"Reality has branching histories, not 'a big why' … Much political analysis revolves around competing simple stories based on one big factor such that, in retrospect … alternatives are quickly thought to have been impossible … The branching histories are forgotten and the actual branch taken, often because of some relatively trivial event casting a huge shadow … seems overwhelmingly probable."
- From Dominic Cummings' blog, "How the Brexit Referendum was won", re-published by The Spectator
A note to the historians of the future from December of 2019, as various virtual branching histories stretch out before us:
We are a nation in the grip of Brexit-induced Stockholm Syndrome. Over the last three-and-a-half years, 17.4 million furious people who had previously declared themselves to be "sick of experts" have reinvented themselves as experts in British democracy, having now barked the phrase "Will of the people!" often enough to satisfy Malcolm Gladwell's fabled 10,000-hour rule. We stand on the cusp of electing a pathologically mendacious Prime Minister in order to GET BREXIT DONE – despite the fact no one has ever known exactly what Brexit is – solely to end the torture.
Sitting in the shadows is one Dominic Cummings, a man who – to his critics, at least – resembles a creature that jumped the fence at Area 51 without receiving the Ethics 101 course that would've allowed him to blend in on his new home planet.
Director of the ongoing Tory election push and previously chief advisor to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Cummings was the mastermind behind the law-breaking, referendum-winning Vote Leave campaign. He's found a way to surf his deep-seated antipathy towards the self-serving careerists of Westminster and Whitehall to end up as the principal architect of post-Brexit Britain, its disruptor-in-chief: Guy Fawkes wearing a Conservative Friends of Russia tote bag packed with dynamite.
Not that Cummings would admit as much. His big take on the Brexit campaign, as the epigraph illustrates, is that it's impossible to isolate one overriding cause that secured the victory for Leave, because history is a sprawling, complex, non-linear system, with lots of interacting variables, and changing even one apparently minor event can send it spinning off in totally unexpected directions.
Just as we ask ourselves what might have happened had Adolf Hitler made it into Vienna art school, so we can only wonder how the referendum may have panned out had Vote Leave not illegally funnelled £675,315 to a supposedly separate campaign group, BeLeave, to spend on several million scaremongering social media "dark ads" – ads that claimed "Turkey is joining the EU" and implied Britain would soon be flooded with jihadis.
Well versed in EU law, Cummings would have known that any country applying to join the EU has to receive unanimous approval from existing members, giving the UK – not to mention Cyprus, an island currently occupied by 40,000 Turkish troops – a de facto veto over granting Turkey admission. The "proof" Cummings offered of Turkey's apparently imminent accession was an old film of David Cameron, in Turkey, saying he wanted to "pave the road from Ankara to Brussels".
When presented with the fact of Vote Leave's illegal overspend on manipulative lies, the standard Brexiteer response – one typical of people who overestimate their resistance to manipulation – is that it didn't make any difference. Maybe that's true, maybe it isn't; it's hard to prove either way. It seems unlikely, though, that any campaign team would spend £675,000 on illegal adverts if they didn't think it would affect the outcome. Indeed, in his blog post, Cummings admits that the whole Vote Leave strategy was to "hold the vast majority of our budget back and drop it right at the end with money spent on those adverts that experiments had shown were the most effective".
Despite the oft-heard Brexiteer claim that "we knew what we voted for", Cummings himself had felt from the start that people couldn't simply be left with the facts and trusted to conclude they were better off out of Europe. In January of 2016, before designation of the official Leave campaign had been decided, Richard North of The Leave Alliance helped Leave.EU draft a 420-page document outlining a withdrawal process from the EU that would span two decades.
The patron saint of Hard Brexit, Nigel Farage, was, it appears, arguing that it was "unrealistic to expect a clean break", his "Flexcit" approach instead outlining various proposals for the long and slow disentanglement from Brussels. When North reached out to Cummings for input, he was told – according to North's account – that detailed specifics concerning the withdrawal would be too complex for voters to understand, and was advised to "[swerve] the issue altogether". The message was clear: too much detail would overwhelm and confuse voters and they'd opt for the status quo.
Since taking up office in Downing Street in July, Cummings' rule-defying, move-fast-and-break-things approach – to laws, social norms, democracy itself – has come to dictate government behaviour, not least in the parliamentary prorogation deemed unlawful by the Supreme Court. But then mechanisms of democratic oversight are not really Dom's bag, as demonstrated by the PM being hidden from the ordeal of a live interview with the BBC's Andrew Neil last week.
Cummings is a man who explicitly campaigned for sovereign parliament to "take back control", but then sought to deny it having any kind of input on the terms of the EU withdrawal agreement. It's a parliament that he is currently in contempt of, having failed to provide testimony at the select committee inquiry into fake news – presumably in case they asked him about the content of those dark ads, or the payments deemed illegal by the Electoral Commission and since investigated by the Metropolitan Police, whose findings have been handed to the Crown Prosecution Service.
Could Cummings also be behind the most egregious middle-finger of all to democratic transparency: No 10's decision to suppress the Intelligence and Security Committee report on Russian interference in British politics? Either way, it seems apt to describe him as a Rasputin-like presence in Downing Street, the lever-puller behind Boris Johnson and his creaking government machinery. Anyone doubting Cummings' Malcolm Tucker-style sway over Tory comms need only watch Matt Hancock's alarming, Ben Swain-esque performance on Good Morning Britain, the Health Secretary attempting to spin police numbers to the hosts, knowing they knew he was lying, but certain that the consequences of going off-message would be worse.
But Cummings' influence on the general election campaign is proving even more malign than all that, recalling a different Russian grey eminence. Vladimir Surkov is the self-styled "theatre director" who ran Putin's communications with an MO described in the Adam Curtis documentary Hypernormalisation as "undermining people's perception of the world so they never know what is really happening … [turning] Russian politics into a bewildering, constantly changing piece of theatre".
As Surkov himself has written in a short story about non-linear war, published in 2014, not long after Russia had annexed Donbas in Ukraine: "The underlying aim is not to win the war but to create a constant state of destabilised perception in order to manage and control." Cultivating pro-democracy zealotry in people simultaneously happy to see the institutions of democracy trashed would certainly fit the description.
The last couple of weeks have brought from the Tories a fake Labour manifesto webpage (prominently advertised with Google); a rebrand of the Conservative Campaign HQ Twitter feed as an independent fact-checker; doctored interviews with Labour MPs Keir Starmer and Jess Phillips; and constant, doubled-down repetition of demonstrable lies (on police numbers, new hospitals, new nurses, Labour's budget costs and more). All of these are moves straight from the Surkov playbook – instead of democratic transparency, we have politics as a psychotropic experience.
It is telling that Cummings describes Surkov admiringly in the Spectator piece as a "communications maestro", apparently disregarding the ethics of it all, judging only the tactics, the method, the efficacy. To Cummings, elections are a game, and so politics, bled of ethics, becomes just another abstract system to be gamed.
For Vote Leave, the electorate were reduced to quantifiable aggregates of psychographic data to be kneaded in order to "hack democracy". Truth becomes performative, indulging the populist impulse to say anything, including brazen falsehoods, to elicit the required sentiments and feelings. Such glib emotional manipulation is perhaps what led David Cameron to describe Cummings as "a career psychopath".
It is this "deregulation" of truth, facts and reality – abetted by legacy media journalists who have become de facto PR representatives of No 10, and a state broadcaster increasingly suspected of doctoring political footage – that is the most sinister element in all this. The properly dystopian, "Orwellian" aspect of Cummings' reign of disinformation is not that he is knowingly crafting lies for his Tory puppets to parrot. It's that he is systematically eroding the public's capacity to distinguish falsehood from truth.