Chancellor of the Exchequer? Foreign Secretary? Who cares! The big appointment of last week was Dominic Cummings as ‘senior advisor’ to the Prime Minister. The precise title isn’t important, what counts is that he’s the brains behind the Boris premiership.
But who are the brains behind Dominic Cummings? Well, you could call it a network of foreign influence – one which includes high ranking individuals in the American, Chinese and Prussian military. (Yes, that’s right, Prussia with a P.)
I should point out that most of Major Dom’s heroes are no longer with us. Indeed one of them, the Chinese guy, has been dead for more than two millennia. Also, their influence on his thinking isn’t exactly a secret – it’s all there on his blog. In a series of must-read posts and essays, including one which is more of a short book, he explains his ideas (and those of his heroes) on how government works (or ought to work).
The media have already noted his fondness for John Boyd, one of the important military theorists of the 20th century. Boyd’s mantra was “people, ideas and hardware – in that order”. So, in trying work out what Dominic Cummings is all about, it seems appropriate to start with the thinkers before the thoughts.
After trawling through that infamous blog, I’ve picked out a top 10 ranked in no particular order. It’s a subjective and far from exhaustive list, but to my mind it paints a picture of what makes the man tick – and how he’d like to make the machine of government tick.
1. John Boyd
As we’ve already mentioned him, let’s begin with Boyd – a gifted USAF fighter pilot and a brilliant military strategist. His long career spanned active service in the Korean War through to his crucial contribution to the planning of Operation Desert Storm.
He was an archetypal maverick and thorn in the flesh of military officialdom. He earned himself a string of nicknames including “The Mad Major” and “Genghis John” — but often won his battles with the top brass. His great emphasis was on the speed, flexibility and decentralisation of decision-making as the only way of staying ahead in a competitive, ever-changing world.
Philosophically, he drew a distinction between ‘being someone’ — getting ahead in a system by conforming to its rules — and ‘doing something’, i.e. achieving change in spite of the system. Boyd chose the latter path — as has his number one fan.
2. Sun Tzu
Cummings describes Boyd as “a modern day Sun Tzu” — which is quite the accolade, because the legendary Chinese general was the greatest strategist of all time — a military commander of such subtlety that he may not have actually existed. How cunning is that!
However, his great work, The Art of War certainly exists and dates back to the 5th century BC. Its author believed that merely winning was not enough: “to fight and conquer in all our battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemies resistance without fighting.”
But how can you win without fighting? To quote Cummings, it is by confusing and demoralising the enemy through “disorientating moves, feints, bluffs” — i.e. keep the enemy guessing and do what they least expect. Of course, that raises the possibility that the Dominic Cummings blog is an elaborate exercise in misdirection and not a guide to what he’s up to at all.
Then again, when your enemies read nothing longer or deeper than tweets and headlines, a long and thoughtful essay may be the best place to hide your secret plans.
3. Otto von Bismarck
This one’s a villain not a hero. Cummings calls him a “monster” and says the world would have been better off if, in 1866, an assassin‘s aim had been truer. As it was, the Prussian general lived to unite Germany, and thus create the conditions for first and second World Wars.
Continually keeping his enemies off balance, Bismarck’s “diabolical genius” enabled him to defeat the Danes, the Austrians and the French. As for the British, he achieved the ultimate Art of War objective of winning without fighting. Germany became the dominant industrial and military power on the Continent, while the British elites slumped in confusion wondering what to do about it.
Indeed, Cummings accuses the British establishment of 150 years of strategic incoherence — from the 1860s up to the present day. One might regard this as a rather sweeping view of history. Nevertheless, having won the Brexit referendum and placed himself in Downing Street, he’s in a position to act upon it.
4. T.S. Eliot
It’s not all old generals with DC, there’s room for poetry too. However, he deploys it like a weapon — not least in his essay The Hollow Men II: Some reflections on Whitehall and Westminster Dysfunction.
Eliot evokes images of impotence and pointlessness, which Cummings applies to the establishment politics of our own era:
“Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass…
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion…”
It captures the aimlessness of what passes for ‘government’, the worthlessness of self-described ‘leadership’: so much activity to so little effect.
It also chimes in with Boyd’s distinction between ‘being someone’ and ‘doing something’. Democracy turns to dust when it becomes a vehicle for the former.
5. George Mueller
What does ‘doing something’ look like? Well, no one got things done like George Mueller – who, as head of the NASA Office of Manned Space Flight (1963-69), was the man who put a man on the Moon.
When one considers what happened before his leadership (the USSR’s clear lead over the USA in space) and afterwards (the troubled history of the Space Shuttle programme), Mueller’s achievement is all the more remarkable.
Cummings takes a close look at how Mueller ran the organisation (and budget) that successfully delivered the Apollo programme. He identifies the key features that made it all work and sees the inversion of these qualities in the various ways in which contemporary government bureaucracy doesn’t work.
If Major Dom gets his way, HMG in the 2020s could end up looking like NASA in the Sixties.
6. Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger
The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that these are two people not one. However, together, they form the leadership of Berkshire Hathaway — which they built-up from a small-ish textiles manufacturer in the Sixties to the fifth largest publicly traded company in the world.
Impressive, but Buffett and Munger aren’t the only successful investors in the world — so what does Cummings find especially interesting about them?
It revolves around something that Munger once said:
“There isn’t one novel thought in all of how Berkshire is run. It’s all about what Peter [Kaufman] calls ‘exploiting unrecognized simplicities.’ …Warren and I aren’t prodigies. We can’t play chess blindfolded or be concert pianists. But the results are prodigious, because we have a temperamental advantage that more than compensates for a lack of IQ points.”
Unrecognised simplicities. Great achievements don’t always require great advances in human knowledge, but rather the ability to spot opportunities that others miss — which they do, all the time, thanks to the natural biases of the human mind and the herd-like behaviour of dysfunctional organisations.
For instance, the Leave side in the Brexit referendum identified a large group of habitual non-voters who might be persuaded to vote if they felt it would make a difference. On 23 June 2016, they did vote and they did make a difference. In retrospect, what happened seems obvious – so obvious that many people on the other side can’t believe they missed it, which is why they prefer to believe conspiracy theories instead.
7. Philip Tetlock
Why did so few people see Brexit coming? Clearly the experts who advised David Cameron, Angela Merkel and other key players in the run up the referendum were wrong in their predictions. The same can be said of the Hillary Clinton campaign, which also came to grief in 2016.
The work of Philip E. Tetlock sheds light on the murky business of prognostication. He’s the Canadian-American academic who made a 20-year scientific study of the accuracy of forecasting in public life.
According to Cummings, this was the key finding: “the average expert was no more accurate than the proverbial dart-throwing chimp on many questions.”
However, Tetlock also identified a minority of non-professional forecasters who do significantly better than everyone else, whether expert or non-expert. These ‘super-forecasters’ turned out to be ordinary, but numerate, people with an open-minded interest in diverse fields of knowledge. Crucially, they were willing to update their predictions in the light of new evidence.
Cummings says that Whitehall has ignored Tetlock’s research — but, that’s OK, it’s not as if ministers make decisions over billions of pounds of long-term investment or anything like that.
8. Robert Taylor
Bob Taylor was to the internet what George Mueller was to the moonshot. Over the same period that Mueller was running the Apollo programme, Taylor was running something called the Information Processing Techniques Office. I realise that sounds like the winner in a competition to name the world’s dullest workplace, but it changed the course of history. As part of the Advance Research Projects Agency of the US Department of Defence, Taylor direct the public investment that made the internet happen.
A less inspired set of decisions could have produced an American version of Minitel – the now defunct French version of the internet.
As if to prove Tetlock right about experts and forecasting, Taylor was not a computer scientist. Severo Ornstein (who was a computer scientist of great distinction) described him as a “concert pianist without fingers”. But that didn’t stop him from calling the right tune.
9. Richard Feynman
In 1962, Dean Acheson said that “Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role”. Membership of the EU was meant to be that role, but evidently it didn’t suit us. So what should our role be?
Dominic Cummings’ answer is to make Britain “the leading country for education and science”. So, let’s conclude this list with two of his scientific heroes.
Richard Feynman was a giant of theoretical physics who famously defined science as “the belief in the ignorance of experts”.
Michael Gove (a key Cummings ally) was heavily criticised when he said that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. In the fuller quote he makes it clear that by experts he means “people from organisations with acronyms saying that they know best and getting it consistently wrong”. Nevertheless, the short quote was seized upon as evidence of a turn toward an evidence-free, know-nothing style of politics.
In fact, Gove and Cummings are no more anti-knowledge that Feynman was. Rather what they’re against is the fossilisation of intellectual authority within self-serving, unaccountable bureaucracies.
No one, no matter how expert, is immune to their own BS. To quote Feynman again, “the first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool”.
10. Murray Gell-Mann
Finally, we come to another hero of science, the discover of the quark, Murray Gell-Mann. It is from him that Cummings derives his vision of an “Odyssean education” – that is, an education that enables the decision-makers of the future to reconcile different ways of seeing the world.
Cummings is sometimes accused of taking an ‘everyone-is-an-idiot-apart-from-me’ attitude to public life. But that’s an idiot’s reading of what he actually thinks, which is that most of the people and most of the ideas we need to make a difference are already out there – they just need to be properly integrated.
His evident frustration with ‘the system’ lies in an understanding of its wasted potential – and its continued failure to look beyond itself and learn from known examples of leaders and organisations that have cracked the code of effective action.
His anger, therefore, is directed at the establishment figures who stand in the way of change — those who choose to be someone, not do something.
As Gell-Mann once put it, “if I have seen further than others it is because I am surrounded by dwarfs”.