Like Walter Kurtz, Dominic Cummings had immense plans but was tripped on the threshold of greatness by the weaknesses of his superiors. Now he holds court from his fortress temple of Substack where, in the fashion of Martin Sheen's Captain Willard, subscribers receive his glum musings on Covid strategy, systems management and judicial review. Cummings is sometimes regarded as a brilliant sociopath and while I sway back and forth on whether the emphasis belongs on the adjective or the noun, his insights into how government really works are immensely valuable to understanding policy-making, implementation and the impotence of power.
I have come to the view that, if you want to study government in Britain, you could subject yourself to three or four years of being expensively miseducated in those theory-throttled closed shops called universities, but you'll get a more accurate and less pricey education from binge-watching Yes, Minister and The Thick of It. We can probably add Cummings's blogs to this alternative curriculum, though they sadly lack the comedy stylings of Antony Jay and Armando Iannucci.
Cummings has attracted fresh attention after taking time out of kicking the Prime Minister on Covid to kick him on devolution. Posed a question about Boris Johnson’s true feelings on the Union during a subscriber-only Q&A (said subscriber being, it turned out, a hack for the National), Cummings replied:
“He's an unthinkign [sic] unionist. Thinks devolution/Scottish parliament was a disaster, wd [sic] like to reverse it but wont [sic] dare try…
This gave the Bute House Bugle the headline it wanted: ‘Boris Johnson is an unthinking Unionist who wants to reverse devolution, Cummings says’. In one sense, this isn’t terribly new. The Prime Minister reportedly told a Zoom chat of Tory MPs last November that ‘devolution has been a disaster north of the border’ and was ‘Tony Blair’s biggest mistake’. This is a scandalous thing to say in Scotland, where the devolution industry has created a proto-state (and careers) for a new nationalist establishment and satellite elites in politics, media and civil society. It has not delivered a fraction of its oft-promised potential on policy-making or outcomes and has become a captive of progressive-sounding but deeply reactionary ideas about freedom of expression, gender identity and women’s rights.
Where devolution has wrought the most damage is on the constitution and specifically the Union. Bearing in mind the rationale given in Labour’s 1997 manifesto — ‘The Union will be strengthened and the threat of separatism removed’ — devolution has been a disaster on its own terms. Tides of nationalist sentiment have waxed and waned over the years in Scotland but devolution built a political infrastructure for Labourite soft-nationalists that, within a decade, had fallen into the hands of SNP hard-nationalists, where it has remained ever since. The primary purpose of the Scottish government is to achieve independence, Holyrood elections are said to deliver mandates for secession referendums, and an expansionist, confrontational administration seeks out conflict with Whitehall and even pursues an autonomous foreign policy.
I can’t speak to the Prime Minister’s purported wish to return to the status quo ante 1999, but two of Cummings’s points ring true, though perhaps not necessarily in the sense he intends them. If Boris Johnson is indeed a Unionist, he does appear to be an unthinking one. I have repeatedly made the point — not to be repetitive but because it genuinely astonishes me — that after 22 years of the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, the Conservatives still haven’t come up with a Tory theory of devolution. They were mostly opposed when New Labour brought the policy forward, warning it would put Britain on the road to disintegration, and since coming to power in 2010 have either sought to slow the pace of travel or, in the lamentable case of David Cameron, speed it up.
A thinking Unionist would show some evidence of reflecting on these trends and on the reforms necessary to return devolution to its original purpose and stop separatists misusing its institutions to break up the United Kingdom. I would humbly suggest the PM start here, here, here, or with Professor Adam Tomkins’s more scholarly offerings. I assume, however, that this isn’t the kind of thinking Cummings has in mind based on his comment elsewhere in the Q&A, in which he says: ‘Unionists need to build a Vote Leave that is 'living in the village', not attackign [sic] the village’. Treating the Union as a matter for Scotland rather than the whole country is what got us where we are today. Britain is the village and the constitutional question must be approached from that perspective.
As to the PM’s daring, Cummings is almost certainly right. Nothing in Boris Johnson’s career hints at a skerrick of courage or vision and if he realises what a historic error devolution was, his unwillingness to do more than the bare minimum about it — to prize his own political capital and let the next guy worry about it — is about as on-brand Boris as you can get. I am not convinced of the case for reversing legislative devolution, which turned out to be a foolish and destructive idea but is nonetheless one that parliament asked the people to vote on and the people rendered their verdict. Parliament should no sooner undo that outcome than it should the result of the 2016 referendum. But returning to administrative devolution would at least be a policy, an idea — a notion. The Prime Minister lacks even that. If the ‘Minister for the Union’ was anyone else, he would have sacked him by now.