What Harold Wilson actually said was: “the Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry.” This is usually remembered as “the white hot heat of the technological revolution”.
As this new Conservative Government prepares to invest in science, it is worth glancing back to the former Labour Prime Minister. And to assess what he tried to do; what Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings are attempting to do, and to ask what lesson – if any – can be drawn from the one about the other.
Wilson was seen as a modernising force after a decade or so of toffish Conservatives. In place of Harold Macmillan’s Highland grouse moor shoots came Wilson’s man-of-the-people pipe – and a stress on science, progress, growth – “let’s go with Labour” – and a J.F.Kennedy-type appeal to youth. Departmental restructuring was all the rage: the short-termists at the Treasury would be balanced by a long-term Department of Economic Affairs.
Wilson’s words, appeal and deeds didn’t affect Labour only. For it was in response to him that the Conservatives chose, to succeed Eton-educated Alec Douglas-Home, the “abrasive”, “classless”, grammar school-educated Edward Heath.
Between them, Wilson and Heath dominated British politics for the ten years between 1964 and 1974. Heath mimicked Wilson-type technocracy: it would be hard to guess which one of them brought business figures into government to work alongside civil servants as members of the Central Policy Review Staff. (It was Heath.)
Boris Johnson is not Wilson. And Dominic Cummings will be well aware of how the Department of Economic Affairs project failed – and that it is by no means obvious that the Heath/Wilson decade was a success. The collected body of Cummings’ blog posts show an alertness to human fallibility. “Themes of uncertainty, nonlinearity, complexity and prediction have been ubiquitous motifs of art, philosophy, and politics,” he writes.
In War and Peace, “Nikolai Rostov, playing cards with Dolohov, [prays] that one little card will turn out differently, save him from ruin, and allow him to go happily home to Natasha.” But Cummings’ posts also elevate the role of rational planners as social transformers. His latest one seeks the following.
“Data scientists, software developers, economists, policy experts, project managers, communication experts” who can pluck “a huge amount of low hanging fruit” in “the intersection of…the frontiers of the science of prediction, data science, AI and cognitive technologies, communication and decision-making institutions at the apex of government.”
The picture is of what Michael Oakeshoot would have called an enterprise association – that’s to say, the energies of the state being concentrated to a particular end: namely, to make Britain, for want of a better phrase, a cutting-edge country. It is important to be clear that there is nothing inherently mistaken about this quest or wrong with some of its by-products.
Such as: civil service reform; learning from the best of what private sector and other countries do; better regional balance; improving procurement; better value; more devolution. But a number of issues arise from Cummings’ search as described above – in addition, for “weirdos and misfits with odd skills”, as that latest blog puts it.
First, there are trade-offs inherent to this adventure. For example, many voters in former Red Wall seats captured by the Conservatives last month are migration-hostile, protection-friendly, nostalgia-minded, culturally conservative and reform-suspicious (as the story of Theresa May’s 2017 social care proposals suggests).
It is not obvious that they want to be at the cutting edge of anything. It is, however, clear that, when Britain came to vote in 2016, they wanted something that by definition is not monetisable: as Cummings himself put it, to “take back control”. So, second, it follows that politics is not like an enterprise association at all. It is an Oakeshott-style civil association: that’s to say, a kind of conversation in which people discuss and pursue not one aim but many.
Third, the forum to which much of this conversation is delegated is Parliament. This is where Cummings’ voyage will hit seething water. MPs are not selected on the basis of governmental competence. They never were. But at no time less than now.
The Tory candidates who swept so much before them last month contain individuals of outstanding talent. Nonetheless, they have been shaped and pushed by the Party machine to win and hold seats – not, say, to lead and drive Cummings’ planned departmental amalgamations and ambitious reforms.
They are the product of the Liberal Democrats’ single biggest achievement: the transformation of MPs from Parliamentary representatives to constituency champions. That’s great for each seat as an individual unit; not so good for constituencies as a national whole. At any rate, the scene is set for the grandmother of all set-tos between Cummings and the whips, for which read the entire system.
Cummings will want a strong Number Ten operation, with expert Ministers brought into the Lords and SpAds whose first loyalty is to Downing Street. The Whips and others will sooner or later complain that this makes the management of the Parliamentary Party’s hopes, fears and ambitions all but impossible.
Furthermore, MPs with a record of gripping departments, such as Jeremy Hunt, may be seen as politically suspect. Fourth, there is the role of known unknowns and unknown unknowns: the Iraq War, the crash, “expenses”. Consider, for example, today’s news of the assasination of one of Iran’s most senior terror planners. Or consider an event whose impact could have been on the same scale: the 2007 loss of child benefit data.
Fifth, we make a point as much about us as about Cummings. He is not himself a scientist. Like Johnson, he is a classicist. (At which point we should declare an interest: the Editor of this site is an English literature graduate.) It is a striking fact that the only Prime Minister in recent years to have been trained as a scientist was Margaret Thatcher – whose focus was on reducing and not extending the reach of the state. And who scrapped the CPRS, by the way.
ConservativeHome apologises if it has misunderstood Cummings’ collective work. And again if we give the impression of raising a mass of nitpicking queries. But the great celebratory party that began on Friday December 13 – oh, happy day – is drawing to a close. It’s necessary to ask what happens now we’re all getting back to work.
Finally, we can’t help wondering, as we glance back to Wilson and Heath, if what seems to us to be this latest enteprise association-type plan is…well, Tory. Perhaps it isn’t – and we simply have to get used to the idea. That might come hard to a website which after all is called ConservativeHome. But in the Brave New World of this near-landslide Johnson Government, we must all get used to having our most elemental assumptions challenged.