An interview with Dominic Cummings


IN MY column this week I profile Dominic Cummings, a former government adviser who is now campaign director for Vote Leave, the largest of the groups vying to lead the Out campaign in Britian’s upcoming referendum on the European Union (EU). Mr Cummings is blunt, energetic and clever; he infuriates some but inspires intense loyalty among colleagues; he wants Eurosceptic campaigners to fight the impending battle as insurgents against an establishment he considers overwhelmingly pro-European (already Vote Leave has sent protesters to heckle David Cameron at a speech to the CBI). With him at its helm, the Out campaign will be unlike anything British politics has seen before, predicts one close (though pro-EU) observer.

Although I disagree with Mr Cummings on the EU, his arguments against it are appealingly thoughtful and in a sense optimistic. He serves as a reminder that not all Eurosceptics are tweedy, isolationist Little Englanders; that there is a liberal, whiggish even, strain of anti-EU thought in Britain that deserves to be engaged with seriously (here one could also mention Douglas Carswell, the cheerily libertarian UKIP MP who, unlike many of his party comrades, backs Vote Leave over its bitter rival,

I sat down with Mr Cummings to discuss his strategy for the upcoming campaign and why he is convinced that Brexit would be good for Britain and Europe. Notably, he asserted that:

  • establishment forces are threatening business leaders contemplating endorsing the Out campaign
  • Vote Leave could borrow ideas and methods from the advertising industry and Soviet propaganda
  • his spell in the education department proved to him the scope of the EU’s influence over British government
  • the Out campaign needs to put Mr Cameron on the spot about the inevitable next wave of EU integration
  • it must thus de-risk the prospect of Brexit by portraying a vote to stay in the EU as the dicier option
  • there is a “strong democratic case” for a second referendum on the final terms of Brexit, if the first vote is for Out
  • contenders to succeed Mr Cameron as Tory leader and prime minister following an Out vote may offer such a second referendum
  • Britain should not immediately invoke Article 50 (the formal procedure for leaving the EU) on an Out vote
  • Foreign Office professions of British influence mean little as this influence goes unused while Britain is in the EU
  • he would like to see money saved by leaving the EU spent on founding a British version of America’s DARPA
  • the Whitehall and Brussels systems are incompatible as British officials are less willing to bend truths and rules
  • it is likely the EU will break up in the coming decades and Britain has a responsibility to pioneer an alternative
  • Brexit is a necessary (if not sufficient) condition for Britain to adopt a new international role as the world’s foremost centre of education and science

NB: The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

BAGEHOT: The prime minister is nearing the end of his “renegotiation” of Britain’s EU membership. It looks like he might have achieved what he set out to achieve. Are you worried this is going to put him on the front foot going into the referendum campaign?

DOMINIC CUMMINGS: Not really. It being the prime minister, when he declares victory after this Potemkin process there is a danger that people will take it at face value. But as people actually look at the reality – what has this guy promised over the years? what has he delivered? what has really changed? – I think the facts will speak for themselves. Whether you are on the In side or the Out side, it is a fact that over the years David Cameron has promised that all sorts of things would change—and not even asked for them to be changed. The public are going to see that.

BAGEHOT: He’s asking for things he knows he’s going to get.

DOMINIC CUMMINGS: Exactly. This process has not been about trying to get fundamental change of the EU, or fundamental change of Britain’s relationship with the EU, or to solve the big problems of the EU. It is about how David Cameron manages his own personal interests and the internal politics of the Conservative Party. I think everyone pretty much realises that!

BAGEHOT: It’s uncontroversial.

DOMINIC CUMMINGS: If you go back and look at what he has said over the years, nine tenths of the various promises haven’t even made it into his negotiation document, including all the big ones.

BAGEHOT: For example?

DOMINIC CUMMINGS: For example the Charter of Fundamental Rights. He gave a cast-iron promise that there would be “a total opt-out” from that. It’s not even in his four baskets. And of course the European Court of Justice has been using the charter increasingly to expand the scope of the EU. As lots of American voices have pointed out, it gives the ECJ a lot more power over EU member states than the Supreme Court has over the states of America. So it’s a very powerful weapon (Tony Blair famously said it would have no more legal force than The Sun or The Beano). So there’s a long history of British prime ministers promising things on the EU that don’t happen. When Cameron comes back and declares victory, the reality will be that approximately nothing serious has changed in our relationship and the referendum will really be about: do we think this organisation is worthwhile? If we weren’t members now would we join or would we look at it and say: “this thing is a basket case”?

Of course, we are the underdogs and it’s hard to take on the whole power of the establishment; the CBI, Whitehall, Brussels. There are threats going out to big businesses: “We’ll destroy your business if you come out on the Leave side.” We had exactly the same thing when I was on the Euro campaign in 1999. Whitehall and Brussels called people up and said: “If you support the anti-Euro campaign we will destroy you on the following regulations… Don’t expect us to help you in Nairobi on X or in South America on Y.” That’s par for the course and it obviously makes things difficult for us, but I think we’ve got a good chance.

BAGEHOT: On the establishment, the government, the CBI. It’s going to be an uphill struggle for you, isn’t it? People don’t obsess about politics in the way that we in Westminster do. They may pay a certain amount of attention to the arguments but day after day they will see cabinet ministers, former prime ministers, captains of industry standing up and saying: “it’s too great a risk”. How you plan to counter that?

DOMINIC CUMMINGS: If you look at the opinion polls that have been done by ICM and Ipsos over the past 10-15 years, you’ll see that in general (and there was another poll out last week about this) more businesses think the EU is a problem than think it is a help. Most do not buy the fundamental rationale of the Single Market – that you have to have the supremacy of EU law in order to trade – and a large majority of businesses (roughly 70% over the past ten years or so) think it would be far better if Britain could draw up its own trade agreements rather than Brussels negotiating them on our behalf. So if you look at the detail of what they think about the EU, the story is very different from the one the CBI puts out.

However, it is certainly true that for a very small number of very powerful and very big multinational firms, there are advantages in having one set of rules set in Brussels in a very non-transparent way which expensive lobbying operations can go to work on. And of course, as Adam Smith warned, big business is often the enemy of freedom. It’s often the enemy of the public interest and it often uses regulations to try and crush entrepreneurs. I was talking to one of the biggest hedge-fund guys in the City the other day and they said: “I’ll bet you anything, Dominic, that within a few years the European Commission will bring a regulation to try to scrap peer-to-peer lending, because the banks will all be in Brussels trying to scupper it.”

BAGEHOT: So it’s the small guys who don’t have the lobby firms, who don’t have the ability to work the Brussels system, who are naturally in the Out campaign?

DOMINIC CUMMINGS: The way the media reports this is inevitably distorted. If you go back to the Euro campaign in 1999, how many chief executives and chairmen of FTSE 100 companies were speaking out on this? I think two. Two out of 200 people. Did that represent the reality of what businesses in Britain thought about the Euro? Of course it didn’t. Did it represent what CBI members thought? Of course it didn’t. What it represents is that the establishment and the people who set the rules have a lot of power. Too much power in my opinion. And that inevitably distorts how big business operates. A chief executive who thinks that the Euro is great or the EU is great, he’s licensed to go out and say so because it doesn’t offend anyone important. If they don’t think that, then they’re told: “Charlie, keep your trap shut.”

BAGEHOT: It’s “pro-European or silent”?


Vote Leave protesters heckle David Cameron

BAGEHOT: You mention the Euro campaign. Are there any other previous referendums or political campaigns on which you are drawing for inspiration?

DOMINIC CUMMINGS: I’m not sure about that. There are ideas from all sorts of campaigns, and from commercial advertising, which I think are valuable.

BAGEHOT: In what respect, advertising? How you present the message?

DOMINIC CUMMINGS: If you look back at history, most important PR and propaganda was invented by the Communist Party.

BAGEHOT: They had a way with images.

DOMINIC CUMMINGS: Yes. Celebrity figureheads and whatnot. The famous “Peace, Land, Bread” posters. There’s all sorts of interesting things you can look at. The heart of it, though, is that the Eurosceptic world has thousands of books and zillions of pamphlets and has been talking about this for many decades. The challenge is not to say more things. The challenge is to focus, to simplify things and explain what is a very technical, abstruse set of issues. The Single Market is a very good example. Very few people really understand the Single Market.

BAGEHOT: Including some MPs…

DOMINIC CUMMINGS: And lots of journalists who cover this issue. The Single Market is no-where defined in the EU treaties. If you suddenly ask people to define the Single Market, the number who can do that, who are specialists in the area, is pretty small. So what we need to do is figure out how to get to the core arguments about this. What are the real problems of the EU? What is a preferable status? What are the risks either way? Because of course there are risks in everything. I think it was Lord Denning who said EU law is like water running up a river and flooding through all the tributaries. It was a very good metaphor. If you work in government, as I have, you see that disentangling ourselves from this bureaucracy can be a very difficult process. Even in a department like the education department you deal with the EU every day, far more than people realise.

BAGEHOT: On which particular issues and arguments do you think the campaign will turn?

DOMINIC CUMMINGS: From the government’s point of view, David Cameron will have to explain why he has changed his mind. He promised fundamental change, and there isn’t fundamental change. I think all reasonable people, including those on the Pro side, will accept that. He will also have to explain how he intends to deal with the next treaty, which is now officially underway. The next intergovernmental conference is planned. The Five Presidents’ Report is published. That is a doubling-down of the long-term Monnet project. It’s massively centralising; a whole load of new powers going to Brussels, including over all sorts things that would be terrible for Britain such as “property rights”. That’s going to be a big problem for him. I think, obviously, the biggest problem for us is trying to articulate: here is what a new relationship looks like and here is why the transition doesn’t need to be as painful as the other side is portraying.

BAGEHOT: You just have to be the safer option, don’t you? People tend in referendums to vote for the status quo. Your task is to demonstrate it is riskier to stick with the current course.

DOMINIC CUMMINGS: Exactly. We have to explain the risks of a vote to remain; that we’ll be essentially locked in the boot in a car heading off to a place that we can see and where we know we don’t want to go. There are still lots of MPs who don’t know about the Five Presidents’ Report and the next stage of the process, because it came out on the same day as the Tunisian terrorist attacks. But I think by the time the referendum comes people will know an awful lot about that. We need to explain the risks of a Remain vote, but we also have to set out why this is not the great leap in the dark that people think. For example, a lot of people have been saying that as soon as there is a Leave vote then the Article 50 process begins straight away. Completely wrong. In fact that would be like putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger. No-one in their right mind would begin a legally defined two-year maximum period to conduct negotiations before they actually knew, roughly speaking, what this process was going to yield. So we must explain to the public: “Don’t worry. Straight after you go there is not going to be a huge eruption. Legally nothing changes the next day. A new government team is going to sit down with the EU and figure out what this new relationship should look like legally. That will be a big thing before any formal process happens.” There is a widespread assumption that we have to use the Article 50 process, and that has a lot of risks. That is not true. We do not have to use the Article 50 process. There is a whole set of things like that that will come out during the course of the referendum.

BAGEHOT: In the event of an Out vote do you think the government would seek to hold another referendum, on the terms of Brexit?

DOMINIC CUMMINGS: I think that is a distinct possibility, yes. It’s obviously not something that we can force. We’re a campaign group. But I think it is perfectly possible that leadership candidates to replace David Cameron will say that they think there are good grounds for a new government team to offer the public a voice on what the deal looks like. And we obviously wouldn’t oppose that, if that’s what senior politicians want to offer. I think there’s a strong democratic case for it. There’s also the issue of the profound loss of trust that the establishment has suffered over the past 20-30 years. All parties have told lies about this subject, whether it’s John Major and David Cameron or Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and Nick Clegg. People have repeatedly promised referendums then not held referendums. So given that, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if leadership candidates to replace Cameron said: we need a mechanism so people can have confidence in what we say.

BAGEHOT: Turning to the case for Brexit, what is it about the EU that you think makes it an inadequate form of governance and international co-operation in 2016, 2030, 2050?

DOMINIC CUMMINGS: In no order of priority… there is an obvious problem with democratic legitimacy (which the pro-EU people accept) if you have democratic accountability working at a national level, but a large and very important set of rules being set at a supranational level. People may accept that if they think that this new system is obviously much more effective and beneficial. But it isn’t. There are huge problems with how the EU system works. It is extraordinarily opaque, extraordinarily slow, extraordinarily bureaucratic, extraordinarily wasteful. And the advantages are very hard to quantify. I’ll give a specific example. Everyone holds up the Single Market as a wonderful thing without usually realising what it is. A rule brought in under the Single Market a decade or so ago was the Clinical Trials Directive. This regulates how the testing of drugs, including cancer drugs, operates in this country. There is no rationale whatsoever why, from the point of view of international trade, how a country organises the testing of cancer drugs should be an issue for supranational regulation.

BAGEHOT: It makes it easier to sell those drugs to a wider market of consumers.

DOMINIC CUMMINGS: No, it does not. In fact, what it has done is, as Nobel scientists and all sorts of people have said, massively slow down the process of testing and people have died unnecessarily as a result. The problem here is two-fold. It’s not just that the rule is stupid and in a rational world you wouldn’t have it. It’s that the process of changing it is almost impossible—and we still haven’t managed to do so. It’s been there now for over ten years. It is still causing trouble. The amended version comes into effect shortly. It still has all sorts of stupidities in it. Britain, left to its own devices, certainly would not do that. There’s a whole set of other examples. If two people sitting on a Shetland island want to sell olive oil to each other, the EU says they can’t sell it in containers of more than five litres. What on earth is the point of that? It’s totally pointless and saying “if we minus ourselves from rules like that, that’s somehow going to destroy jobs” is a non-sequitur. It does not follow on any sane view of economics.

This relates to a broader argument. If you look back on the long sweep of history, one of the big arguments about post-renaissance China and post-renaissance Europe concerns regulatory harmonisation. Post-renaissance China essentially harmonised the entire empire. Everyone had to do the same thing. In Europe we had a completely different system. We had regulatory competition so when, for example, the central Chinese government said “we’re not going to have any explorers, we’re going to get rid of our fleet”, that’s what happened. In Europe when explorers were told “we’re not going to fund you to go out and do that”, they went to another country and got funding from someone else.

BAGEHOT: Columbus.

DOMINIC CUMMINGS: Columbus. Now we’re in a process where the EU is reinventing the post-renaissance Chinese system, which turned China into a backwater for many centuries. It’s trying to harmonise a whole bunch of things at the centre which don’t need to be harmonised.

BAGEHOT: You have said that being in the EU gets in the way of Britain having a coherent national strategy. Why is that the case?

DOMINIC CUMMINGS: The EU has narrowed our horizons. It has narrowed everyone’s horizons in Whitehall so they’re not thinking about the big things in the world. They’re not thinking about the forces changing it or what Britain can really do to contribute to them. They are constantly trying to stay one step ahead of the lawyers in meeting after meeting all day, how to avoid getting poleaxed at the next meeting in Brussels. The EU prevents serious government. That’s both an issue of vision and ambition, and an issue of practicality and how things actually happen hour-by-hour in a minister’s day. Outside, our vision would be much broader. And I think we’ll be able to exercise much, much more influence in a benign way to help Europe than we are now with the Foreign Office just telling ministers day after day, ad infinitum: “there’s no point opposing this because we’ll lose influence on the next vote”.

BAGEHOT: In your recent essay about the education system you argue—in answer to Dean Acheson’s observation about Britain having lost an empire but not found a role—that the country should seek to be the best place in the world to do science and technology. How might leaving the EU contribute to that?

DOMINIC CUMMINGS: Point one: we can actually sort out Whitehall and do what we used to do which is be a model of good governance for countries around the world. We will also then be in a position to build the kind of networks you need between basic science, venture capital, universities etc which are impossible to organise now with modern Whitehall. Point two: you have a chunk of money which you immediately save which you can put into it. You can set up a British DARPA. And point three: not being bound by all the ludicrous rules of the EU, you can make yourself a centre where the people who want to lead technological revolutions come to work, because we’ve got huge assets there. We’ve got the City of London. We’re free of the EU regulatory horror. We can move extremely quickly. We’ve got three of the world’s top 20 universities. We’ve got great changes happening, because of Michael Gove, in state education as well. There you’ve got a lot of assets which intelligently can be brought together, that would produce real things. So instead of the Foreign Office babbling on about “influence”, which is never actually cashed and spent on anything useful, we’d be able to develop things which would change the world. That’s real influence.

BAGEHOT: So leaving the EU is a first step in that direction?

DOMINIC CUMMINGS: It is not sufficient but it is necessary. It is impossible with modern Whitehall to construct this sort of national strategy and to do the sort of things that you need to do.

Jean Monnet

BAGEHOT: To what extent do you think this is about an incompatibility between the liberal, common law, British form of government and what is basically a Christian Democratic project? You mentioned Monnet. You could add Schuman, Giscard d’Estaing, Kohl—they’re all Rhineland, Catholic (perhaps that’s not specifically relevant to this), fundamentally Christian Democratic types with all the corporatist baggage that this implies. It is that London and Brussels are just not culturally interoperable?

DOMINIC CUMMINGS: Yes, and it bites every day with the collision between the EU and parliamentary government, common law and our civil service administration. We have something very valuable in Britain: civil servants try and stick to the law. They don’t want to cheat things, they don’t want to lie and they don’t want to do things the way they do things in lots of other European countries. And that has been very good for the country. One of the things I found most depressing in government was seeing how the EU process is corrupting that and making it extremely hard for people to stay honest. Ministers constantly have to lie about what the origins of things are. They constantly have to invent Potemkin processes. And civil servants say: “as good civil servants, we have to tell you that our advice is that this may be illegal.” And because it’s Britain and not Greece the ministers don’t just say “screw that, who cares if it’s legal?”; they have to take that seriously. There’s an inherent problem with this and there is no way out of it unfortunately while we stay part of the EU system.

There is a clear way in which we come to a new deal: we repeal the 1972 European Communities Act and the supremacy of EU law, we negotiate a free trade deal with the EU (which is in all of our interests), we also have sensible laws on the free movement of people. At the moment government immigration policy is arguably the most stupid policy that we have. It is a free-for-all that doesn’t even stop convicted murderers from coming into the country from Europe; meanwhile it stops physicists from Caltech or software engineers from India coming in who can build things, who can contribute in valuable ways to this country as immigrants have done historically. That is extremely stupid and extremely damaging, and outside the EU we would have a much more rational immigration system that would not do those things. Businesses that want to trade with the Single Market could trade with the Single Market but the rest of the domestic economy and the economy that is trading with the rest of the world would not have to abide by things like that stupid Clinical Trials Directive or “you can’t sell olive oil in barrels of more than five litres”.

BAGEHOT: Don’t you think it would damage Europe for Britain to leave the EU?

DOMINIC CUMMINGS: No. That’s one of the main reasons why I want it to happen: I think it will be very good for Britain, for Europe and also for the world. It is possible that they will find a way of delivering the original Monnet-Delors dream of a centralised federation in which Brussels is the government and central tax-raising powers of the EU Parliament are somehow transformed into the equivalent of Congress. However, it is at least iffy whether it will work, and it’s very important that other countries develop a mechanism whereby everyone in Europe can trade freely and co-operate in a friendly way. Extremists are on the rise in Europe and are being fuelled unfortunately by the Euro project and by the centralisation of power in Brussels. It it is increasingly important that Britain offers an example of civilised, democratic, liberal self-government.

Overall we need far more international co-operation. Voting to leave, for me and for the people in this office, is not about isolation. Quite the opposite. It is obvious to anyone who sees the direction of our technological civilisation that we need more international co-operation, not less. The problem with the EU is not that it’s about co-operation, but that it’s so rubbish at it. If we vote to leave it will force not just Europe but countries around the world to think more intelligently about the new institutions we need to cope with things like gene drives, lethal autonomous robotics, you name it.

BAGEHOT: Let’s park the question of whether Britain is in or out. Where do you see the EU, on its current trajectory, in 30 years? Do you think it will still be together?

DOMINIC CUMMINGS: On a 30-year timescale I don’t. They’ll either have found a way to make the Euro work, and Britain will be part of it. Or, more likely, the system will have broken up in some way. And part of the reason why I think the sooner Britain gets out of it the better is precisely so that we can begin the process of building alternative structures now that the EU can morph into.

BAGEHOT: Structures like?

DOMINIC CUMMINGS: Structures for trading and co-operating outside the current Brussels system, because the worst possible thing would be a sudden collapse of various parts of the EU project, possibly precipitated by the victory of fascist or semi-fascist parties in parts of Europe which then pull a country out of the Euro triggering some kind of systemic domino effect. What we need to do is build crumple zones, some resilience in the system, and if Britain gets out now we can begin building up these networks, with places like Switzerland and non-Euro EU countries too, and showing people: this is how the EU system can evolve if you guys realise that the Monnet system is going to hit the buffers. Providing options, providing diversity. That was good for Europe post-renaissance, it’s good for Europe now.

BAGEHOT: Dominic Cummings, many thanks.


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