Brexit: victory over the Hollow Men

Written by: Stephen Hsu

Primary Source:  Information Processing

Congratulations to Dominic Cummings, a formidable man. I met Dominic at SCI FOO in 2014. We talked long into the night, and I came away impressed with his tenacity and capability for long term planning. He urged me to study Bismarck.

The Telegraph: The long war: how Vote Leave and the Eurosceptics won

“Vote Leave, take back control”.

The phrase was the brainchild of the man who masterminded the Brexit campaign: Dominic Cummings. Vote Leave insiders say that Mr Cummings, more than anyone else, is responsible for delivering the result for Brexit.

A former special adviser to Michael Gove, Mr Cummings was already a controversial figure in Westminster. Combative and fiercely intelligent, he clashed repeatedly with the Prime Minister’s advisers, and was blamed by Number 10 for a succession of critical briefings to the media.

He was adamant that Vote Leave would not work with Nigel Farage or the other leave campaign groups which had formed – Leave.EU and Grassroots Out, both of which had Ukip support and money from the wealthy Ukip backer, Arron Banks.

But in February, Mr Cummings faced a crisis. Vote Leave was battling against the rival groups to win official recognition from the Electoral Commission watchdog as the designated Leave campaign. At stake was the entitlement to a free nationwide mailshot, TV referendum campaign broadcasts and a higher spending limit of £7 million during the campaign.

Kate Hoey, the pro-Brexit Labour MP quit Vote Leave to join Grassroots Out, saying she could not work with Mr Cummings or Matthew Elliott, the chief executive of Vote Leave. She accused the pair of spreading “lies” about fellow activists and said they had deliberately undermined attempts unite the rival Brexit groups.

Yet, Mr Cummings won the battle for designation as the official campaign – and went on to win the referendum. With a group of only 60 staff inside Westminster Tower and minimal resources, Mr Cummings virtually single-handedly plotted an “asymmetric” campaign against almost the entire political and financial establishment.

“He is a great guy,” one Vote Leave insider says. “He inspires fierce loyalty from everybody who works with him but he rubs people up the wrong way because he has got no time for fools.”

With a background in science, Mr Cummings bases everything he does on rigorous research. He commissioned detailed surveys, ran “quizzes” on commercial websites to test voters’ views, and oversaw focus groups that tested Vote Leave’s key campaign messages.

By early May, he had settled on the three key points that would form the basis for the final weeks of the campaign: a promise to take back control of £350million a week of taxpayers’ spending from Brussels; a promise to take back control over immigration; and warnings that countries such as Turkey and Serbia were in line to join the European Union in the years ahead.

All these points had been rigorously tested in focus groups. The most striking reaction from voters in the discussions was to Turkey’s accession to the EU.

“When Turkey comes up, light the blue touch paper and take a step back,” one Vote Leave source said at the time.

“People say ‘this is insane, this country is totally wrecked if that happens. These are countries at war, they are full of terrorists.’”

Meanwhile, Mr Cameron’s campaign had recruited Barack Obama to warn that Britain would be at the “back of the queue” for a new trade deal if it voted to leave the EU.

Vote Leave’s focus groups showed that this ploy had backfired. Voters resented the US President’s intervention and did not believe the economic “scaremongering” that the Prime Minister was putting forward, even though it was supported by the International Monetary Fund and the Bank of England, among others.

But the Leave campaign had to transform public support into votes.

Mr Cummings was forced to design and build a database of voters entirely from scratch in order to map exactly the streets and postcodes around the UK which were likely to vote to Leave. This enormous process of building a database of 46million voters could not even begin until February.

But the information was critically important so that on polling day last Thursday, Vote Leave’s army of 20,000 volunteers knew which doors they had to knock on in order to get their voters to turn out.

Mr Cummings also used cutting-edge technology to target his messages at precisely the individuals who were receptive to his messages. He hired data specialists from America and Canada, who analysed polling evidence and information from Facebook in order to build up a picture of their target voters.

By the end of the referendum campaign, Vote Leave had spent well over £1 million on Facebook, YouTube and other online advertising, sources suggested.

Vote Leave had attracted 553,000 “likes” on Facebook, just short of the 556,000 people who supported the official Remain campaign, Britain Stronger In Europe. …

On Thursday June 23, after years of plotting and months of hard-fought and bitter campaigning, the Eurosceptics had their referendum. Mr Cummings’s volunteers knocked on doors across the country, getting out their voters.

When the polls closed, the atmosphere inside Westminster Tower, with its views over Lambeth Bridge to Big Ben across the Thames, was subdued. The final polls suggested that Remain had just edged ahead.

Michael Gove went to bed early. Boris Johnson stayed up later watching the analysis on television at home. For Vote Leave campaign staff, who had to watch the results all night, a buffet of pasta, cakes and tiramisu was laid out inside the office on the seventh floor.

… When ITV called the result for Leave, the room erupted. “The office went a bit crazy. There was lots of cheering, and hugging. Nobody could believe it.”

Dan Hannan, the MEP and leave campaigner, leapt onto a table and made a speech, thanking the Vote Leave campaign staff, declaring that it was “independence day” and that they had all made history.

Then everyone in the room began calling for Mr Cummings. “Dom, Dom, Dom,” they chanted.

Mr Cummings, who was in a room next door, came into the main open plan office, stood on a desk and told the staff: “This is all about you. You did this.” Then he celebrated by punching the air – and punched a hole in the low ceiling above his head.

See also The Hollow Men:

… students leave university for politics and the civil service with degrees that reward verbal fluency, some fragments of philosophy, little knowledge of maths or science, and confidence in a sort of arrogant bluffing combined with ignorance about how to get anything done. They think they are prepared to ‘run the country’ but many cannot run their own diaries.

… Cameron is superficially suitable for the job in the way that ‘experts’ often judge such things – i.e. basic chimp politics skills, height, glibness etc, so we can ‘shove him out to give a statement on X’. That’s it. In a dysfunctional institutional structure, someone without the skills we need in a prime minister can easily get the job with a few breaks like that.

… Our leaders are like 19th Century Germans who had lost religion of whom Nietzsche said, ‘they merely register their existence in the world with a kind of dumb amazement’. They get up every day and react to the media without questioning why: sometimes they are lauded, usually they are trashed, but they carry on in a state of ‘dumb amazement’ without realising how absurd their situation is. Meanwhile, the institutions within which they operate continue with their own momentum and dynamics, and they pretend to themselves that they are, in the phrase they love, ‘running the country’.

From Cummings’ Some Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities (footnote 181 page 86):

181 I read blogs by physicist Steve Hsu from 2005 that were prescient about the sort of collapse that came with the ‘quant meltdown’ of August 2007 and the crash of September 2008, though the issues were so technical I could not assess them usefully. Almost nobody in Westminster who I emailed them to paid any attention (Alistair Heath is an exception) and many then gave speeches saying ‘nobody saw this coming’.

I can’t resist adding this for Dominic :-)
The scale of Bismarck’s triumph cannot be exaggerated. He alone had brought about a complete transformation of the European international order. He had told those who would listen what he intended to do, how he intended to do it, and he did it. He achieved this incredible feat without commanding an army, and without the ability to give an order to the humblest common soldier, without control of a large party, without public support, indeed, in the face of almost universal hostility, without a majority in parliament, without control of his cabinet, and without a loyal following in the bureaucracy. He no longer had the support of the powerful conservative interest groups who had helped him achieve power. The most senior diplomats in the foreign service … were sworn enemies and he knew it. The Queen and the Royal Family hated him and the King, emotional and unreliable, would soon have his 70th birthday. … With perfect justice, in August 1866, he punched his fist on his desk and cried “I have beaten then all! All!”

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Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu is vice president for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University. He also serves as scientific adviser to BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) and as a member of its Cognitive Genomics Lab. Hsu’s primary work has been in applications of quantum field theory, particularly to problems in quantum chromodynamics, dark energy, black holes, entropy bounds, and particle physics beyond the standard model. He has also made contributions to genomics and bioinformatics, the theory of modern finance, and in encryption and information security. Founder of two Silicon Valley companies—SafeWeb, a pioneer in SSL VPN (Secure Sockets Layer Virtual Private Networks) appliances, which was acquired by Symantec in 2003, and Robot Genius Inc., which developed anti-malware technologies—Hsu has given invited research seminars and colloquia at leading research universities and laboratories around the world.
Stephen Hsu

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