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23 January 2020updated 21 Sep 2021 4:56am

What Dominic Cummings was thinking in 2004

The most powerful adviser in Downing Street was in the wilderness in the mid-2000s, running a short-lived think-tank. But many of his warnings and prophecies have been fulfilled. 

By Harry Lambert

Rowena Mason, the Guardian’s deputy political editor, had an illuminating piece in yesterday’s paper examining Dominic Cummings’ policy papers from 2004, when he ran a short-lived think-tank called the New Frontiers Foundation (the name was inspired by JFK). Mason detailed the long-held animosity of Boris Johnson’s senior adviser towards the BBC.

The think-tank existed from December 2003 to March 2005, when Cummings and James Frayne, his co-founder, moved on to other pursuits. There is no clear record of what Cummings did next: he was in the political wilderness in the mid-2000s – by April 2007, Cummings was describing himself as an “author” on Companies House documents (he is yet to publish a book). That changed in late 2007, when he became a special adviser to Michael Gove, the then-shadow education secretary, and worked with him for much of the next six-and-a-half years.

Back in December 2003, when Cummings launched his think-tank, Michael Howard had just become Conservative leader and Tony Blair was a key figure behind the failed drive for an EU constitution. The Iraq War was in full effect, Saddam had just been captured, and George W. Bush’s bid for re-election had begun. Cummings’ think-tank was his bid to regain relevance after an early rise to prominence. In 2002, at the age of 30, he had become director of strategy to Iain Duncan Smith, the then-Tory leader; but within a year he had been forced out.

Cummings’ think-tank efforts didn’t quite make it into my September profile of him, and the documents are not easily available online – so here are some clippings. They showcase his thinking at the time, and there is good reason to think his ideas are little changed. Cummings’ political idols, for instance – Bismarck, Sun-Tzu, and Pericles – are all mentioned in the 2004 documents, as they were a decade later, when he released his widely-discussed polemics on education and Whitehall. Having read both sets of documents, a similar thinker is clearly evident in both. 

On how to win elections

It is critical for any political leader, writes Cummings in 2004, to offer a “positive optimistic vision – something that Reagan, Clinton, Blair, and Bush II understood is necessary.” His comments foreshadow the economic “boosterism” of Boris Johnson’s election messaging, and the less-noticed half of the 2019 campaign slogan: “Get Brexit done – and unleash Britain’s potential.”

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Any such vision, continued Cummings, must be delivered by “a small disciplined policy and communications unit, that can construct and sell a coherent message with the right half dozen specific policies to support it.” 15 years on, that unit is currently taking shape in No 10.

On compassionate conservatism

“Bush was the first Republican in decades,” writes Cummings, “to lead Democrats on education because of an effort over years and the polling is clear that it was this and the general ‘compassionate conservatism’ message that was crucial in defining him successfully.  Bush used this to enable him to sell his tax cut. The Tories need an equivalent campaign.” (Or as he puts it elsewhere, “A deliberate long-term campaign to alter the moral assumptions of the intelligentsia.”)

“How does one cut taxes without appearing to be anti-public services in a culture that equates spending public money as (a) the solution and (b) morally good?” asks Cummings. “The dichotomy between (a) modernise and seem caring, or (b) cut taxes, which is usually posed in such analyses, is false,” he concludes.

“Reagan, Clinton, Blair, and Bush II have all synthesised (a) rebranding their Party and (b) keeping their core vote motivated. A Tory campaign on education and corporate governance reform could fulfil the same function.”

On Iraq and the UN

“There are serious arguments over the wisdom of Iraq – but Europe did not have them,” writes Cummings, “Instead, in the Continent that gave the world Thucydides, elite opinion boiled down to: ‘The war in Iraq was illegal because it did not have the support of the UN Security Council.'”

“It is far from clear that it is in British interests,” he continues, “to bolster the UN’s credibility and the notion that the only morally legitimate form of military action is action sanctioned by the UN Security Council. An organisation that elects countries like Libya and Syria to human rights committees has a serious moral deficit and it is for its supporters to explain why a decision endorsed by Russia and China is somehow ‘more moral’ than a decision taken by Britain and America alone.”

“A culture that says ‘our answer to the problems of terror and Islam’s failure is international law’,” he writes, “hardly seems serious about survival.” “The idea that ‘Al Qaeda will diminish if we retreat’,” he continues elsewhere, “ignores the obvious fact that Al Qaeda grew in the decade when we did little in the region except pressure Israel to ‘make peace’.”

Elsewhere Cummings also writes of the threat of “WMD”, and appears to back the invasion of Iraq. In his December 2003 launch memo he accepts Republican messaging on the war: “No British media reporting of leaked Pentagon memo cataloguing links between Iraq and Al Qaeda since late 1980s.” “The memo makes it impossible,” he concludes, “for various commentators to continue to assert that ‘there were no links between Al Qaeda and Saddam’.”

On taxes and regulation

I noted in my profile that Cummings advocated tax cuts in 2004, and that he quoted a random and spuriously precise study in justification of this. Low taxes were a central part of his thinking at the time: “Taxes should be significantly cut,” he writes, speaking the language of Reagan and Thatcher, “to spark growth and investment, which will bring higher living standards and more money for services.”

He also takes a classically Conservative view of regulation. “We should explore ways of drastically reducing the regulatory burden, such as making small businesses exempt from most regulations so they are free to grow, innovate, and employ.” This idea – of cutting back on the regulatory burden for small business – was in the 2019 Tory manifesto, although Cummings was not necessarily responsible. (This paper by the Centre for Policy Studies is relevant.)

De-politicising public services

“Politicians should not be trusted,” Cummings writes, in one 2004 post, “with things as crucial to the nation’s future as education and health. In particular, we must stop politicians controlling standards and management of schools and universities.”

This is an fruitlessly utopian aim. While standards in British universities have been crippled by the sustained wrongheadedness of successive governments, the management of any major public system is inevitably political. And ministers are, at least, democratically accountable.

It’s also unclear if Cummings understands how to fix universities. In 2004, he had a Hayekian belief in markets. He talked of “the hubristic belief that politician-bureaucrats are able to out-perform markets as information-processors”. But the predominance of market dynamics in universities is what has crippled them, as I detailed in a long read in August.

Cummings does, however, get it. As he says in 2004, “There has never been a bigger premium on harnessing information to markets, yet Europe’s universities are falling further behind America, and Asia’s school system already strongly outperforms Europe in maths and science… Britain’s school and university system is not equipping new generations to meet these challenges. Many of our children do not know basic facts such as the dates of World War I – never mind the historical references in bin Laden’s messages.” He is correct.

The mission

Cummings’ mission for the UK – in 2004, 2013 and still today – is to make Britain the “school of the world”. He has taken this creed from Pericles, who called on Athens to be the school of Greece in 431 BC. “Britain can aspire to something far higher and greater than ‘being at the heart of Europe’,” writes Cummings, “We could be the school of the world again, as we were in the past.”

“We could have the world’s best universities, the highest per capita income, and [be] the society most open to new ideas and new products,” he writes, shifting into the optimism of a radical, as he tends to do. “We could lead the exploration of new technologies and make our political institutions again the most admired in the world.”

In 2004 he saw economic liberalisation as the route: “Remove barriers to free trade and foreign capital, which are essential to innovation and modern living standards… Estimates of the cost of the current barriers to Britain’s trade suggest the average household could be £2,800 a year better off if action were taken to reduce tariffs and trade barriers.”

He cites the example of Ireland: “Over the last 20 years, Ireland has cut public spending by 20 percent of GDP and cut taxes to the lowest level in the Eurozone, has grown faster than any other EU member, and has increased real public spending faster than the Eurozone.”

“The spread of markets is not a panacea,” he concludes, “though it is clearly a benefit.”

On influence and the EU

Cummings’ mission is twinned with an antipathy towards the EU. “Our best chance of influence is by example,” he writes, “not by stumbling along, ever-whining, behind a doomed Franco-German agenda.”

“The eternal line about having to go along with the EU agenda so that Britain has ‘influence’ [as Ken Clarke said in our November interview with him] is wearing thin. The EU manifestly needs a new vision for reform rather than stale and faltering steps towards a “political union” that would simply institutionalise economic, institutional, and democratic failure. British diplomats should ponder that the big things that Britain has done in recent decades, such as privatisation (which swept the globe and has been extremely influential), were not the result of wrangling in Brussels but the result of innovative policy that succeeds.”

“Our success now sees more populous cultures adapting by copying many of our institutions,” Cummings writes, favourably. His comments are notable given his antipathy to the BBC and aggressiveness towards parliament in 2019 – the global broadcaster and “mother of all parliaments” are two of the UK’s most copied institutions.

On transforming the EU

Cummings was always a strong Eurosceptic – he describes the EU in 2004 as “ineffective, corrupt, undemocratic… locked in a grim spiral of decline in which it rejects liberal reform and seeks more power.” – but in the mid-2000s he was advocating for a “transformed” EU rather than Britain’s departure. That may simply have been because a referendum seemed so unlikely. The EU, he wrote, needed to be able to “accommodate both the euro and those countries who prefer international cooperation to supra-national government.”

But he also recognised how fruitless that task might prove. “The Single Market [which, he writes elsewhere, “brought increased regulation, not liberalisation”] and euro were intended to create, and require, a form of political union. Europe’s politicians are clear in their ambitions. Trying to ‘influence’ it towards one path while marching down another path makes as much sense as joining a rugby club and trying to ‘influence’ the members to turn it into a football club.”

“The chimerical pursuit of ‘influence’,” he writes, “has led to the accelerating transfer of powers to failing structures,” or to a “tottering bureaucratic Leviathan” as he elsewhere describes the EU. We need, he argues, “to put behind us the defeatist seventies mindset that the secret of the future is being allowed to sit in an endless cycle of meetings in Brussels.”

On demographics

In Cummings’ eyes, the EU is on the road to demographic doom – a subject the FT explored last week. “By 2050,” he writes, “the unfunded pension commitments of Britain will be merely 5% of GDP, but 70% for Italy, 105% for France and 110% for Germany. The economic consequences of these pension obligations are enormous: an 8% fall in real wages by 2030, a 13% fall by 2050; a rise in total taxes on wages from about 40% now to about 50% by 2030 and 70% by 2050.”

“By the middle of this century, barring the privatisation of pensions,” he concludes, forebodingly, “there will be a relative fall in living standards for Europeans of about 40%.”

16 years later, in their piece last Monday, the FT echoed this. “By 2050,” they wrote, quoting a think-tank expert and an IMF economist, “demographic change would damp average per capita income in France, Spain, Italy and Germany by €4,759-€6,548 at 2010 prices.”

On a referendum

At the time of writing, Cummings was not just in the wilderness but out-of-step with public opinion, or at least political opinion. In hindsight, his warnings and prophecies have, in part, proven accurate.

“New Frontiers intends,” he writes, “to make possible a successful referendum on a transformed relationship with the EU. Just as opposition to the euro seemed ‘extreme’ to some in early 1999 but is no longer, so this agenda will gradually be accepted.” He was right.

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