“In some possible branches of the future leaving will be an error” – an exchange about Brexit with Dominic Cummings

4th July 2017

Yesterday evening, I had a tweet exchange with Dominic Cummings, the architect of the (official) Leave campaign.

His candour and openness was striking.

Many regard him as a controversial and negative figure.  But there is none of the platitudes and evasions of the politicians of both sides on Brexit.  It is worth, therefore, reading what he has to say.

The tweet exchange was prompted by his tweets from June, linking to a blogpost.  (I happened upon these while researching something.)

That was last month.  I wondered if he still held this view.

He must get a lot of queries and I did not assume he would respond.  But it was a sincere question.

(My own view is that (a) Brexit is complex, (b) the UK government is not equal to the task, and (c) the UK government is somehow making it worse for itself.)

He did respond.

He then added.

Brexit was necessary, though obviously not sufficient.

This is an interesting view, and I RTd the conversation above as it seemed worthy of wider discussion.

I then asked him about the referendum vote itself.

(Most Brexiteers will defend the Leave vote absolutely; many Remainers will be as equally disdainful.)

His reply was swift, and commendably frank.

“In some possible branches of the future leaving will be an error.”

In other words: Brexit was not bound to be a success – Brexit could be a mistake.

(Note my question had been about the referendum result, but the second sentence of the replt went to Leave more generally.)

He added:

In the meantime, I had RTd the “Lots!” tweet- again as I thought it would be of wider interest.

He was unimpressed with some of the responses.

I said I thought this response was good.

He responded.

He also made wider this observation about the responses.

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Postscript.

I disagree with Dominic Cummings on many things to do with Brexit.

A couple of polite questions had elicited some frank, informative and interesting replies. And this dialogue in turn led to wider discussion.

One may dismiss what he has to say (and what he did at the Leave campaign) but it is important to know what his position actually is, and not what it is alleged to be.

But one respondent (ironically, an academic), however, saw this exercise as me being “part of the problem”.

This view is misconceived.

One problem with Brexit has been the partisanship and the heat of the two sides.

The more open and frank we can be the better.

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32 thoughts on ““In some possible branches of the future leaving will be an error” – an exchange about Brexit with Dominic Cummings”

  1. ‘The more open and frank we can be the better’. Agreed. However, a live and let live magnanimity belies harsh truths re post REF result: we are poorer, forsee ever greater uncertainty and likely further economic hits for years to come. Reading the obtuse words of Cummings hardly makes me feel open and accepting towards one of the main architects of this chaos.

    1. Yes, I’m a UK citizen living in EU. This maddening “possible branches” stuff reminded me of Withnail and I:

      “What is all this “tactical necessity” and “calculated risk?!” This is me, naked in a corner!”

      Discovering I’d been set up with Uncle Monty would be preferable to the entirely foreseeable chaos that has been unleashed.

  2. The ‘epistemological uncertainty’ jibe indicates he’s still playing an intellectual game, which is a pity. Most Remain voters I know were fully Rumsfeldian in their views on post-EU prospects; Leave could show no secure path to prosperity. But the ineptness of the UKG in Brexit negotiations has now intruded into DC’s weltanschauung, forcing his realisation that odds are increasing that this huge gamble with the unknown unknowns will not pay off.

    See also Richard Holbrooke’s 1975 article on the role of academic advisers in the Vietnam war, The Smartest Man in the Room:
    https://harpers.org/archive/1975/06/the-smartest-man-in-the-room/

  3. The candour is admirable but I’m afraid that’s all that is. The Leave campaign presented Brexit as effectively risk-free: that was dishonest. DC gives the impression that he considered a vote to leave as merely an administrative hurdle to be cleared by any means possible. This entirely gives the lie to the idea of the “will of the people”. He then seems to view people’s anger at this dishonesty as rather unsophisticated and embarrassing, as if we were all just game-playing.

    I agree that your polite approach achieved more than angry ranting would have done. It doesn’t follow, however, that anger is an inappropriate reaction to his position.

    1. The obvious counter-argument, however, is that ‘Remain’ is not risk-free – despite it being portrayed as such/the safer option during the referendum.

      A future where the UK is in effect ‘trapped’ by the continuing ratchet towards federalisation/deeper integration (caused by the differing attitudes of the EU27 vs UK) is entirely forseeable. It is not unreasonable to argue that this is just as risky, if not more so, than leaving.

      Was it any more dishonest of the Remain campaign to discount such a possible future?

      1. Except that remaining would have allowed us the chance to leave at a later date, perhaps in the face of a legal move towards deeper integration (such as another treaty) if that occurred and we did not wish to be part of it. I’m not convinced at all by the post below which suggests that leaving in ten years would be significantly harder than it is now. Maastricht was the turning point.

        I do agree that the Remain campaign was inadequate in all sorts of ways. The whole referendum campaign was mired in dishonesty and half-truths and undermined by the fact that the majority of those involved seemed to have only the barest understanding of how the EU functions. I struggle to see how a referendum like that could have given a meaningful mandate to either side. I’m generally not a fan of referendums and think Brexit was a particularly poor subject for one, given the huge complexity of the question.

    2. There are way too many commentators telling us who took what from the Brexit debate. None of know what motivated the bulk of Leave or Remain voters. We can guess, but that’s all. I watched, listened and read pretty much everything I could on Brexit, and didn’t hear anyone say Brexit was risk-free, just like no-one on the Remain side said that that was risk-free. But then again Cummings didn’t need to argue that: he broke fears down into soundbites, understanding brilliantly that that was what would resonate with the electorate. He is also on record as saying when you lie in a political campaign in the UK, there is no recourse. I work in international trade and can tell you that many of the questions now being considered (e.g. is being in the EEA or staying\rejoining the customs union “doable” and compatible with the “political will” from the Referendum?) are not easy. How would you or Cummings have sloganized those? The more interesting question was not how he did what he did, but why. I find his motives very difficult to discern.

  4. This notion that we’ll know ‘what Brexit looks like’ once the EU exit negotiations are concluded is fallacious. As DC rightly says, the measure of success comes from what the UK does and how it performs (economically, politically, socially) after it has left the EU. Some existing opportunities close and some new ones open up. The EU/UK negotiations are there to try and soften the transition – and to try and maintain as many of the old opportunities without compromising the new ones. DC is right to remind people that the post-Brexit future of the UK is governed by British governments.

    Understandably it’ll take time to rebuild the trust and belief in our own self-governance in the absence of EU instruction, and to look beyond the immediate reactionary consequences brought about by the inevitable uncertainty of the transition.

    More than ever we’ll need strong politics and good proactive governance, and a bit of patience.

  5. Yes, an informative & interesting exchange. My personal interpretation is that Mr Cummings seems to acknowledge that leaving is – at best – an extremely risky experiment, likely with current government & trajectory to explode in all our faces. (Is risky constitutional experimentation compatible with “strong and stable” government? Or even government? I digress.) I also, perhaps erroneously, draw the conclusion from his remarks that he was smart enough to recognise the genuine risks before the referendum, and so disagreed with the idea of the referendum, but – presumably as an avowed believer in the UK leaving the EU – felt the referendum too good an opportunity to miss anyway, by which I mean despite his disagreeing that the referendum was the *right thing to do*. I would like to ask Mr Cummings this; his doubts about the UK’s current capacity to deliver the hoped for benefits of leaving seem likely to prove correct, so does he currently feel that leaving now, in these circumstances, will more likely damage “us” – the people of the UK – than now choosing to stay in the EU would do? After all, we could choose to get our ducks in a row as he suggests, then choose to leave?and, after all, we weren’t doing so badly in? Were we?

  6. Agree with Dominic Cummings on pretty much all this.

    In life we learn through making mistakes. As we take back control we will inevitably make mistakes, and the key is that we put in place the institutions and culture to learn from these to make us better.

    The key thing is to not make mistakes we cannot undo at a later date. In my view remaining in the EU comes into that category – it is hard enough leaving now, leaving ten years down the road would be practically impossible. And the impossibility of our leaving would mean we would be unable to resist the move toward federalisation.

    1. “it is hard enough leaving now, leaving ten years down the road would be practically impossible. And the impossibility of our leaving would mean we would be unable to resist the move toward federalisation.”

      Is what some of us said at Maastricht. I think we were right. Too late now.

      1. I agree. Maastricht was a step too far and everything since has suggested the EU will continue relentlessly down that road.
        I voted leave because I suspected this would be our last chance to do that. My hope was (is) that the EU will rationalise itself into 2 groups – not “fast and slow” vis a vis closer union, but “stick or twist” – I.E. a group of nations happyish with the state of play (kind of efta plus led by uk, Scadanavia, Poland) but not keen to further integrate and a group who essentially want to continue towards a single federal state (roughly EZ led by France & Germany)
        I now understand better your points about how hellishly complex all this is, and how startlingly inept our representatives are, so would likely change my vote to remain if we had a second chance – the short term risk is enormous given the current trajectory and the damage to the country could take a long time to recover from even if we make good decisions post 2019.

        1. What you call “stick or twist” has been around some 20 years or so under the name “Europe of two speeds”. It was peddled again in France and Germany when the big enlargement happened. So there is a precedent that can be picked up once further integration will be pushed for after the German election in September.

          1. “Europe of 2 speeds” implies “going in the same direction” though, unless one of the 2 speeds is 0mph.

            I recognise what you’re saying but it’s always seemed a fudge for me. I think a clear distinction between the 2 groups could have clarified the relationship better as the “twisters” developed into essentially one country and the “stickers” developed into a powerful efta style bloc in alliance with the EU but only semi detached, rather than, essentially, a group of dependent client states reluctantly accepting and continually compromising on EU issues.

            Think it could work well, and be a lot cleaner and more democratic but it’s probably pie in the sky now as Brexit has been royally mishandled, the best we can hope for in the short term is either a humiliating reversal of Brexit or to become a client state. Shame.

      2. Seems like a principle (or anti-principle) is being advanced here, which is that the facility to break a commitment should be built even into the making of it. But, what depth of agreement is even possible with such thinking? What price patient diplomacy for those now disposed to cut and run when relationships appears difficult?

        Those whom the UK wishes to do business with in the future would be well advised to understand the nature of what we have become – a country whose people’s representatives require knowledge of a room’s exit routes before they will enter it to shake hands, let alone plan a future with those who, hitherto, would have been proud to call us their allies.

        This is what we have become, epitomised by de Niro’s Neil McCauley in all his bleak, uncompromising, soullessness:

        “Don’t get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.”

        And imagine Fox too, in negotiation with some prospective trading partner channeling McCauley yet further:

        “What if you do got me boxed in and I’ve gotta put you down? ‘Cause no matter what, you will not get in my way.”

    2. “As we take back control we will inevitably make mistakes..”

      But…. but…..

      a) We never, ever relinquished control unless an explicit decision was made to.
      b) Most of the areas in which people want to “take back control” will remain subject to multilateral agreement and international law. With less negotiating influence as an individual nation than we have as part of the EU,

      1. “The key thing is to not make mistakes we cannot undo at a later date.”

        Does he mean giving notice of withdrawal under Article 50 without a definitive legal/political determination of the ability to withdraw such notice without penalty?

      2. Furthermore, our own government, under pretty much any EU scenario, retains pretty much all control of things that matter to us all on a daily basis.

        For sure, the fact that the EU is so difficult to leave is a huge cause for concern, in and of itself. Perhaps even *the* reason we should leave now. I completely get that. That is an attractive, principled argument.

        But this argument goes nowhere in practice. In practice, leaving does harm. There has to be more than a feeling or a theory about the benefits of Brexit. I know our institutions are clunky and dysfunctional (and might benefit from some creative destruction), but not to the extent that you can do something like Brexit without a solid plan.

        The benefits of improving our own institutions are low hanging fruit in comparison.

  7. Cummings appears to be dropping the Many Worlds Interpretation into the discussion to add a veneer of science to his inability to accept that Brexit, as it stands right now, is almost certain to be an unmitigated disaster, primarily for the reasons DAG sets out above and elsewhere.

    As it stands, I think Chaos Theory is more appropriate for our current situation

  8. Learning by mistakes works most effectively when one has done some analysis first, set out an appropriate plan and risk management and then mistakes arising can be contained or in worse case the plan can be reversed.
    None of the above was in place for the Referendum, Gove and Boris being in or at the cabinet knew that. We don’t even have a firm plan, even now with only a year to go before we kick ourselves out of the EU by default. At the moment it appears that our Government has not agreed what it can trade off in the negotiations nor even what the economic impact of options would be.
    The only learning from a complete disaster is not to cause another one.

  9. Hi David,

    Your courteousness is a big reason why ardent leavers are willing to engage with you. This is definitely a plus and gives us an idea of how people like Mr.Cummings think.

    I appreciate Mr Cummings’ self confidence or rather the confidence that people on your list do not understand uncertainty (epistemological uncertainty of complex decisions to be precise) while he does. Reading his biography, I am guessing his experience of dealing with this is from reading the book about the moon landings where bureaucracy was tamed or government waste reduced.

    I find there is clear pattern to people in the political sphere such as Mr Hannan, Mr Cummings, Mr. Gove, Mr Davis, Mr Johnson and others. They behave very similarly to Paul Ryan in the US. They come across as reasonable individuals with strong intellectual backing, when in fact they are largely making false arguments. They can justifiably be called sophists.

    Whether this is out of beliefs that have been proven to be false or outright lying doesn’t really matter in the bigger scheme of things. One could argue, may be generously that, Mr Cummings believes what he says while Mr Gove/Hannan have to be lying considering their flip-flops.

    What is common to them is that they are good at political campaigns, be it through making provocative posters, being able to lie while appearing respectable. I find these individuals are more likely to cause lasting damage to existing institutions.

    I wonder if your admiration needs to be tempered. Are you actually being frank enough ? Respect is good but is admiration really justified unless you agree with their methods. The methods used by Mr Cummings during the leave campaign were barely decent for his apparently idealistic aims.
    If one does not call out a lie or fake argument strongly enough, one can end up enabling them as we saw with Trump and Brexit.

    If we examine his idea further, It appears to be that, if we blow up the existing structures by voting Brexit, once the pieces land, > 50% of the possibilities will be better in a few decades than they were before. Is that even a serious case idealistically ? Again a case of to each his own Brexit.

    I think one has to beware treating someone as an intellectual because that’s what others say ….

    1. An excellent comment, and indeed more restrained and courteous than I would have found possible myself (re DC, Gove et al., not DAG of course!).

  10. I normally find Twatter a bit naff and naval gazing.

    But this thread has been very interesting.

    As you say the heat and partisan nature of the debate, or screaming match has not been helpful.

    The complete collapse of the political establishment because the people at the bottom decided to give a kicking has been extraordinary and a marvel to watch.

    Who knows where we are heading, maybe things will get physical I hope not.

    The best deal is one where every one is left unhappy, I could in the panic of the last few months before leaving day (and belive me the panic will be legendary, even in Hell) see us opting for hard remain, capitulation utter humiliation. It would be the end of any idea of the UK being some sort of important country.

    I voted leave, important to be honest in this debate tell people where you stand.

    I feel like the guy at the end of Reservoir Dogs the one who tells Harvey Keitell that he’s a cop, just before he gets his brains blown out.

  11. The principle of due diligence suggests that we should have figured out first “whether we can reform Whitehall / science / education / real productivity etc. “, and put those reforms on the table at the time of the vote.

    The kind of creative destruction DC and Co have seen fit to unleash instead is grotesquely irresponsible.

  12. I’ve read Cummings blog on a few occasions, his evisceration of the civil service culture was interesting and in between the parts clearly driven by an agenda actually raised some worthwhile points.

    However, his pathetic need to try and display his education and intellect by using the longest most rarely used word available to make a point, instead of just, you know, the most accurate word is not just infuriating but really kind of sad. Also when discussing large numbers using 10 to the power of (I can’t make my keyboard on my phone do the mini raised numbers) is useful, but using 10 – 2 (see previous parentheses) instead of 100 is just silly

  13. “hard remain [=] capitulation utter humiliation. It would be the end of any idea of the UK being some sort of important country”

    That it would be even more difficult for anyone else to leave? Difficult to dispute and very unsettling to me. (Though let’s not pretend we did any homework).

    But this is the *only* Brexit argument that has traction IMO.

    Putting emotions aside, I would take the humiliation every time and hope that we (and EU) learn. We might even garner some respect.

    And who knows there could be a useful reckoning of our own establishment; a bit of creative destruction… Something DC would surely be attracted to.

  14. The above was meant to read “sophist” rather than “sophisticated” but autocorrect got the best of me!

  15. I do think A50negs are a horse deal and we’re likely to get screwed on a this for that basis, but if we start negotiating in the market of ideas and with a bit of political imagination we can build something good. My question is if anyone in the driving seat has the vision to see this, the tackle to lead us there or the guts to run and break the things that need breaking? I can’t see a queue.

  16. Not one mention of democracy from either side. Here three German contributions:
    Jürgen Habermas, Zur Verfassung Europas, Suhrkamp,
    Dieter Grimm, Europa ja – aber welches? Zur Verfassung der europäischen Demokratie, C.H.Beck.
    Wolfgang Streek, Gekaufte Zeit. Die vertagte Krise des demokratischen Kaptalismus, Suhrkamp.
    Are German intellectuals more concerned about European democracy than any British ones? Are questions about European democracy irrelevant to the Brexit debate?

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