As we finally reach the point where the first wave of covid19 has effectively passed (excess deaths in the week to the 19th June were the same as the 5 year average – 65000 dead so far), it’s clear that the Government (ie Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings) has decided that now is the time to strike, while everyone else is looking forward to the pubs opening on the 4th July.
When I say strike, I mean return to the agenda that they had had all along, going back to the point where they first started working together, in about 2007, after Cummings had spent a couple of years in the bunker he’d built on his dad’s farm (yes without planning permission) reading and plotting.
That agenda has been pretty clear from the beginning – and the Gove/Cummings chaos time when they were at the Department for Education, is illustrative of what will come next. Gove/Cummings entered the Education Department with the intention of throwing all the books up in the air, attacking Whitehall inertia; and the education unions to fatally weaken them; destroying the long standing relationships between local authorities and schools; attacking what they perceived as the dominance in educational academia of the intellectual left; reasserting the glories of the British Empire in the curriculum (Gove failed in this, to an extent) and pushing for much greater emphasis on teaching science and maths, not these namby pamby subjects which did nothing to further their own dreams for what Britain could become (remember this is before their double act in the Vote Leave campaign).
They had a plan of destruction and chaos from which they sought to build a new education system which fitted with their combined ideologies. That they only partially succeeded before being removed from the Department was mainly by luck rather than judgement, and Cummings’ inability to control his desires to attack, by almost any means, those he despised or who sought to block his way.
Fast forward 7 years (and skipping over Brexit for now) and here they are again, back in control, only this time, it’s not just a single Whitehall Department, it’s the entire Government. Gove has laid out his plan in a speech last weekend, which clearly has a big input from Cummings. Today Boris Johnson’s speech also has a big wedge of Cummings in it.
Taken together these provide some indication of what Gove/Cummings plan is for the rest of us. They have clearly seen Covid19 as the crisis from which they can take their opportunity to push through radical change to society. Witness the dispatch of the head of the Civil Service, Mark Sedwill, who they clearly saw as a major obstacle on their path.
What kind of society do Gove and Cummings want to create? One where bureaucracy is a dirty word. Whitehall is obviously in their targets, but today we also hear Johnson talk about a “project speed to scythe through red tape” to speed up housing developments, new roads and other infrastructure. This is a very old trope – I’ve been writing about Tory plans for a bonfire of red tape for pretty much 10 years, though its history goes back much further. How much red tape is left, but a few cinders to be swept back into the flames? Anyway, regulation and red tape and restrictions placed on the “wealth creators” will be swept away so a New Britain, free of the shackles of Europe, free of the dead hand of the man from the ministry, wielding his clipboard, to build faster, bigger, cheaper.
Gove refers repeatedly in his speech to the New Deal – Roosevelt’s plan to spend his way out of the Great Depression. I can’t see a Hoover Dam being built, but perhaps some big infrastructure projects – Boris Island could well make a return, for all those zero-carbon airliners to fly from. Austerity is history (for now) and Gove must have reluctantly accepted that a swing to Keynesian borrowing to spend was in order, if only to create the conditions for a grand new era of neoliberalism to flourish. But this is I think where Gove and Cummings personal philosophies diverge.
We know Gove is a neoliberal and neoconservative. He will want to set the market free to rebuild the post-covid economy – the Singapore on Thames future that the EU have predicted, warned against and prepared for. We can get a hint of what Gove wants to see with Johnson’s throw away remark (presumably intended as a joke) today:
the newt-counting delays in our system are a massive drag on the productivity and the prosperity of this country
There’s a certain irony here, as the Government champions net-gain for biodiversity as a centrepiece of the forthcoming Environment Bill. What is net-gain if not newt counting?
This also references an infamous speech by George Osborne (remember him) in 2011 where he claimed the poor Newts had placed a “ridiculous cost on British Business“.
So much for a Green Recovery. And Cummings has already dismissed retrofitting insulation to the existing national housing stock, possibly the single most important activity needed to reduce domestic greenhouse emissions, as “boring old house insulation.”
Gove is also a bit of a Maoist and gleefully prods his conservative colleagues by quoting from Italian Marxist Gramsci (famous for his call for a long march through the institutions) at the beginning of his speech.
Cummings is much more interested in creating a UK equivalent of DARPA – the US defence research agency (that in part invented the internet). Cummings is obsessed with technology, the possibilities of AI, using the vast computing power of global giants like Google, Facebook and Microsoft, to create a new society. A Techno-utopian if you will.
It was the Behaviourial Insight Team which recommended the Government adopt a Herd Immunity approach to covid19 initially, believing that the best approach was to nudge people into making the right decisions. This is behavioural science, which is about predicting and controlling the behaviour of individuals, and societies. If you believe Shushana Zuboff, in her compelling book Surveillance Capitalism, this is the real reason why Facebook, Google and the others want your data. Not only do they want to create profit from it, but they also want to ensure the certainty of future profit through behavioural control. Subtle control, of the nudge variety. She calls this instrumentarian power.
I suspect Cummings is an instrumentarian. His desire to bring in AI and other tech companies to work within the Cabinet Office, providing solutions to problems that would previously have been developed within the Civil Service, is illustrative of this approach.
Either way, the Gove/Cummings axis is going to push through some major changes to the way we live over the next 12 months. As for Johnson, I’m increasingly of the view that he’s there to provide distraction, but otherwise has no involvement in any of the significant decisions.