Argument

Can Dominic Cummings Banish Nativist Populism From U.K. Politics?

Boris Johnson's Brexit guru masterminded the Vote Leave campaign, but he despises Nigel Farage and sees a quick Brexit as the best recipe for neutralizing the far-right.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's chief of staff, Dominic Cummings, arrives at Downing Street in central London on Aug. 2.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's chief of staff, Dominic Cummings, arrives at Downing Street in central London on Aug. 2. TOLGA AKMEN/AFP/Getty Images

Around the world, Brexit has come to be known as an exercise in populist politics. Many observers believe the 2016 referendum vote was won on the back of a toxic form of nationalism combining racism, xenophobia, and imperialist nostalgia for the heyday of the British Empire. 

The real story is not so simple. Arguments for Brexit were made on historical, constitutional, and democratic grounds. Their proponents ranged across the political spectrum, and they appealed not only to nativist plutocrats but to a significant number of minorities and immigrants, too. But more importantly, it ignores the possibility that some Leave advocates might have been fighting to prevent a populist takeover of Britain—by strategically adopting the same position as a band of xenophobic extremists in order to strip them of their mobilizing force.

Some Leave advocates wanted to prevent a populist takeover of Britain—by strategically adopting the same position as a band of xenophobic extremists in order to strip them of their mobilizing force.

Dominic Cummings is one such Brexit advocate—and one who continues to wield great influence over Britain’s departure from the European Union. As the architect of the Leave campaign and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s newly appointed senior advisor, Cummings has been behind the scenes of Brexit at every turn. In 2016, after temporarily giving up politics to read about Greek mythology and mathematics, Cummings was placed in control of Vote Leave’s referendum strategy. He set himself the target of “hacking the political system to win a referendum against almost every force with power and money in politics.” By all accounts, he succeeded—and broke electoral law in the process.

The word “hacking” is taken directly from Cummings’s blog, infamous for its impenetrable rants about causation theory and smart-assed shots at politicians. But critics would do well to pay attention to the content of these rants—not only to understand the mind behind the Brexit campaign, but also to discover how the man who is effectively the CEO of the British government is attempting to confront Europe’s populist threat. ⁠

You need not read far in order to determine that Cummings has always detested the current Brexit Party (and former UKIP) leader Nigel Farage with the same degree of venom that he holds for Eurocrats in Brussels. This is not just because he thinks Farage is a nasty bigot; it is because he knows that the majority of the United Kingdom likely thinks Farage is a nasty bigot. For Cummings, democracy is nothing but a game—people vote based on whose team they want to be on, not where they align on a left-to-right spectrum. During the referendum campaign, Farage was bad politics because he put people off the Brexit team: His anti-immigrant public image made leaving the EU look like a nativist cause, and most Brits don’t want to self-describe as nativists.

Cummings lays this out in typically stark terms on his blog: If Farage had been the major TV presence instead of Boris Johnson, who was a latecomer to the campaign, “it is extremely plausible that this would have lost us over 600,000 vital middle class votes.” That is not to say that he didn’t see immigration as an important issue; he thought that it had to be put across in a respectable manner. This meant adopting the slogan “take back control”—an ingenious metaphor for the general loss of community, confidence, and cultural homogeneity across the country—rather than standing beside posters scaremongering about lines of nonwhite migrants and refugees, as Farage did. Again, Cummings summarizes the point with a sharp, sinister remark: “Immigration was a baseball bat that just needed picking up at the right time and in the right way.”

This raises the larger question of why Cummings wanted Brexit in the first place? The answer is even more interesting than the tactics he used to bring it about. At the Nudgestock conference in Folkestone, England, a year after the referendum, an audience member asked Cummings whether he felt guilty for what he had done. “For me … the worst-case scenario for Europe is a return to 1930s-style protectionism and extremism. And to me the EU project, the Eurozone project, are driving the growth of extremism,” Cummings replied. “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,” he said. “Once there’s democratic control of immigration policy, immigration will go back to being a second- or third-order issue.”

Two years later, his prediction appears to be coming true. Johnson’s new Conservative government has abandoned the Tories’ decadelong commitment to restricting net migration, and immigration has continued to drop down the list of voter priorities. With a Tory team hellbent on implementing the referendum result at the helm, Farage’s Brexit Party has begun to suffer at the polls. Farage, sensing his fate, has been quick to proclaim that Cummings was never a “true believer” in the Brexit cause, suggesting that he secretly wanted Britain “bound to the EU.” Nothing could be further from reality.

Cummings’s Euroskepticism is ironclad. He sees a world facing automation, climate change, and the risk of nuclear war, and he thinks that the EU is entirely incapable of responding to these threats. In his eyes, Brussels is a dysfunctional bureaucracy that “regulates to help the worst sort of giant corporate looters defending their position against entrepreneurs.” Unaccountable to its citizens and more focused on lining the pockets of its managers than reform, he believes that the EU is surrendering control of the 21st century to the United States and China. 

Even the staunchest proponent of the European project cannot deny that he has a point. The Brexit negotiation shambles have played out against the backdrop of an EU facing several crises: disputes over Italian debt, continued resentment toward free movement of people, and waning European influence in the Middle East. These are outcomes of the structural fault lines running through the union: divisions between the northern and southern members, fundamental disagreement over the definition of the term “European,” and the difficulty of containing euro and non-euro members within a single legal and constitutional order.

These are not, in and of themselves, bulletproof arguments for Brexit. But coupled with Britain’s place outside the euro and its historic skepticism of further political integration, they are a possible justification for it. Cummings may think he has wielded the Brexit baton in the same way that he picked up the immigration bat, appearing to bring closure on a divisive issue in order to shift the focus to other priorities. The mentality sets him apart from Farage and populists across the continent. For Farage, Brexit is an end—and would mark the end of his political career. For Cummings, Brexit is only the beginning. 

Cummings has never joined a political party, instead labeling them “a vehicle of convenience.” He was headhunted as Conservative Party advisor in 2001 but promptly quit after offending his Tory bosses when he told them that their brand was the only thing more unpopular than the European currency. He went on to become an advisor to Michael Gove at the Department for Education—an opportunity to act upon his disdain for the U.K.’s civil service. They nicknamed the government establishment “the blob,” made enemies of teachers nationwide, and went on to radically transform the education system, placing state schools under stringent academic standards and fighting grade inflation in secondary examinations. 

Cummings is more of an entrepreneur than a politician. Some of his greatest idols are Otto von Bismarck, Richard Feynman, and Sun Tzu. He disdains red tape, empty prestige, and overpaid charlatans; he loves technology, evolutionary psychology, and the science of super-forecasting. His greatest interest of all is how to produce high-performance institutions, capable of both making difficult decisions and course-correcting during crises. And he believes that the EU’s inability to do either of these things has lent oxygen to populist opportunists and put the future of international cooperation at risk. 

In laying out his own vision for a post-Brexit Britain, Cummings barely mentions national identity. His concerns are structural, not cultural—he is preoccupied with free trade, not ethnic replacement. He wants to increase skilled immigration and turn the U.K. into a magnet for young scientists from across the world, using the comparative advantages of the country’s National Health Service to take a lead in the controversial field of genomic medicine (the technology that allows doctors to detect disease risk and cognitive problems in embryos). He even proposes providing open borders to math and computer science Ph.D.s — not out of generosity, but out of an absolutist belief in scientific talent—an idea that Johnson has already taken up. Indeed, Cummings uses the word “talent” repeatedly in his writings. The Chinese Communist Party attracts talent, he contends; the EU and U.K. do not.

If liberal democratic values are to survive, the institutions that defend them require an overhaul. They must be streamlined, democratized, and updated at the same rate as the technology sector. Otherwise, the decisive policymaking of China’s authoritarian model—better suited to tackling climate change and other long-term challenges—could make it a serious rival to the West’s staid, stagnant bureaucracies.

These arguments played almost no role in the 2016 Brexit referendum, but they will be central to Cummings’s plans in the coming months. Last month, Johnson’s government appointed a top team filled with ethnic minorities and immigrants, signaling that Brexit can lead to an open future, not an imperial past. 

Alongside his former boss Michael Gove, Cummings has been put in charge of ensuring that Britain is ready to leave the EU by the end of October, with or without a deal—and the latter appears increasingly likely. Johnson, for his part, has been doing what he does best: running around in campaign mode as his staff handle the busywork. Together, they have embarked on a bid to woo disillusioned voters, pledging over 3.5 billion pounds ($4.2 billion) to deprived towns and an additional 1.8 billion pounds ($2.2 billion) in spending for the NHS. It is no surprise that Johnson sees himself as a modern-day Winston Churchill and that Cummings has professed admiration of Alan Brooke, an advisor to the former prime minister. 

Whether or not they’ll succeed remains an open question. The fact that their opposition is severely divided will give them a boost: The Labour Party has lost all credibility in the midst of its own civil war, and the Liberal Democrats’ success has split the anti-Brexit vote. But despite the burst of energy, it is still unlikely that the EU will be willing to negotiate a new deal—although German political instability may force that option into consideration. Come October, the British Parliament could attempt to prevent its government from taking the country out without one. 

Regardless of the outcome, a general election will be likely. If the Tories win a majority, they will then be forced to own the repercussions of a no-deal exit: economic chaos, fresh trade talks with a weakened negotiating hand, and an inevitable confrontation with the Irish government that could threaten the Good Friday Agreement.

Ironically, it is the same civil service whose actions Cummings labeled “Kafka-esque” that he will be relying upon to minimize the damage. It is unlikely that the borrowing and spending will bode well for the economy in the long term, but it is possible that the Cummings approach could convince EU partners to negotiate a free trade deal.

He is already attempting to whip the governmental machine into action: early mornings, weekend meetings, and an insistence that leaks will be severely punished. It is a remarkable contrast to Theresa May’s premiership, during which government leaks where rampant and discipline was haphazard. According to Cummings, May fell into the trap of invoking Article 50—the EU treaty’s provision for withdrawal—too early, forcing her to conduct the negotiations on the EU’s terms. She also maintained the line that Leave voters wanted to dramatically reduce immigration, long one of her pet policies, not that they wanted democratic control of immigration policy. Far from uniting the country behind a vision of Brexit, this only contributed to the notion that Brexit was an exercise in nativist nationalism.

Cummings’s plan to thwart the populist surge is far from foolproof. Any form of national identity that involves an all-out embrace of global capitalism will only be successful if it can include those who believe the globalist game is rigged. That means addressing the educational and economic inequalities that leave people starting at different points in the meritocratic race: eliminating bloated centralized welfare projects, placing more power in the hands of local communities, and responding to genuine concerns about demographic change without scapegoating hardworking immigrants. 

And for those who don’t have the skills to contribute to the new economy, British society should offer them the self-respect and resources necessary to be active citizens. But that will only occur if the Johnson government’s words are met with actions, and long-forgotten towns are offered public spending and employment opportunities.

Cummings has shown promise in this regard; the education reforms he helped pioneer strengthened state schools by providing them with greater independence, and he detests many ultra-Brexiteers for the fact that they don’t care about the poor. He has even proposed that a negative income tax along the lines of a universal basic income could help counter the wage stagnation that is likely to be prolonged by developments in artificial intelligence. Again, this turns the immigration issue into an economic talking point, not a cultural one: The state can only be held accountable for its citizens if it controls the number of people entering through its borders.

The even deeper tension comes from the clash between Cummings’s faith in technological transformation and the traditional democratic process. Representative democracy brings the whole of society into the political sphere, but technology enables a powerful minority to manipulate their fellow citizens—as he knows all too well. Indeed, this is a fact that Cummings seems to embrace, not fear. When he ran the Leave campaign, he spent most of his budget mining data for targeted social media advertising—the kind of blind enthusiasm for dangerous technological tools that has echoes in the Manhattan Project.

But automation and globalization are inevitable, and Cummings recognizes this fact. The important question is how Britain can foster a healthy nationalism in the face of populist discontent, not how it can do away with nationalism altogether. Perhaps Cummings’s answer—to turn it into a meritocratic technopolis, as the Economist put it—is a threat, or perhaps it is simply a reality. For an opportunist such as Boris Johnson, it is a delightful opportunity—a chance to go down in history as the man who saved British democracy.

If Brexit was at its core a vehicle for citizens to demonstrate cultural and economic anxiety, it will be one of history’s great ironies that its implementation could marginalize the very populists who promoted it. If Cummings succeeds, it would send a message to countries across the continent: Don’t be afraid to be agree with populists in order to defeat them—and don’t hesitate to revolutionize your tired institutions along the way.

Sahil Handa is a British-Indian writer whose work has appeared in National Review and the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. He is a student at Harvard University. Twitter: @sahilhandapanda

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