What Dominic Cummings gets wrong about history

It's useful to be aware of branching possibilities when looking at the future – it's less valuable when assessing the past. 

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Dominic Cummings, now Boris Johnson’s chief strategist, often writes about the importance of bearing in mind the “different branches of history” – about the importance of remembering that, for instance, had George Osborne used the budget of 2015 to increase public spending rather than to roll out a series of punitive welfare measures, then Brexit might not have happened. Or if James Comey hadn’t written to Congress the week before the 2016 election about his investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email use, then Donald Trump might not be President.

I’m not sold on the idea that it is a particularly useful way to view the past, to be frank. Ultimately, the reasons why Osborne didn’t use the 2015 or 2016 fiscal budgets are intimately linked to his personality, his political style and his strategic assessment of the referendum campaign, just as the reasons for Comey to write his second letter were bound up with his personality, his political calculation and his understanding of what the countervailing pressures on him as FBI director were.

Or, to use a more personally painful argument, as one of the many people who wrote about the numerous MPs privately saying that Johnson’s tenure as Foreign Secretary had left them utterly convinced he had to be prevented from becoming Prime Minister, and concluded that as a result his frontline career was over,  sure, I could construct a perfectly cogent 20,000 word blog about how in one “branch of history”, Conservative MPs might have decided that their doubts about his fitness for office outweighed their belief that he is an election winner.

It would be perfectly cogent bollocks, is all. There may well be a universe in which a proton breaks down into a positron rather than a neutron: but in both universes, the 311 Conservative MPs would always opt to choose “Boris the winner” over “Johnson the discredited Foreign Secretary” because as with Comey and Osborne, that decision was intimately linked with who they were, their motives, and their desires.

The “branches of history” argument is one that Cummings tends to use to defend both his decision to campaign for Brexit in 2016, and the methods used by Vote Leave to do so; that while there are versions of the future in which voting Brexit will have been a mistake, there are versions of the future in which it won’t.

But the problem is that there is only actually ever one branch. Michael Gove’s decision that his doubts about Boris Johnson meant he had to run for leader himself may have been essentially impossible to predict. but it was, again, intimately bound up in his thinking, his impressions of Johnson up close, and his inner circle’s shared doubts about Johnson’s fitness for office. Lots of people overestimated Theresa May, but again, there is not a branch of history in which she appointed anyone other than Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill because, again, that was a decision that was intimately linked to who she was. And there is not a branch of history in which those same advisors didn’t ultimately end up bringing us here, to a point where we have a parliament that seems incapable of resolving Brexit one way or the other, and in which no deal looks like the most likely outcome.

It’s useful to be aware that there are different and overlapping probabilities, and that one action may lead in a variety of ways. But just as there are a wide range of possible outcomes at the next election, there isn’t a future branch where the Conservatives’ electoral coalition turns out to be sufficient to win a majority and a future branch where it isn’t. It’s just that in the present day, we can see that both options are possible, and we won’t know for sure until it actually plays out. Only one of those possible branches is going to play out: but either of them is plausible.

So while it’s a useful way to analyse what might happen, it’s not a particularly useful way to view the past: if the wrong future turns up, it’s because our analysis of what happened was missing key facts, not because another branch could have turned up.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.