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Trumps war on science and Johnsons civil service purge may be on hold but their politics of polarisation lives on, says Guardian columnist John Harris

In most crises we tend to see the story we want to see. And in this one, those of us who cling on to collectivist, egalitarian ideas can discern things that speak to our sense of how the world ought to be organised. To find crumbs of political comfort in a dire public health emergency might seem inappropriate. But unforeseen events always have consequences beyond their immediate impact: just because they fit some of our existing beliefs that does not make them any less real.

Even if the new imperative of social distancing sounds like the ultimate example of individualism and frantic panic-buying does not exactly look like an expression of altruism, our shared humanity has also been brought to the surface, or soon will be. As the rapid appearance online of community help initiatives proves, we are already getting used to doing some of what the common good requires.

Quick guide

What to do if you have coronavirus symptoms in the UK

Stay at home for 7 days if you have either:

  • a high temperature
  • a new continuous cough

This will help to protect others in your community while you are infectious.

Do not go to a GP surgery, pharmacy or hospital.

You do not need to contact NHS 111 to tell them youre staying at home.

People who are self-isolating with mild symptoms will not be tested.

Source: NHS England

And as usually happens with sudden adverse events, the arrival of the Covid-19 virus has pushed the state and public sector into the foreground. The government machine suddenly looks less like the sclerotic inconvenience that annoys people like Dominic Cummings than the most basic means of help we have. Only weeks ago, people close to Boris Johnson were declaring war on the civil service and the BBC; now, both institutions are surely at the heart of however we collectively proceed. Ministers are suddenly back on the Radio 4 Today programme. Mindful that people have actually not had enough of experts, Johnson is now at pains to be seen deferring to the chief medical officer and the governments chief scientific adviser. If the big-spending budget suggested that Cummings and his allies quest to pull Conservatism somewhere different was in full roar, the arrival of Covid-19 surely means their revolutionary plans for the state have been postponed.

Something comparable may be afoot in the US. Last week, the New York Times ran a piece of political analysis headlined Trump meets an enemy that cant be tweeted away. Covid-19, said the writer, does not respond to Mr Trumps favourite instruments of power: it cannot be cowed by Twitter posts, it cannot be shot down by drones, it cannot be overcome by party solidarity, it cannot be overpowered by campaign rally chants. Reality, it seemed, had suddenly intruded on a presidency built on performance and manipulation, and Trump had instantly been found wanting.

Again, whatever ones politics, there is an undeniable truth to all this. As we know, the US is way behind other countries on testing, and cuts made by the Trump administration to crucial branches of government now look supremely reckless. The kind of denial the president was still pushing only a week or so ago forms part of the same picture: with accidental echoes of the occasion in 2006 when Johnson paid humorous tribute to laissez-faire government by praising the fictional mayor from Jaws and his decision to keep his beaches open, Trump has recently been lampooned as the real thing, downplaying a mounting emergency, lest it threaten the economic success on which his re-election might depend.

Johnson is now at pains to be seen deferring to the chief medical officer and the governments chief scientific adviser. Boris Johnson at his 13 March press conference on coronavirus. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Woven through this take on the presidents position is a progressive article of faith: the idea that although populists might be capable rabble-rousers, they always fall down when it comes to basic competence. This, clearly, is the Democratic partys collective rationale for the anointing of Joe Biden, the walking embodiment of the idea that the best alternative to Trumps misrule is the reassuringly dull, conventional statesmanship of yesteryear.

Might such a sea-change be a realistic prospect? For a long time now, all over the world, politics and government and their surrounding discourse have increasingly amounted to a spectacle of anger, rhetoric and a supposed battle of values in which the political right particularly its latter-day, populist incarnation has usually been on the winning side. The story perhaps began with George W Bushs consigliere Karl Rove, and his characterisation of his bosss detractors as the reality-based community: its subsequent milestones include both the arrival in office of a president whose metier is outrage and provocation rather than anything material, and Brexits triumph of prejudice and romance over facts and figures.

As reality bites, something about coronavirus feels like it might at least have loosened the grip of these ideas. Whatever his outbursts, every day brings unflattering footage of Trump among scientists, officials and the representatives of big US companies and the image of an awkward, impatient man, arms folded, seemingly determined to shut out whatever wisdom might be on offer. Here, the BBCs Newsnight recently saw fit to broadcast a characteristically nuanced view of the governments response to the virus from Nigel Farage, to a loud chorus of groans. His inclusion seemed not just incongruous, but silly. And therein lay a tantalising prospect: of a political discourse that might sooner or later reconnect to the basics of government, and the real world.

And yet, and yet. Europe is still haunted by populist ghouls, predictably claiming that the virus validates everything they stand for: Matteo Salvini, Marine Le Pen and Hungarys Viktor Orbn, whose national security adviser recently claimed to see a certain link between coronavirus and illegal migrants.

Ten days ago, I was on a reporting job in Worksop, the former Nottinghamshire mining town in a local government district whose vote-share for Brexit was nearly 70%. The huge TV in the breakfast room was blaring out some or other piece about Covid-19, which soon caught the attention of the staff member in charge. I think this is all bollocks, he said. Youre not going to tell me it was a coincidence it started in an overpopulated country. Two fiftysomething men had just ordered their food, and instantly joined in. The first thing they can do is stop all these refugees coming in, said one. Their apparent default setting was stubborn disbelief, mixed with the conviction that this latest emergency would not have arrived had it not been for foreigners.

Reality, it seemed, had suddenly intruded on a presidency built on performance and manipulation, and Trump had instantly been found wanting. Donald Trump and his adviser at a press briefing on 14 March. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

As if clumsily leading his kindred spirits across the world to the correct position, Trump has moved through these two phases in a matter of days. Only a week or so ago, he favoured denial. Now, as evidenced by the televised address he delivered last Wednesday and his ban on flights from Europe, his embrace of drastic measures is framed by the kind of themes that won him the presidency.

His spiel contained the giveaway words America first; inside 40 seconds, he used the phrase foreign virus. By way of mood music, senior Republicans talk about the pandemic as the Chinese coronavirus or Wuhan coronavirus, and everything blurs into the ocean of conspiracy theory now swirling around online, which Trump is inevitably happy to stoke.

Whatever the controversies over its approach to the virus, and the prime ministers long record of playing to base prejudice, our own government has chosen a higher path. But hateful, ugly things are out there in the culture, and may yet rise to the surface. In stories of public service in the most awful circumstances and a rising sense that the only useful responses to this crisis are necessarily empathetic and humane, you see people and governments at their best. But whatever the impacts of the most serious health emergency in a generation, perhaps a model of politics based on division and polarisation is now so embedded that it will inevitably condition some of the worlds response. History suggests as much: steps forward always accompanied by lurches back, as humanity does what it usually does, and simply muddles through.

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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The long read: He is now the countrys de facto project manager, but what does he actually believe? In a bid to find out, I read (almost) everything Cummings has written in the last decade

When the prime minister of the day describes you as a career psychopath, your chances of preferment in the political world may not seem rosy. When associates of a leading minister refer to you as that jumped-up oik, you may sense youre not winning friends in high places. When a senior official in the department where you are employed calls you a mutant virus, you may feel less than wholly accepted. And when a prominent MP in the party you work for denounces you as an unelected foul-mouthed oaf, it may seem that the game is up. Furnished with these testimonials, some downsizing of career ambitions may appear to be in order.

But Dominic Cummings has never played by the rules, and now, as Boris Johnsons de facto chief-of-staff, he has become perhaps the most powerful unelected political figure in the country. He thus has an exceptional opportunity to put his ideas into practice. But what are his ideas? Commentators seem vaguely aware that, although he studied history at university, he has dabbled in more than one scientific discipline over the years, but no one, it appears, has really tried to take the measure of Cummings as a serious thinker.

There has, of course, been no shortage of comment on the various roles he has played in British political life in the last couple of decades. He came to the fore as a special adviser to the Tory politician Michael Gove between 2007 and 2013 (ie both before and during Goves tumultuous years as secretary of state for education); he attracted further attention as the chief administrative mastermind behind the successful leave campaign in the 2016 referendum on Britains membership of the EU; and when Boris Johnson became prime minister in July 2019, Cummings was installed as his chief aide, directing operations from within Downing Street.

What may be less well known is that for much of this period Cummings has maintained an unusual blog, where he has posted extensive ruminations on his reading, enthusiastic reports about breakthroughs in science and pungent contributions to debates about education, spicing the mix with some notably unbuttoned ad hominem side-swipes for example, describing David Davis, then the Brexit minister, as thick as mince. Several of these posts have an intrinsic intellectual interest, but, given his current role at the heart of power, they may also yield insights into the thinking of someone whose ideas could soon have consequences for all of us.

I cant honestly claim to do much by way of community service but, as some twisted equivalent of a new year resolution, I decided I would sacrifice myself for the common good in January by spending the greater part of the month reading The Complete Blogs of Dominic Cummings. Well, perhaps not quite complete, as I have only gone back to 2013 and I have skipped several of the more functional or repetitive pieces, but I have more than compensated for any light-footed skimming by reading all 133,000 words of his magnum opus, posted in 2014 and titled Some thoughts on education and political priorities, in which he described his ideal of an Odyssean education. What follows is my report on this unusual body of work.

Dominic Cummings is the best-known unknown historian of ideas in the country. Learned contributions to this scholarly field are, of course, not what he is celebrated for, but a surprising amount of what he writes falls under this label. He is fascinated by ideas partly fascinated by their beauty and power, partly fascinated in the same way as a small boy is fascinated by firecrackers that can be let off behind unsuspecting old ladies. In Cummingss view, the world seems to be largely populated by old ladies, metaphorically speaking timid, easily spooked people whom he delights in unsettling.

But his firecrackers are assembled from genuine scientific components. Cummings is knowledgeable about an impressive variety of disciplines, and from this formidable if eclectic reading he has attempted to synthesise ideas he believes would transform the way the world is run (lack of ambition is not a defect of his thinking). The sense in which I am, tongue only slightly in cheek, calling him a historian of ideas is that he traces in some detail the evolution of the ideas that interest him, and gives us, especially in his remarkable book-length essay on the elements of a university curriculum that comprise his Odyssean education, a crash course in the history of mathematics, physics, genetics, psychology, economics and much more.

Dominic Cummings at the Nato leaders summit in Watford, Hertfordshire, December 2019. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

He takes the term Odyssean education from the Nobel-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann, referring to an education that starts with the biggest questions and problems and teaches people to understand connections between them. The aim would be to train synthesisers. He appears contemptuous of most politicians, almost all media commentators, and all civil servants: none of these people really understand statistical modelling, quantum computation, synthetic biology, and so on. (Too many of them studied PPE (philosophy, politics and economics) at Oxford University which, in his view, just turns duffers into bluffers.) As a result, they make or encourage poor decisions. Better project management in complex organisations is what we need, and his essay sketches a wide-ranging syllabus that would educate the effective decision-makers of the future.

More broadly, Cummings repeatedly argues that the processes of government need to include 1) a number of outstanding scientists capable of bringing fundamental science to bear on policy formation, and 2) a general level of scientific and numerical literacy such that MPs, officials, journalists and others can understand basic scientific discoveries and their significance. The overall aim should be to make the UK the leading country for education and science.

At times, he can make this seem like the merest common sense; at other times he sounds like CP Snow on speed (Snows Two Cultures lecture of 1959 is mainly remembered for its ardent advocacy of the need for scientific literacy among policymakers). He has attained an impressive level of scientific understanding himself, but with it has come more than a touch of the boffins bee-filled bonnet. A good example of this unsteady combination is provided by his attempt to imagine the effect that genome-sequencing may have on the NHS in terms of identifying risk factors for certain diseases, eliminating congenital defects, and so on. The potential benefits and efficiencies are certainly striking. But he cannot resist going further, a little too quickly: We will soon be able to re-make human nature itself, he writes. No point in pussy-footing around just doing hip replacements lets do a complete makeover while were in there.

As all this suggests, Cummings is undeniably clever, even if not always notably judicious. Intellectual restlessness is one of his hallmarks: his capacity to stretch his mind, to absorb new ideas, to see parallels and analogies that jump across the tracks, is constantly on display. He is an Oxford history graduate who has turned himself into a numbers guy, or at least into the frontman for the numbers people someone who understands enough of what they do to make the case for its importance to the rest of us. He says hes happy to be told where hes wrong, though you cant help feeling that he doesnt expect there will be much call for such frankness.

And there are any number of things he is right about, or anyway right-ish. One is the foolishness of diverting funding away from basic blue skies scientific research in order to promote more applied work. Governments are prone to think that doing this will lead to more immediately useful outcomes, and hence it will be easier to justify the public expenditure involved, but the historical record is against them. Over and over again, theoretical enquiries that looked at the time to have no useful application turn out to be what enabled various later practical advances and inventions, from code-breaking to computers. Cummings understands this: he not only prioritises basic science, but he gets the need to give people the autonomy and security to explore not obviously useful-looking avenues of enquiry.

At times, he can seem to flirt with a kind of anarchic libertarianism, attracted by a vision of unconstrained individual creativity, but against this is his recognition of the need for central state funding of basic science. He rightly stresses the role of federal funding in providing the research base for the Silicon Valley phenomenon in the US, for example, and he looks favourably on institutions such as the CNRS in France that are designed to sustain research on a long-term basis. (He also says, rather gnomically, that he is not a libertarian because its not consistent with evolutionary biology.) Overall he is surely right that public debate desperately needs more statistical literacy, as well as a better appreciation of the long-term benefits of basic research.

Cummingss call for a curriculum that might combine, say, maths, science and history is driven by his focus on project management in politics. Such an education would, he contends, provide a training in the calculation of probabilities when weighing competing proposals. But there is a recurring difficulty with schemes that attempt to build in interdisciplinarity from the start. Yes, it sounds great to scorn those who are stuck in their disciplinary silos and to laud imaginative thinkers who address the really big problems, and so on, but the fact is that you cant educate someone to be interdisciplinary. You have to educate them in particular disciplines (possibly more than one), and then set up more specific or temporary or opportunistic arrangements for bringing them together and cross-pollinating. If we are to stay on Cummingss preferred ground of intellectual history, we would have to point out that, in modern times, nearly all the influential ideas and great discoveries have come from people working within a particular discipline. Specialisation is the precondition of intellectual advance, even if subsequent interdisciplinary thinking can then sometimes be an effective way to address complex practical problems.

In his ambitious intellectual and educational synthesis there are some obvious, and rather predictable, lacunae. He is dismissive of most of the social sciences, especially sociology and anthropology, precisely because they purport to explore the distinctive power of the social: their practitioners are mostly charlatans. Here he sounds like a souped-up version of Margaret Thatcher: there is no such thing as society, just the patterned interaction of evolutionarily moulded individuals. There are frequent irritable swipes at something called French literary theory and the damage it has allegedly done to the humanities; here we seem to be encountering nothing more than a lazy journalistic stereotype, a headline-happy approach that contrasts so strikingly with the care with which he expounds ideas from, say, evolutionary psychology.

His voluminous writings suggest no cultivated interest in the study of art or music, nor, a few allusions to Dostoevsky and Tolstoy aside, in literature, or anyway not in literary criticism, though one wonders whether he might not have a taste for certain forms of science fiction. A few philosophers get walk-on parts (he quotes Nietzsche fairly often, but then who doesnt?), but on the whole he seems to treat modern philosophy, certainly the discipline of academic philosophy, as an irrelevance or an obstruction. Although he expresses a general commitment to including the humanities in his synthesis, in practice they (with the exception of history) seem marginal to his main interests.

However, there is another omission that is less predictable, yet, in its way, more revealing. Cummings is practically silent about jurisprudence and the law. (In his diatribes against the always obstructive civil service, legal arguments are occasionally mentioned, but only to be swatted aside as another typical ruse by these masters of delay.) This is significant because legal systems and legal reasoning involve attempts to draw up general rules and procedures to govern human interaction. The law, especially in a common-law system, is a historical enterprise in a way that Cummings should, in principle, approve of. That is to say, it seeks constantly to modify the agreed rules in the light of new circumstances; in this respect, it is one large feedback loop. And it attempts to take into account not just the purposes informing any given individuals actions, but the likely effect of such actions on the interests of others, now and in the future. Accumulated legal reasoning becomes, therefore, the great repository of wisdom about the social consequences of allowing this action or preventing that action, and it is, in an important sense, no respecter of persons: no one, as the phrase has it, is above the law.

Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson leaving 10 Downing Street, October 2019. Photograph: Pete Summers/Getty Images

Great leaders, revolutionaries, men of action and over-confident mavericks of all types always want to sweep the law aside, seeing only its negative character as a slow-moving body of outdated constraints on freedom of action but that, of course, suggests why it is so precious. Theres a fine exchange in Robert Bolts play A Man for All Seasons between Sir Thomas More, the lord chancellor who was to be executed for his opposition to Henry VIIIs break with Rome, and his earnest son-in-law, William Roper, in which Roper says he would cut down every law in England to get after the Devil, and More replies: Oh? And, when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?

Mores point, of course, is that if, when we have the power, we impatiently strike down all the laws that stand in our way, we shall have no protections to turn to when power is in the hands of others. Cummings writes from the perspective of someone whos in a hurry to get the thing done, never from the perspective of the judge who has been schooled to reflect on the potentially damaging consequences in the future of licensing this particular action in the present.

To balance Cummingss imagined course of maths, science and history, I could, teasingly, suggest that a no less valuable preparation for public life might be a combination of philosophy, jurisprudence and literature. Philosophy would introduce habits of analysis and undermine certainty or dogmatism; jurisprudence would teach an appreciation of rules, procedures and the judgment of consequences; and the study of literature would weaken the hold of cliche and all exaggerated beliefs in the fixity of meaning. It might be said, not altogether unfairly, that Cummingss course would produce doers and mine would produce critics (though the disciplines I suggest constantly generate new ideas rather than merely criticising old ones), but I would say that a healthy politics needs both, and that the more we emphasise the first category and try to give its occupants their head, the more we need the virtues of the second category to hold them in check.

Cummings, of course, believes that this is just what we dont need. We dont want more Oxbridge English graduates who chat about Lacan at dinner parties with TV producers and spread fake news about fake news, he wrote last month. This is an economical bit of target practice everyone knows, dont they, that one can hardly move in north London these days without falling over chat about Lacan at dinner parties but there may be deeper cultural antagonisms at work here. The datedness of the jibe about Lacan may suggest a long-nurtured touchiness. At one point Cummings says of himself, rather engagingly, I am not articulate, but you sense that he doesnt particularly rate articulateness in the first place. So much of what others think of as culture he regards as noise. Perhaps his recent call for super-talented weirdos to apply for staff jobs in Downing Street should be seen as something of a dating pitch.

In Cummingss ontology, the world appears to be made up of an extremely small number of outstandingly clever individuals and a mass of mediocrities. Human progress depends on giving those with the highest IQ (hes very keen on the notion of IQ) the education that will allow them fully to develop their talents and then the freedom to apply them. His culture heroes are those few outstanding mathematicians and scientists who fundamentally changed a whole intellectual field, such as Kurt Gdel, John von Neumann and Richard Feynman. He has an abiding interest not just in what kinds of conditions have favoured scientific breakthroughs in the past and how we might replicate those today, but even more in the organisational or management processes that enabled complex, long-term, science-based projects to translate brilliant new ideas into successful practical outcomes, such as Nasa (putting the first man on the moon) or Parc (the Palo Alto Research Center, which was the foundation of Silicon Valleys triumphs), and he gives illuminating accounts of their modus operandi. Just how far such procedures could be transferred to the muddy, shifting, contested world of politics is an open question, but Cummings insists they would be a big improvement on what we have now.

Politics is, by definition, the terrain of conflicting convictions, and although in principle Cummings lauds the idea of feedback and the correction of error, in practice he seems to struggle with the idea of genuine intellectual disagreement. There are traces of that kind of absolute certainty that is more often shown by fellow-travellers of science rather than by first-rate scientists themselves. And he is a bit quick to write off opposition to his ideas as yet another example of the self-protective vested interests of the establishment (as the mavericks maverick, he, of course, is not part of the establishment). The political-media system actively suppresses thinking about, and focus on, whats important, he writes. One of the things that irks him about politics is that it involves so much damn talk. For example, he speaks contemptuously of the debate about the EU referendum in 2016, the outcome of which he played such a signal part in influencing: Most of the debate was moronic as political debate always is. At least he cannot be accused of seeking cheap popularity.

In a curious way, there is very little politics in Cummingss political thinking: its largely about the operational process, not about the substantive aims, and there does not seem to be much feel for the irresolvable conflicts over fundamental values that are at the heart of political life. He extols the speed at which the denizens of Parc got things done: meetings in the political world, by contrast, tend to be just jibber-jabber. He has a natural antipathy to entities that seem to him to do little but block innovation professional associations, the civil service, trade unions, big organisations generally. His ideal form of government is one that operates like a small start-up: a few bright guys (they mostly seem to be guys), some unconventional thinking, no red tape and hey presto, something actually gets done. If Cummings has some claims to be regarded as an intellectual among technocrats, there is also a sense in which he is a technocrat among intellectuals. He is far more interested in abstract ideas than most technocrats, but he is far more interested in results than most intellectuals.

A striking further aspect of Cummingss worldview is a lively conviction that total disaster for humanity may be right around the corner: as he says darkly, its just a matter of when. Think about the possibility of pathogens escaping from high-security bio-labs and causing a global pandemic: we urgently need to be testing these labs security by setting up a new team that should include specialist criminals (well, yes, I suppose they are the experts in testing security). Or again, if you can understand probability few can, in his view then you will know that the Earth will be destroyed by an asteroid before long unless we do something about it: We know this for sure. One major reason for exploring outer space is to find somewhere habitable in which humans can sit out the destruction of the Earth (no, really), thus avoiding the difficult problems of keeping humans alive for thousands of years on spaceships (just when you thought you had enough to worry about). Existential paranoia on a galactic scale is, it seems, the new normal.

But no summary does justice to the fizz and energy of his forays into the world of ideas. Heres a representative example of Cummings wearing his historian-of-ideas hat:

What we have learned about our world vindicates the evolutionary perspective of the pre-Socratics (Anaximander, Heraclitus), Thucydides, Hume, Smith, Darwin, and Hayek over the anthropocentric perspective of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hobbes, Rousseau (the general will), Bentham, Mill (who introduced the concept of the natural monopoly) and Marx. Evolutionary biology, neuroscience, cognitive science, and behavioural genetics have undermined the basis for Descartes Ghost in the Machine, Lockes Blank Slate, and Rousseaus Noble Savage and have established a scientific basis for exploring a universal human nature. Economic theory, practice, and experiment have undermined the basis for Cartesian central planning: decentralised coordination via market prices is generally a better method for dealing with vast numbers of possibilities than Cartesian or Soviet planning, though obviously markets have problems particularly with monetary policy and financial regulation.

There is a grandeur and sweep here that it is hard not be impressed by. Just think: all those big names in the second list they all got it wrong. It turns out that evolution and neuroscience and all that neat stuff explain everything. Descartes and Soviet planning can be put in the same box because theyre both about people deciding things, and thats so last millennium.

But wait arent some people playing for the wrong team? If the first group are all about impersonal evolutionary systems and the second about individual human reasoners, shouldnt Marx be in (perhaps even captain of) the first team? Come to that, is Thucydides such an evolutionary thinker, or doesnt he emphasise the power of unchanging basic human motives in a way that has some affinities with, lets say, Hobbes? (Certainly that was Hobbess own view.)

The point is not to juggle the team selections so much as to wonder whether any useful historical purpose can be served by operating at such a high, and high-handed, level of generality. The differences among the names on the first list alone are far more interesting than any putative common characteristic. But also, is there really a logical connection between the diverse ideas of the first group and a commitment to markets, or is that list of big names a cross between window-dressing and bullying? Arent we moving a tad quickly to the conclusion that prices do better than planning? (Its hard to know what Cartesian planning would look like: I think, therefore I plan?)

Dominic Cummings at the Conservative party conference in Manchester, September 2019. Photograph: James Veysey/Rex/Shutterstock

In so far as there is a consistent politics here, it looks Hayekian that is, akin to the anti-statist thinking of the Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek, whose 1944 book The Road to Serfdom influentially argued that central planning was inimical to liberty as well as being ultimately self-defeating. He quotes with approval Hayeks dictum that order generated without design can far outstrip plans men consciously contrive. Cummings scorns traditional political labels, but his admiration for single-minded entrepreneurs, his obsession with the role of off-the-scale IQ and his belief in self-regulating economic systems scarcely make him a promising recruit for the left.

More generally, its hard to know how one could decide whether his Odyssean education essay, which his subsequent blogs draw upon extensively, is a) an astonishing intellectual tour de force knowledgably knitting together material from a wide range of disciplines, or b) a load of cod-science based on cobbling together hasty conclusions from random reading. Rather to my surprise, I now think its more of the first than the second. A lot of the time I found myself struggling to keep up, while admiring the sheer intellectual courage involved in trespassing so daringly. At other times, I felt I had been backed into a corner at a party by a wild-eyed obsessive jabbing his finger into my chest and saying, Not many people know this, but

Cummings clearly has a talent as well as an enthusiasm for expounding really quite technical scientific ideas. Even I had moments, reading his account, where I thought I half-understood something of what is involved in, say, sequencing the genome. But at other times, the jump from the science to the policy seemed altogether too confident to be persuasive. For example:

Most of our politics is still conducted with the morality and the language of the simple primitive hunter-gatherer tribe Our chimp politics has an evolutionary logic: our powerful evolved instinct to conform to a group view is a flip-side of our evolved in-group solidarity and hostility to out-groups This partly explains the persistent popularity of collectivist policies and why groupthink is a recurring disaster.

Whoa, hold on! There is a good reason why all attempts to draw a straightforward inference for current social life from something referred to as evolution always end up with a lot of egg on face: the supposed evolutionary logic explains everything and nothing. No amount of Attenborough-like attention to the gambolling of chimps in trees (a gaze already vitiated by its anthropomorphising tendencies) can yield an explanation for the persistent popularity of collectivist policies. After all, quite a few chimps, it turns out, prefer to vote Tory. And anyway, why is the popularity of collectivist policies any more in need of deep (and in some sense discrediting) explanation than that of, say, individualist policies? Somewhere along the journey from the science to the politics, an awful lot of non-scientific baggage seems to have got stacked on the wagon.

Dominic Cummings is now, in effect, the countrys project manager. Hes the Downing Street version of the Deliveroo guy who doesnt care whether youve ordered pepperoni or four-cheese: his job is to make it happen, and if that involves cycling the wrong way up one-way streets then thats probably a plus. His writing displays an alarming ability to focus on a goal to the exclusion of noticing, or caring about, any amount of collateral damage. Emotions mostly figure as forms of irrational distraction. Toes, after all, were put in the world largely to be trodden on. People around him dont have to take umbrage: he gives it to them, makes a present of it, with a liberality that would put a drunk in a bar to shame. He knows he has the intellectual firepower to be able to say: Get your thinktanks off my lawn.

Cummings himself quotes William Jamess pronouncement: When superior intellect and a psychopathic temperament coalesce we have the best possible conditions for the kind of effective genius that gets into the biographical dictionaries. It may be that thats how we should think of Cummings as an effective genius, or, rather, a genius of effectiveness. He is admirably committed to learning from science and to basing policies on evidence in a more than cursory way, but in the end, delivery is the point. Get x done, where (we might pseudo-mathematically say) the value of x equals a multiple of results from focus groups plus the square root of whatever appears to favour breakout thinking.

I would hesitate to treat Cummings as representative of anything: hes made being a one-off into an art form. But in so far as his writing chimes with certain contemporary cultural traits, perhaps one common element is a kind of dismissive impatience. The widely remarked decline of deference over the past couple of generations has been welcome on several counts, but in many quarters it has gone along with an unwillingness to find much of value or interest in anything that doesnt speak directly to ones own wishes in the present. When expressed in political terms, this kind of impatience is obviously not a monopoly of the left or the right; if anything, it can tend towards a rejection of the traditional forms of politics and political debate altogether. When combined with a fascination with the potential of science and technology, this urge translates into a form of technocracy; when laced with a hostility to traditional elites, this generates that distinctive modern hybrid, populist technocracy. Screw all those convoluted arguments: this is what we want, lets get it done.

It may be that the left has more to fear than the right from this irritable dismissal of political argument, since any progressive politics is reliant on reasoned discourse in making the case against the injustices of the status quo, and such discourse is inevitably a laborious, uneven business, much indebted to the thinking of earlier generations. Cummings is clearly not a conventional Tory, but perhaps his impatient individualism does express one of the most fundamental structures of feeling informing contemporary attitudes towards politics one that the left needs to challenge rather than simply to accommodate.

There is a long tradition of advisers to princes sharing their political understanding with the rest of us. To take just the best-known example, Machiavellis reflections after working in Renaissance Florences equivalent of Whitehall became a classic. Nothing Cummings has written up till now is in this league, but it will be interesting to see what he produces once he has laid down his carrier bag. Thus far, if theres timeless political wisdom here, its more Warren Buffett than Walter Bagehot (Buffett is another of Cummingss heroes, a model of focus). But I suspect his place in future biographical dictionaries will depend more on what he does than what he writes, despite all the indisputable power of mind exhibited in his forays into recent quantitative and biological research. And from that perspective, I only hope that, rather than figuring as an amalgam of Thucydides and Stephen Hawking, he doesnt end up looking more like an unnerving cross between Robespierre and Dr Strangelove.

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