David Davis is a former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and is MP for Haltemprice and Howden.
The soap opera that was the departure of Dominic Cummings from Downing Street was marked by his numerous enemies heaping dirt on his metaphorical grave and stamping on it. This was perhaps inevitable, given his aggressive personal style, and his inability to see an institution without attacking it. From members of Parliament who felt they had been cut out to Cabinet ministers who were demeaned and diminished, there was no shortage of antagonistic commentators. So far, so obvious.
Certainly, this moment gives the Prime Minister an opportunity to reset a large number of relationships. He can be more open with his backbenchers, and he can be more consultative with his Cabinet. He can avoid unnecessary culture wars with many of the institutions of the state.
Nevertheless it is very important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Although Cummings’ methods were in the final analysis counter-productive, much of his critique was right. The British state is dysfunctional in many ways, as has been highlighted all too painfully during the last nine months. Its operational capability is appallingly weak, and its advice is often little more than the insights of a gifted amateur. This is one of the reasons that the gGovernment falls back far too quickly on spending vast sums of taxpayers’ money on outside consultants.
Cummings was also right about the lack of scientific and technical expertise at the heart of government, and was right to blame that for the fact that in the past couple of decades Britain’s economic success has been largely despite government, rather than because of it.
This is particularly important if we are actually going to give expression to the Prime Minister’s “levelling up” agenda. We will not rejuvenate the North simply by throwing money at it. Neither will we transform it by decanting whole government departments into the regions, as appears to be currently fashionable. Labour governments tried that in the 1960s and 70s, and all it did was make it impossible for small businesses to get off the ground because they were competing with government for staff and premises.
If we are going to transform the old industrial heartlands of Britain, we have to do no less than initiate a fourth industrial revolution in the towns and valleys from West Yorkshire to Wales. That means different attitudes to science, different attitudes to enterprise, and a prejudice in favour of productive activity. It does not mean wasting taxpayers money “backing winners” in yet another recycling of twentieth century industrial strategy.
What it does mean is reorienting the state to catalyse productivity and wealth creation. We have long been very good at innovative and creative science, but it is a truism that we have been terrible at turning it into new industries in this country. As a nation we have done more to generate wealth in Silicon Valley with our ideas than we have in our own regions. We were terrific at pure research, and useless at translational research.
Cummings understood this, and started a series of mechanisms with the aim of improving the environment for wealth creation distributed throughout the country. To that end he started to staff Downing Street with scientists, and started putting aside funding to ensure that the necessary changes happened.
One of his models of success was the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in West Yorkshire. Ironically built on the poisoned land of the coking plant at Orgreave, where striking miners battled the police, the AMRC is a brilliant example of what can be done in the bleakest of environments given sufficient imagination and enterprise.
Employing about 600 people, it provides bespoke high-technology products to Boeing, McLaren, Rolls-Royce, and Messier–Bugatti–Dowty. The textile weavers of West Yorkshire are now weaving in carbon fibre, and the steel knives for Sheffield have given way to the single crystal turbine blades for Rolls-Royce.
The concept included ideas like generating an MIT of the North. MIT – the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – is a probably the most successful university in the world in terms of spinning off brilliant ideas into successful businesses. A decentralised research-based institution based in the towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire, building on new technology and harnessing traditional skills, could transform the nature of the North.
We could also create a completely new style of university designed to compete with places like MIT. Teaching 48 weeks a year, rather than the 30+ taught by conventional universities, like MIT it could focus solely on science and technology. It could be fully funded, rather than loan financed, and as such would attract the brightest and best from all classes of society and channel them into productive and successful careers.
The Prime Minister has already undertaken to double the funding of science research in the UK. This is absolutely the right thing to do, but we must reform the way we allocate such money, modelling our approach on the most successful countries in the world, such as Germany and USA. The aim must be to make Britain, post-Brexit, one of the most attractive places to do science in the entire world. We have a fabulous history to build on here, but it will take purpose and imagination as well as money to deliver it.
To back this up, we will have to have an economic policy that has growth and wealth creation firmly at its centre. This is doubly important in the aftermath of Covid-19, because we have to rebuild our economy back to where it was and set it on the path to future growth if we have any hope of carrying the debt burden we have just acquired. That means lower taxes and intelligent investment in infrastructure that can be delivered in the immediate future. This does not mean vanity projects like HS2, but the sort of investment necessary to make the networks of the Midlands and North work efficiently together. Think a mixture of Reaganomics and Roosevelt.
Frankly, this is just the tip of the iceberg. As Cummings leaves Number 10, we must be careful to preserve the best of our ideas, and not let them disappear in the smoke of political battles around Downing Street. Of course it is important to get the Prime Minister a decent Chief of Staff. No doubt it is important that we have some sort of policy committee. But above all else we are going to need the imagination to pick up on the good thing Cummings did, and with creativity and imagination deliver the levelling up agenda that we promised at the general election.