September 20, 2023

Can a dissident operate openly within the system he wishes to destroy? For revolutionary-turned-Substacker Dominic Cummings, wrestling with whether or not The Startup Party he has floated on his Substack blog is a mission worth pursuing, the auguries are surely grim. As he correctly notes, Brexit “was a once-in-decades opportunity — election victory on the biggest issue in politics for decades, the biggest government crisis since 1945, clear mandate and need for huge change in economy and government… This combination is highly unlikely to recur ‘naturally’ for many decades.” Yet the opportunity was squandered, and Cummings must share some of the blame: the chosen vehicle, Johnsonian populism, was manifestly unfit for the task, and Cummings’s own political downfall was largely self-inflicted.

It is, in truth, too early to say whether or not Brexit was a net good or evil for British politics: its real effects will not be known for some decades as they work their way through the system, and will be revealed in the state’s reactions to future crises as yet visible only in their barest outlines. Yet it is hard for its supporters not to intuit, already, that it was a Pyrrhic victory on a minor front of what will be a long and gruelling war of attrition. Like Trump’s election, rather than overturn a collapsing system, it allowed the system to consolidate itself in a more ruthless and vigorous form, merely a vaccine allowing the exhausted establishment to eke out another few years of feeble life. The political ferment that followed the Brexit vote has already birthed a handful of insurgent conservative-populist parties, none of which display the slightest possibility of gaining power. Whatever reformist energy Brexit unleashed has long since dissipated itself in draining and tiresome battles between the legions of culture war grifters it spawned. If anything, Brexit proved that the British state cannot reform itself: its decay may be too advanced to permit functioning governance, but the broader SW1 system is still just strong enough to see off any challengers to its rule.

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For Cummings, rationalising the failure of his project, the “Insider SW1 network that lives on Twitter” and “revealed a powerful global conspiracy that invented a parallel world and conned voters into believing it” is a natural target. Yet the hard reality he must face is that it all worked: like the parallel Russia collusion fantasy in America, none of its elaborate parallel world-building needed to be true or even plausible to rally anxious liberals to the defence of their threatened hegemonic status, yet it established the still-thriving climate of hysteria which eventually led to his downfall. Ironically, his self-mythologising over the power of data and tech was not markedly different to that of the Cambridge Analytica hoaxers grifting on behalf of the opposition. If Brexit was the result of longstanding mass disenchantment with the country’s downward trajectory, Cummings’s hyping of his own dark data voodoo was just the flip side of Carole Cadwalladr’s elaborate fantasies, just as analytically dubious and ultimately just as politically deadening.

Indeed, Cummings is hampered by being part of the same SW1 bubble he rails against, an insider whose outsider status is only perceptible from a vantage point within the system. Is it true, as he claims, that “it became high status to believe in Cadwalladr?” One would fear for his reading of Britain’s social dynamics if he genuinely believes so. Cummings proposes to campaign against the ECHR to turn the power of the anti-Brexit Twitter commentariat, judo-like, against itself, so that “the pro-ECHR campaign would be the Insider-left-NPC Twitter network and they’d be working really hard for the anti-ECHR campaign every day,” but this itself is a dangerous case of Twitter Brain, and a policy proposal not helped by the unfortunate fact that his chosen adversary is precisely the same force that soundly defeated him last time round. It is difficult to see how a second Cummings-led project will fare any better against the same enemy.

There lies Cummings’s tragedy, and our own: these people, our establishment, are manifestly incompetent, credulous, of middling intellectual capacity at their very best — he didn’t even try to disguise his contempt for them while he was working with them, as Laura Kuenssberg’s new documentary series shows — and yet they beat him. No wonder he wants a second try; and no wonder we should be sceptical. Reading Cummings’s long-teased pitch for party funding, the most striking thing is how modest and quietly conservative his vision is. He wants a functioning state, more receptive to voter demands, tough on crime, strong on growth: but so do we all. Yet the times have changed, the mood has darkened further, and the prospect of reform looks ever dimmer. Back in the 2010s, when history had ended, Cummings looked like a maverick visionary revealing the heretical truths that the British state was so inefficient as to barely function, and would fare disastrously when faced with a serious crisis. Yet these opinions are now so widely held as to be commonplace, and the warning lights are flashing red. As a recent poll revealed, barely half of British voters now believe that democracy is superior to the alternatives, and nearly a quarter would welcome military rule (perhaps this figure would be higher if the British defence establishment were more competent).

It is doubly unfortunate for a Cummings-led reform project that much of his target audience is now enraptured by elaborate conspiracy theories of their own, largely revolving around Covid, in which he was a hawkish voice for locking down longer and harder than anyone else in the party he now wishes to destroy. In the near-decade following Brexit, the general malaise has deepened, the level of political debate has if anything worsened, and the prospect of saving the British political system from its own dysfunction seems less achievable than ever before. Trust in the system has almost completely evaporated. Perhaps, beyond Cummings’s rage at the “Twitter NPCs” who wrecked his project, this is a problem shared by all late-stage democracies whose political discourse is driven by social media: yet no obvious solution is apparent to lead us away from disaster.

So the stakes are even higher now, while the rot is approaching terminal. Cummings, probably correctly, assumes that a Labour government will be at best no more disastrous than the Conservatives, with the result that “the next two years will see a hideous election showcasing the rot of the old parties” so that “Somebody will seize this huge opportunity, for good or ill”. One cannot fault his diagnosis, while remaining sceptical that he is the remedy.

Eager to refight the battles of Britain’s past, Cummings is difficult to place within today’s political context. It can be argued that there are now two strands within the nascent post-Brexit British Right. On the one hand, we have a reformist tendency that encompasses Yimby neoliberals, the online dissident Right who, whether you like it or not, will shape conservatism in the decades to come, and the quasi-Gaullist state-capacity builders who partly overlap with the National Conservative wing. On the other, we have a blackpilled defeatism most coherently expressed by Peter Hitchens, in which Britain is doomed by the compounding errors of previous decades and any attempt to wrest control of the levers of the state is a futile effort: collapse is certain, and only escape is possible. In his proposal for a new party, Cummings bridges both tendencies: perhaps, as he suggests, a data-driven, Midlands-based coalition of small business owners, “NHS heroes” and local headmasters can arrest the rot, or at the very least destroy the Conservative Party in the process; or perhaps it is already too late, and, as he states, “more likely than adaptation is slow rot, elite blindness, fast crisis, and disintegration à la Austro-Hungarian Empire”.

If there is any probability in the latter outcome, then the question arises: why is it worth trying to reform the SW1 system in the first place? Cummings is, unfortunately, probably correct in his perception that “SW1 thinks our political system is very resilient but it isn’t… It’s even more brittle now than a decade ago and [the] dangers are worse.” So why not let his opponents drink the dregs of their own policies? If the SW1 system is so resistant to reform, why bother with a new Westminster vehicle at all? The political beneficiaries of the Habsburg collapse were not found within the Ringstrasse after all: if the crisis is as dangerous as he warns, his solutions seem strangely timid; yet if his proposals are enough to stave off disaster, the danger cannot be as bad as he asserts.

What is striking, then, given all the partly self-inflicted opprobrium Cummings won as a dangerous radical seeking to overturn the system, is his fear that in the “short-term this [project] is unlikely to succeed… But somebody will do something like this. And if it happens in response to the next set of crises — when the financial system melts down, when we have large scale violence because of racial/immigration/terror conflicts, whatever — it will be ugly.” This is, perhaps, an unexpectedly small-c conservative vision from a man often framed as an accelerationist: that our current path is a dangerous one, and that enough of value remains within the Westminster system to make a last-ditch effort at reform worth attempting. For all Cummings made himself a scapegoat for liberals frustrated at Brexit, his project reveals him as less a revolutionary than a reformist, attempting to save an ailing system from itself: a Kerensky rather than a Lenin.

As he states, “the reason I tried so hard 2015-16 and 2019-20 was a feeling of doom about the current system. *I* don’t need to do this. But *SOMEBODY* needs to get us off the track we’re on.” In this, Cummings is entirely correct, and his goal of destroying the Conservative Party is entirely worthy of support. Whether or not the Westminster system can or should be reformed is an unanswerable question at this point; to live in a peaceable, orderly, prosperous, functional society ought to be a modest and easily achievable goal, yet our current political system somehow cannot achieve it. It would be reassuring to think that Cummings can succeed, but it would sadly be prudent to assume that he will not. Perhaps disaster can be averted; we can hope newer, more destructive actors are not waiting in our future. But however the current crisis resolves itself, future historians may interpret Cummings not as the system’s wrecking-ball, but as its last desperate defender.