The future of the left since 1884

The mask that slipped

Luke Cooper explores the story of Dominic Cummings, cronyism and Britain’s new authoritarianism.


Long read

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, we have seen a wave of cronyism and outsourcing which poses a threat to the health of our communities, institutions and even our democracy. Are we living in rogue state Britain? The Fabian Review asks authors for their opinion. 

A few months before the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, Dominic Cummings, then Vote Leave supremo, was invited to give evidence to the Treasury select committee.

Cummings could at least be credited for speaking his mind. Treasury civil servants were described as ‘charlatans’. He accused the UK Cabinet Office of bullying those who did not support the EU. The committee members who had pulled him in were left unimpressed. Andrew Tyrie, the body’s Tory chair, accused him of playing ‘fast and loose’ with the facts. Helen Goodman, at the time a Labour MP, described Cummings as having, ‘no grip on reality at all’. When he spoke to the committee in 2016, Cummings was still a figure in the shadows – few members of the public would have known his name until the lockdown fiasco four years later.

Now ousted from the corridors of power, Cummings will be remembered as one of the most powerful advisors to Boris Johnson’s government, and his appearance at the select committee provides a retrospectively revealing insight into his politics and vision. Discussing his experience as an advisor to Michael Gove, he complained about the ‘nightmarish’ EU rules on government procurement. “PricewaterhouseCoopers did a big audit of them”, he said, “suggesting that it added 30 per cent to the cost of contracts over about 200 days”. Brexit would allow the UK to extricate itself from these rules, he argued. “That would be one huge gain, but how many billions you can save is very hard to say”, he told Tyrie.

Cummings went on to describe his vision for the British state. Freed from the rules-based system it would form, he believed, what we might call a platform organisation, engaging in distributing tenders to the private sector. This lightly resourced, flexible state would allow, he argued, for systems capable of ‘error correction’ – and he compared the American model favourably to EU ‘bureaucracies’ which he held to be hostile to innovation and unsuited to the demands of the time.

In government, Cummings has been able to turn this vision into a political reality. Under the cover of the coronavirus pandemic, the UK government suspended its normal procurement rules. These state that any contract over £10,000 in value needs to be put out to competitive tender. Far from saving money, the result has been a series of high profile crony deals at huge cost to the taxpayer.

Covered extensively by Peter Geoghegan and a team of investigative journalists at openDemocracy, these deals demonstrate a chronic lack of transparency and shocking levels of waste: from a small loss-making firm in Stroud run by a Conservative councillor that was given £156m to supply PPE with no competitive tendering; to a private equity firm that received £252m for masks which were deemed unusable; and – the most disastrous from a public health point of view – the £12bn privatised ‘test and trace’ system that failed to avert a second wave of the virus and new national lockdown.

Looking at these events in the context of Cumming’s 2016 performance for the Treasury select committee helps us to underline their ideological coherence. These crony capitalist deals are not accidental occurrences arising from bad implementation, but the logical outcome of a particular ideological vision – one that has not changed significantly since the referendum itself.

So, what exactly is the nature of this vision?

Authoritarian protectionism: a paradigm of the 21st century?

The rise of global authoritarianism is undeniable. From Narendra Modi in India to Xi Jinping in China, Jair  Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Viktor Orbán in Hungary  – to  name but a  few – there is a clear trend away from democratic politics towards ‘something else’. The threat to global democracy is diverse, but there is a common theme to their arguments and appeal.

I call this approach authoritarian protectionism. It contains two broad features. First, the national community is defined along ethnic lines, explicitly or implicitly. This establishes the group to be protected and defines the ‘foreign’ threats against which they are aligned, both within and outside the national society. Second, it involves the absolute prioritisation of the (now ethnically defined) partisan interests of the people – and prosecutes them regardless of democratic norms.

The rise of this logic is occurring in the context of a change in how political institutions and economic markets interact. Simply put, since the 2008 financial crisis and now – to an even greater degree –with the 2020 coronavirus recession, the contemporary economy is hugely dependent on the state.

Authoritarian protectionism finds a wide audience in this context. It re-politicises the use of power, brushing aside the language of technocracy in favour of national identity, tradition and sovereignty, but leaves the fundamentals of the economic status quo unthreatened. And its autocratic wielding of sovereignty means governments can bypass ‘rules-based’ institutional politics.

Brexit, authoritarian protectionism and the new Toryism

In the referendum Vote Leave ran a cleverly triangulated campaign. Its mainstream pitch was around the themes of democracy and sovereignty (‘take back control’). But this was conjoined with creating a sense of ‘identity emergency’, sounding the alarm over what the EU would allegedly become in the future. The leave campaign gave particular emphasis to the potential EU membership of two predominantly Muslim countries, Albania and Turkey. “Think the EU is bad now? Wait until Albania joins,” wrote Michael Gove in the Daily Mail. “The EU is planning not just to give visa-free travel to 77 million Turks, but also to absorb this Muslim state into the EU,”, he added. The implication of this was coded but clear: a vote to remain represented a threat to an ethnically white Britain. A vote to leave mobilised the alleged partisan interests of white Britons against this multicultural ‘danger’.

Both in the original referendum and the politics of the Johnson government today we find the consummate illustration of the new politics of authoritarian protectionism. The illegal prorogation of parliament in 2019 was a classical gesture from this playbook. It sought to persuade Brexit supporters that their partisan interests were best served by violating the norms of the democratic process. The government has stoked similar conflict with refugee advocacy groups and human rights lawyers with the same nationalistic logic in mind: ‘these unpatriotic liberals are obstructing the nation’s protection’.

This feeds into a series of policies aiming at the authoritarian reform of the state. Both the Overseas Operations Bill and the ‘Spycops’ Bill break with the key principle of the rule of law that it should apply equally to all regardless of who they are. They create special exemptions for service personnel and security agencies from criminal allegations that are not available to ordinary citizens. The Conservatives also have an ominously vague manifesto commitment to establish a ‘Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission’. The Human Rights Act – a long-time bugbear of the authoritarian right – and access to judicial review of public authorities may be at risk. Brexit provides a cipher, ‘a will of the people’, that these authoritarian policies are easily wedded too.

Yet, issues of immigration and law and order are also very conventionally Tory. The novel element of the new Toryism lies in their economic approach. It rejects the rulesbased system of technocratic management of the economy in favour of the autocratic wielding of sovereignty. Their attempt to negotiate an exit from the EU state aid rules in order to aggressively subsidise British technology businesses represents an undoubtedly interesting evolution for the party of Margaret Thatcher. While Brexiters have overstated the barriers EU state aid rules represent to an industrial strategy, an exit from them could open up opportunities to democratise the economy. But this is not the orientation of the new Toryism. Viewed in tandem with their procurement policy it points towards a new crony capitalism. Indeed, the American state that Cummings praised for its flexibility in 2016 has long been subject to ‘corporate capture’ – the same rentier politics is now taking root here.

The outlines of the future-facing Britain and the world are therefore becoming clearer. As markets become more dependent on the state to function, do we take the opportunity to reinvent them on democratic lines with a new politics of redistribution and state stewardship? Or do we allow a rentier political economy to coalesce where ethnic nationalism is mobilised to protect inequality and privilege? Between these options, the 21st century appears to provide little ground for a ‘third way’.

Image credit: Flickr/Peter Toporowski

Luke Cooper

Luke Cooper is a consultant researcher at LSE IDEAS. His book on the new authoritarianism will be published in 2021.


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