Written by: Stephen Hsu
Primary Source: Information Processing
It’s not entirely an exaggeration to say that my friend Dominic Cummings both kept the UK out of the Euro, and allowed it to (perhaps) escape the clutches of the EU. Whether or not you consider these outcomes to be positive, one can’t deny the man his influence on history.
Wikipedia: Dominic Mckenzie Cummings (born November 1971) is a British political advisor and strategist.
He served as the Campaign Director of Vote Leave, the official and successful campaign in favour of leaving the European Union for the United Kingdom European Union membership referendum, 2016. He is a former special adviser to Michael Gove. He has a reputation for both his intelligence and divisiveness.
… From 1999 to 2002, Cummings was campaign director at Business for Sterling, the campaign against the UK joining the Euro.
… Cummings worked for Michael Gove from 2007 to January 2014, first in opposition and then as a special adviser in the Department of Education after the 2010 general election. He was Gove’s chief of staff, an appointment blocked by Andy Coulson until his own resignation. In this capacity Cummings wrote a 240-page essay, “Some thoughts on education and political priorities”, about transforming Britain into a “meritocratic technopolis”, described by Patrick Wintour as “either mad, bad or brilliant – and probably a bit of all three.” He became known for his blunt style and “not suffering fools gladly”, and as an idealist.
… Dominic Cummings became Campaign Director of Vote Leave upon the creation of the organisation in October 2015. He is credited with having created the official slogan of Vote Leave, “Take back control” and with being the leading strategist of the campaign.
Posts about Dom on this blog.
How did he do it? Perhaps we can learn from Bismarck, a historical figure Dom admires greatly — see Brexit, Victory over the Hollow Men.
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.
For a detailed 20 thousand word account of the Brexit campaign, including a meditation on the problem of causality in History, and the contingency of events in our multiverse, and the unreasonable effectiveness of physicists, and much, much more, see this recent post on Dom’s blog:
… Why and how? The first draft of history was written in the days and weeks after the 23 June and the second draft has appeared over the past few weeks in the form of a handful of books. There is no competition between them. Shipman’s is by far the best and he is the only one to have spoken to key people. I will review it soon. One of his few errors is to give me the credit for things that were done by others, often people in their twenties like Oliver Lewis, Jonny Suart, and Cleo Watson who, unknown outside the office, made extreme efforts and ran rings around supposed ‘experts’. His book has encouraged people to exaggerate greatly my importance.
I have been urged by some of those who worked on the campaign to write about it. I have avoided it, and interviews, for a few reasons (though I had to write one blog to explain that with the formal closing of VL we had made the first online canvassing software that really works in the UK freely available HERE). For months I couldn’t face it. The idea of writing about the referendum made me feel sick. It still does but a bit less.
For about a year I worked on this project every day often for 18 hours and sometimes awake almost constantly. Most of the ‘debate’ was moronic as political debate always is. Many hours of life I’m never getting back were spent dealing with abysmal infighting among dysfunctional egomaniacs while trying to build a ~£10 million startup in 10 months when very few powerful people thought the probability of victory was worth the risk of helping us. …
… Discussions about things like ‘why did X win/lose?’ are structured to be misleading and I could not face trying to untangle everything. There are strong psychological pressures that lead people to create post facto stories that seem to add up to ‘I always said X and X happened.’ Even if people do not think this at the start they rapidly construct psychologically appealing stories that overwrite memories. Many involved with this extraordinary episode feel the need to justify themselves and this means a lot of rewriting of history. I also kept no diary so I have no clear source for what I really thought other than some notes here and there. I already know from talking to people that my lousy memory has conflated episodes, tried to impose patterns that did not actually exist and so on – all the usual psychological issues. To counter all this in detail would require going through big databases of emails, printouts of appointment diaries, notebooks and so on, and even then I would rarely be able to reconstruct reliably what I thought. Life’s too short.
I’ve learned over the years that ‘rational discussion’ accomplishes almost nothing in politics, particularly with people better educated than average. Most educated people are not set up to listen or change their minds about politics, however sensible they are in other fields. But I have also learned that when you say or write something, although it has roughly zero effect on powerful/prestigious people or the immediate course of any ‘debate’, you are throwing seeds into a wind and are often happily surprised. A few years ago I wrote something that was almost entirely ignored in SW1 [Southwest London] but someone at Harvard I’d never met read it. This ended up having a decisive effect on the referendum.
A warning. Politics is not a field which meets the two basic criteria for true expertise (see below). An effect of this is that arguments made by people who win are taken too seriously. People in my position often see victory as confirmation of ideas they had before victory but people often win for reasons they never understand or even despite their own efforts. Cameron’s win in 2015 was like this – he fooled himself about some of the reasons why he’d won and this error contributed to his errors on the referendum. Maybe Leave won regardless of or even despite my ideas. Maybe I’m fooling myself like Cameron. Some of my arguments below have as good an empirical support as is possible in politics (i.e. not very good objectively) but most of them do not even have that. Also, it is clear that almost nobody agrees with me about some of my general ideas. It is more likely that I am wrong than 99% of people who work in this field professionally. Still, cognitive diversity is inherently good for political analysis so I’ll say what I think and others will judge if there’s anything to learn. …
After reading these 20 thousand words, perhaps you’ll have an opinion as to whether Dom, one of the most successful and experienced observers (and users!) of democracy, agrees with Robert Heinlein that The Gulf is Deep ;-)