiations
He continues in his anti-elite vein in his commentary on Government action after the referendum. Apart from standard-issue grumbling about triggering Article 50 without a plan and swipes at some in the ERG, it's quite hard to work out what he thinks should have happened. I think his view is that the Government should just have gone all out for being a 3rd country with an FTA and not tried to have the close alignment that Theresa May's deal would bring about. He does not believe that the Irish border is a serious issue. He does not address the economic arguments. (May 2018)
In a June 2019 blog which is not directly relevant to the referendum, Cummings argues for the creation of high performing teams in the Civil Service and the associated physical and intellectual infrastructure. He makes a lot of good points about the need to apply in one field the learning from another, the problems of groupthink, the importance of data, the value of graphics presentation. But he is mesmerised by particular technical solutions. He does not pay much attention to the structural, strategic and environmental barriers to translating solutions to another field. He has a rather old-fashioned desire to apply the hard data of the physical sciences to the social sciences where hard data are sparse and their meaning is less clear. Moreover, the personal vanity, belief in conspiracy and utter contempt for almost everyone and every organisation he faces make it hard not just to read the blog but also to believe that he will ever inspire people to adopt his ideas.
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