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Angela Tilby: Dominic Cummings was a disruptor who lacked a philosophy

20 November 2020


Dominic Cummings outside his home on Saturday

Dominic Cummings outside his home on Saturday

WHEN Dominic Cummings stretched the Covid rules by driving to his parents’ home in Durham, he was condemned by almost everyone, including several bishops (News, 29 May). I found it hard to join in the moral outrage because I felt strangely sorry for him (Podcast, 29 May). It is only now, in the wake of his departure from Downing Street, that I realise why.

He saw himself, and was seen by others, as a disruptive revolutionary. When he appealed for people of “unusual” abilities to work with him in Downing Street, you see what he believed in. Data. Mathematics. Projections. Forecasting. Those of superior intellect should organise the rest of us for our own good. The key was being able to turn statistics into slogans, like the brilliant “Take back control.” He knew that he was different, and was not without a geekish vanity. Think of those pictures of him standing in the corner in his white shirt or hoody, half-hidden by suited politicians.

Mr Cummings embodied the Enlightenment view that human reason can be weaponised against tradition, custom, and vested interests. Disruptors have their value in society — perhaps especially in a society like ours, where much opinion, power, and decision-making is in the hands of revered institutions. Parliament, the Civil Service, the trade unions, the BBC, the universities, even the Church of England can all go bad without critique and fresh thinking, and end up serving the interests of their members over the good of society.

When he worked with Michael Gove at the Department for Education, Mr Cummings invented the term “the blob” to refer to an educational Establishment that they both believed condemned poor children to inadequate schooling and low aspirations. He was right about that, and he was also right to think that the Civil Service was complacent about its lack of skills in procurement and project management.

The problem was that his intellectual drive and energy was not anchored in any obvious philosophy or ethic. It was never clear what he stood for, except for winning, a trait that was well brought out by Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of him in Brexit: The uncivil war. “Take back control” was a perfect expression of the bid for power for power’s sake. It also had an instant appeal to those who felt that their interests had been marginalised by “the elites”.

I think that he made his fatal trip to Durham because he was simply overwhelmed. He was ill, as was his wife. He was worried about his child. Downing Street was in chaos, with staff and ministers falling sick. Reason had no answers for him, and he was, suddenly, like the rest of us, a fallible, vulnerable human being. I now realise that I felt sorry for him because, at the very moment that he found he had a soul, he lost public credibility for ever.

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