Katja Hoyer

Dominic Cummings’s Bismarck complex

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‘One’s enemies one can count on — but one’s friends!’ Otto von Bismarck quotes have mostly gone out of fashion since the middle of the last century. But perhaps not as far as Dominic Cummings is concerned. 

Cummings describes Germany’s first chancellor — and the man responsible for the country’s unification in 1871 — as a ‘monster’. He says in his 2017 blog that ‘the world would have been better if one of the assassination attempts had succeeded’. But it is clear that Cummings seeks inspiration from the Iron Chancellor for his own political doings. When Cummings writes that Bismarck 'understood fundamental questions better than others', it's hard not to think that he might, at least partly, also be talking about himself.

Cummings quotes Bismarck extensively in his articles, and is given to musings as to what ‘Bismarck’s advice would be’ regarding current affairs. For a political advisor in 21st century Britain to seek guidance from a Prussian aristocrat may be unconventional, but in this regard at least, the Iron Chancellor would probably approve. At the end of a long political career during which he triggered seismic changes in German and European history, Bismarck reflected, ‘You cannot make history, but you can learn from it how to guide the political life of a great nation.’ Cummings agrees.

One obvious parallel between the two political lives sprang to mind over the last few weeks. Cummings’s fall from grace followed a rather similar trajectory to the Bismarckian one. Both were once deemed indispensable fonts of political wisdom. Both drew the ire of powerful enemies. Both left their office as embittered men with giant political axes to grind.

Bismarck vented his spleen from his private estate where he penned sharply-worded press pieces criticising the policies of Wilhelm II, which he regarded as foolish and misguided. Cummings turned to his blog in an attempt to inflict political damage on his former boss. The difference is that Bismarck was concerned about the catastrophe that loomed if his carefully-constructed web of foreign policy relations in Europe fell apart. Cummings, on the other hand, has little more to offer than he-said-she-said gossip about the renovation of the Prime Minister’s flat.

The real attraction of the Bismarckian mind seems to be what Cummings aptly called his ‘demonic practical adaptability’. Cummings has been at pains to point out that he has ‘never been a member of a political party’. In doing so, is Cummings taken with the ideology-free realpolitik of his idol? 

‘He was always ready to ditch his own ideas and commitments that suddenly seemed shaky. He was interested in winning, not consistency,’ Cummings writes, himself a man who has also impressed, frightened, and appalled others with his methods to achieve results.

It isn't only on his blog that Cummings has appeared to borrow inspiration from Bismarck. The adage that ‘laws are like sausages — it’s best not to see them being made’ is often attributed to Bismarck. But Cummings clearly took a leaf out of this particular book when it came to pushing legislation through a hostile parliament. 

When a constitutional crisis between the Prussian King, Wilhelm I, and his parliament about army reforms had reached such a crisis point that the monarch was (literally) in tears and on the brink of abdication, Bismarck famously stepped in and told parliament that he would reform the military with or without their consent. It was, after all, he said, with ‘blood and iron’ that real policy was made, not ‘through speeches and majority decisions’. He did as he threatened and ran an illegal army budget for the next few years.

When the Brexit referendum produced a conflict between the executive and parliament in this country, Cummings advised tapping into the same ‘gap theory’ that Bismarck had evoked to justify his actions: if in doubt, the executive comes before the legislative branch of government. Prorogation of parliament was therefore morally and legally justified. Similarly, there could be no rights and wrongs in the way that the Brexit campaign was run. The end justifies the means. Politics is an ugly business but someone has to do it. 

Many more parallels could be drawn. Like Bismarck, Cummings ran into conflict with the first lady at court. Both men also deemed themselves indispensable and watched their own fall with astonishment and incredulity. Indeed, Johnson’s holding on to Cummings even after the latter’s lockdown antics in Barnard Castle showed a surprising degree of insecurity on behalf of the PM. The situation was not unlike that of Wilhelm II in 1890 who, having ousted Bismarck from the chancellery, immediately sought refuge in the political clique that was forming around him.

But that is where the similarities end. Ultimately, Bismarck was a Prussian noble whose upbringing and milieu bred an unshakable political compass into his very essence. The authority his contemporaries felt in him and admired did not stem from ‘an extremely tyrannical ego’ as Cummings sees it, but from an inner certainty that his 21st century fan does not possess.

Bismarck enjoyed conflict. Not for its own sake but as a political tool that he wielded effectively. He would sit it out rather than rush to it until it opened up opportunities. It is hard to see the Iron Chancellor mumbling half-hearted explanations about his conduct to the media in the back garden of the chancellery. Neither would he have written an itemised response to every rumour that his enemies spread about him in the press.

Cummings may admire his political idol but to paraphrase Monty Python's Life of Brian: he is not Otto von Bismarck, he’s a very naughty boy.