Power does not corrupt. It reveals. It was once said of Abraham Lincoln:
‘Nothing discloses real character like the use of power. It is easy for the weak to be gentle. Most people can bear adversity. But if you wish to know what a man really is, give him power. This is the supreme test. It is the glory of Lincoln that, having almost absolute power, he never abused it, except on the side of mercy.’
Dominic Cummings is rarely compared to Abraham Lincoln. But in one aspect, I think that quote now has relevance to the PM’s chief adviser. After surviving this week, he now has power, real and possibly unprecedented power. It’s borrowed power, of course, lent by Boris Johnson. But it’s real. The PM has demonstrated this week that there is almost nothing that Cummings can do that will cause him to abandon his aide.
The implications of that are starting to set in around (virtual) Westminster. This week I’ve heard Conservative politicians and neutral officials wondering what lesson Cummings will take from this week. Some worry that having been handed what amounts to a blank cheque drawing on the PM’s account, Cummings will feel no restraint on his conduct and dealings with colleagues. The worry boils down to this: If you can break lockdown and keep the boss’s support, why should you worry about the consequences of doing stuff like treating Cabinet ministers with contempt, deriding officials and ignoring the judiciary?
On the other hand, more sympathetic observers suggest Cummings isn’t likely to be much changed by this. He always acted like he had absolute authority (and no regard for hierarchy and status) anyway, so why would this make any difference?
I’m no psychoanalyst so I offer no verdict on that debate. What I think is more interesting and more important is how other people now see – and respond to – Cummings.
Good government needs strong internal challenge. Just like other organisations, the state does best when the people who run it create a culture where everyone feels able to question and test plans and assumptions. The history of institutional failures is heavy with stories of organisations where people worried that things were going wrong and mistakes were being made, yet felt unable or unwilling to say so.
One writer who knows this well is Cummings himself. One of the central points from his 2014 ‘Hollow Men’ blog-epic was that Whitehall is bad at internal challenge. The ‘internal pressure to conform’ is often the enemy of success:
‘The reluctance of the NASA bureaucracy to face facts viz the Challenger disaster (1986), the ‘PowerPoint festival of bureaucratic hyperrationalism’, and Feynman’s famous pursuit of the facts and exposure of groupthink (which brought the comment from the head of the investigation that ‘Feynman is becoming a real pain’), were followed by the Columbia disaster (2003) and another report showing NASA had not learned lessons from the previous disaster, and that internal pressure to conform meant ‘it is difficult for minority and dissenting opinions to percolate up through the agency’s hierarchy’’
All of which raises questions, and a challenge. How will people in government now interact with a man who has been given the most extensive, public and costly support by the PM? Will this change the willingness of politicians and officials to contradict Cummings, to push back against his ideas when they think he’s wrong?
And the challenge: how can a man who has just been given even more power to do things his way now persuade the people he works with to ignore that power and tell him what he’s wrong about?
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