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17 February 2020

The Andrew Sabisky row raises questions for Dominic Cummings

The new Conservative adviser hired by Cummings is perhaps more interesting for who he isn’t than what he wrote as a 21-year-old.

By Stephen Bush

A row has broken out over the first of Dominic Cummings’s new class of advisers, the educationalist Andrew Sabisky. The epicentre of the row? Comments written by Sabisky, now 27, on Cummings’s blog when he was 21 years old.

In these comments, Sabisky proposed, among other things, that “one way to get around the problems of unplanned pregnancies creating a permanent underclass would be to legally enforce universal uptake of long-term contraception and the onset of puberty”. Downing Street is standing by Cummings’s new hire and refusing to condemn or comment on the content of his historical blog posts.

Dodgy science around inheritance and eugenics has become a fashionable idea again on parts of the right, mostly as a modern version of the “what can you expect me to do about school standards? The problem is that people are poor!” argument that did the rounds on parts of the political spectrum in the 1980s. Just as with that argument, there is a germ of truth to it: there is an inherited component to intelligence, just as there is to height, hand-eye coordination and any other ability you might care to name.

But policy interventions can close the gap and raise both the condition and ability of the bottom decile – as the fact that global IQ scores have continued to rise generation-upon-generation shows – and in many respects the inheritance debate is pretty arid and useless. It’s true to say that the genetic differences between me and Thierry Henry mean that no amount of good PE teaching would have allowed me to win as many sporting trophies by the age of 30 as Henry at the same age. It’s also true that having had better PE teaching would have meant that it wouldn’t have taken me until I was 30 to find a form of exercise that I like and enjoy. What you might call the “Henry-Bush gap” feels like a way for policy thinkers to make a name for themselves and get invited on telly, but I’m not sure that is a particularly useful area for policy thinkers to focus on beyond that.

On the suggestion that the way to tackle the “problem” of unplanned pregnancies is to enforce birth control for all at the onset of puberty, the biggest problem is that it is a controversial solution in search of a problem. The rates of both teenaged and unplanned pregnancies are at record lows and continue to decline, due to what looks to be a combination of changing social mores and successful policy decisions by both Labour and Conservative governments. It’s akin to if Sabisky had said, “London buses are awful – one solution might be to carpet bomb the city so we can move to a proper grid system”: there are big logistical and moral problems with the idea, but that the supposed problem doesn’t really exist suggests that really what we’re looking at is a 21-year-old sounding off.

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As it stands, I’m inclined to leave it there. In the present day, Sabisky’s views are largely typical of the young thinking right in the UK. Until this weekend, my familiarity with his work stemmed from a good 2017 pamphlet on the link between the UK’s dysfunctional housing market and the UK’s declining fertility rates. Conservative MPs should probably be alarmed not because of his historical blog posts but because the proposals he has made in recent times are not easy to reconcile with their existing electoral coalition. (But then again, not much is.)

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More important than the specifics of the row, however, is the fact of the appointment. This is the first product of Cummings’s unorthodox job advert for unusual types to join the upper ranks of government. As Katy Balls revealed over at the i, the advert attracted thousands of applicants, ranging from university professors to Pret A Manger workers. Is the product of that search really just another alumnus of wonkworld with some poorly judged Internet posts? 

I don’t have a particular objection to governments hiring twentysomethings from wonkworld, but there was no great impediment to them doing so beforehand. It’s early days, but I’d be inclined to say that the more significant thing about the Sabisky row is that it reveals part of the answer to the question that Cummings’s job advert posed: how serious is he about his civil service reform agenda? Does he really want more scientists, more viewpoint diversity and to improve the human capital of the civil service? Or does he want to hire people who broadly look like what has come before?