by Will Lloyd
Friday, 24
June 2022
Dispatch
11:42

Dominic Cummings: ‘We are all doomed’

The guru has nuclear war on his mind
by Will Lloyd
Nuclear Dom. Credit: Jeff Overs/BBC/PA Wire

Our deadliest problem, said Dominic Cummings last night, in his first public appearance for a year, has five parts.

We have a state built in the Fifties. We have pre-1914 crisis management systems. We have “pre-Newtonian” educations for leading public figures. We have Darwinian lizard brains that fill each of us with latent violence. And then there is 21st century technology, which can turn half the world into a furnace in the space of an afternoon.

Quite simply, he said, “we are doomed”.

So: it was not going to be an evening’s light entertainment at the Orwell Prize Festival.

The panel, Cummings, the excellent Katja Hoyer and Richard J. Evans, and the slightly less excellent Gideon Rachman, were there to discuss Otto von Bismarck and political power. The audience were there for Cummings. I spotted hacks from the Sunday Times and the Guardian. Oh, and the Spectator. But that was Cummings’ wife.

He was nervous initially. Rubbing his hands and face, introducing himself squeakily into the microphone. It showed that he cared. Aside from Rachman, who admitted he didn’t really know that much about Bismarck (lol), Cummings was on a panel with real grandees. If there is something Evans doesn’t know about German history it probably never happened. Hoyer recently wrote the best book on Prussian history for many, many years.

Unlike — presumably — many, many meetings with civil servants and drooling MPs, Cummings was surrounded by intellects he might actually defer to, people who actually knew more than he did. There were times when Cummings’ public image as the brain box who chewed up lesser minds was broken; he was even intellectually modest — he yielded to the greater expertise of Hoyer and Evans.

Bismarck was a hobby for Cummings, a figure he wrote and thought about in his spare time. For Hoyer and Evans, Bismarck was part of their profession.

It was a real discussion. Evans spoke of Bismarck’s astuteness, and the “baleful precedents” he set for German culture. Hoyer talked about Bismarck as a manager of events, rather than a mover of them. Faced with an “unpalatable reality”, the unending churn of events, all the politician could do was muddle along with them as best they could.

Bismarck is a north star for Cummings. He said that the world would have been a better place if Otto had been assassinated in 1866, but he also compared him to terrifying chess-playing AI systems. Inside Bismarck, he said, was “a vast world of calculation” utterly unknowable to mortals. (Was Cummings speaking autobiographically, I wondered?) Hoyer and Evans told stories; Cummings spoke in numbered lists. He wanted us to use this information.

Cummings approved of Bismarck’s “extreme epistemological scepticism”. It was this wariness of the world — where crisis could explode randomly, at any moment — that he approved of in Bismarck, and in himself. All of us were potentially “a sorcerer’s apprentice”. We could never be certain how, or when, or why our plans might come to fruition, and what their consequences might be.

This brought Cummings to Covid. He talked about May 2020. Watching the Prime Minister “trolley” between policies, between keeping the economy going and keeping people alive, many times in the same meeting. Key people, said Cummings, didn’t know what their priorities were. He sat at baize tables in old rooms surrounded by old men holding pencils and paper, men who didn’t know what “exponential growth” was, and despaired.

The evening ended with Cummings’ devoted male following asking him long, technical questions. He frowned when Liz Truss was mentioned, and we all laughed, even though we were all thinking about nuclear war.

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Paul MacDonnell
Paul MacDonnell
3 months ago

Cummings’ response to Covid is the best example of the very thing he said he was fighting: bureaucratic stupidity. Like a credulous pensioner terrified out of her wits, he swallowed the so-called science hook line and sinker.

He wasn’t, as he pretended to be, against centralised, bureaucratic bullying. It’s that centralised bureaucratic bullying with a patina of ‘science’ fulfilled his pretence of knowledge and licenced him to be a total nutcase.

In his response to Covid it was as if, upon meeting Mussolini, a lifelong anti-fascist declared him to be the solution to all of our social problems.

He belongs in the dustbin of unambiguously bad public policy.

Keith J
Keith J
3 months ago

I agree. Cummins identifies “pre-Newtonian” educations for leading public figures as being one of our greatest problems, but presumably excludes himself despite having studied history. He talked the talk about the power of harnessing data and applying analytical methods to shape Government policy, but then cowed before the preferred scientific opinion during the pandemic. Scientism rather than science.
I have nothing against historians – I admire some of them for their wisdom. But there seems to be a total absence of scientifically educated people in Government and administration – I can’t even think of a senior politician educated in the sciences since Thatcher (except Merkle in Germany). I wonder how Thatcher would have handled the Covid scientists – she may not have been an epidemiologist, but I am sure that she would have had a strong bull sheet detector and would have challenged the covid advisors.

Matt M
Matt M
3 months ago

Cummings got Covid wrong. The government’s first instinct was to ride out the first wave. The would have been the correct move. Cummings and Neil Ferguson conspired to undermine confidence in this position.

It is hilarious that he still portrays himself as a Cassandra.

Last edited 3 months ago by Matt M
Vyomesh Thanki
Vyomesh Thanki
3 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

What solid research based evidence indicates that it would have been the correct move for the government to ride out the first wave?

Jane Watson
Jane Watson
3 months ago
Reply to  Vyomesh Thanki

Sweden. Probably not ‘research based evidence’, by your criteria, but that would be ignoring real world data?

Matt M
Matt M
3 months ago
Reply to  Vyomesh Thanki

Not sure about the research but the consensus seems to be that school closures did more harm than good and of course we are now reaping the whirlwind of shutting down and restarting economies around the world.
My view (in hindsight) is that we should have focused all the preventative measures – isolation, masks, treatment and vaccines on the old and infirm and tried to keep the rest of society functioning. If we had limited vaccines, lockdowns and furlough payments to over 65s and younger people with health problems, we would have saved a fortune.

Gunner Myrtle
Gunner Myrtle
3 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

This was obvious within the first two months of the pandemic. I don’t think our politicians- and particularly our public health authorities deserve any benefit of the doubt. They knew their programs were BS – they just didn’t have the courage to change course.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
3 months ago

“we are doomed”

Never mind nuclear war, this would have been my reaction had I, perchance, been required to attend.
German History, Gideon Rachman and Dominic Cummings. Sounds like the funnest of fun evenings.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
3 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Jeez I know – but may have been a great place to meet Sado-masochists, if you’re into that sort of thing….ouch!

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
3 months ago

Did he say ‘we’re all doomed’ in a Scottish accent like Private Fraser or was it more like ‘she cannae take it anymore’ like Chief Engineer Scotty?

Ibn Sina
Ibn Sina
3 months ago

Let’s face it. Cummings is just plain weird.

Jane Watson
Jane Watson
3 months ago
Reply to  Ibn Sina

Weird and spiteful. One of those ‘analytical’ (I’m being polite) types who can find a dozen things wrong with everything- and everybody else – but struggles to make decisions and can’t see the wood for the trees.

Overloaded with data and bogged down in the minutiae. If you’ve ever worked with the type, you’ll have been exhausted by the passive aggressive drag at every turn.

Has he got a new job yet, or has his personal vendetta and the drip drip of confidential info made him unemployable?

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
3 months ago

Was Mrs.Johnson discussed?

Jeanie K
Jeanie K
3 months ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

Which one, or do you mean Carrie Antoinette?

Albireo Double
Albireo Double
3 months ago

I have not bothered to read the article as I object to the word guru in the strapline, to describe this narcissistic nerdy nincompoop.
If the strap line is changed then I shall read the article – but until then, I shall restrict myself to the comments. on this one.

Brendan Keelan
Brendan Keelan
2 months ago

Personally I think Cummings is doomed. He has some good insights and ideas and an equal number of impenetrable or plain mad ones. He’s lost his chance of exerting any more influence in government because who would ever trust him after his drip drip drip of leaks about Johnson and his government ( whether you consider him right to have done so or not).
My perception of him is a spiteful child prone to tearing the wings off butterflies.

Howard Gleave
Howard Gleave
2 months ago

“Key people, said Cummings, didn’t know what their priorities were. He sat at baize tables in old rooms surrounded by old men holding pencils and paper, men who didn’t know what “exponential growth” was, and despaired.”

But who thinks growth was exponential now? Given the incredibly low vulnerability of the under 60s? And who
thought of the collateral damage?