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Dominic Cummings and his technology push does not hark back to a past era – it’s a delusional mess

For now, we must conclude that they are no replay of the 1970s, but something even less appealing, writes Tom Kelsey

Thursday 24 September 2020 09:16 BST
Dominic Cummings has a vision for where he believes Britain should be heading
Dominic Cummings has a vision for where he believes Britain should be heading

Dominic Cummings believes that Britain could lead in the fourth industrial revolution like it led in the first. The only thing in our way, so we are told, are the EU's state-aid rules. 

If only Britain was free of them, Britain could soon foster the “trillion-dollar tech companies” that the nation has otherwise missed out on.

Unfortunately, the details of such a strategy – if they exist – are being aired because of the general desire to build national tech giants having emerged as a key explanation for why it would be impossible to strike a trade deal with the EU.

But we can, however, piece together something of the Cummings view of where state-funded science should be heading. He wants to use the state to take long-term risks that private investors would shy away from, with civil servants spotting the new technological breakthroughs yet to come. Earlier in the year, the government announced the establishment of a new “blue skies” science research agency, modelled on the American Advanced Research Projects Agency. This was Cummings’s brainchild.

It has been rightly criticised. The US relationship with high technology stems from very distinct historical advantages. The Advanced Research Projects Agency enjoyed huge budgets, partly rooted in the spectacular spending of the military industrial complex at the height of the Cold War. The US also had a vast internal market for its technologies. None of this, particularly not the cash, are going to be magicked into existence by leaving the European Union.

Where the criticism has gone wrong is in saying that if Cummings gets his way, there will be a return to the bad old days of the 1970s, of trying to “pick winners”, but producing “lame ducks”. This is unfair on the politics of that much maligned decade. The 1970s was in fact defined by greater realism about British technological strength and witnessed a backing away from its more spectacular investments.  

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the British state took long-term, high-tech risks as trying to leapfrog the United States. Concorde and British-designed nuclear reactors, the central technocratic efforts of the age, were promoted as world beating, but resulted in economic disaster.

And crucially, they were effectively cancelled during the 1970s. Concorde’s economics were so hopeless that even its manufacturers wanted to develop a new one, but these plans were rejected, so too the calls for a long production run. Beyond the prototypes, only fourteen were built, rather short of the hundreds that were originally envisioned.

The ministerial supporters of British-designed nuclear reactors advocated them precisely on the grounds that it was better to have a slower build-up of atomic energy in favour of coal. Few now believed that they would challenge American dominance in the field.

The nationalisations of the 1970s – Rolls-Royce and British Leyland, in particular – were less about technological development and more desperate defensive moves in the face of crisis, especially rising unemployment.

For many within Whitehall, two key lessons had been learnt: it was hard to take on the United States, the scientific and industrial powerhouse of the day, and win; and that the state should stay clear of funding ambitious schemes on the edges of technical possibility.

What Cummings is proposing, or at least what we know of it, is stranger than the productive disillusion of the 1970s, or the radical techno-nationalism of the post-war decades. After all, Britain emerged from the Second World War with plausible claims to world leadership in aviation and civil nuclear power. Britain today is not in the same position of comparative technological strength. Moreover, it now not only competes against the US, but China and the EU too.

Cummings is also not talking about the rebuilding of the manufacturing base, but investment in very select high-tech fields that take his fancy. This is something new; a fascination with glamourous tech, but without a broader commitment to a national economy. 

A desire for a state-backed “British Google” alongside an indifference to damage to the manufacturing industry that leaving the customs union would bring. A decision to put $500m (£388m) into the unlikely to be profitable satellite company OneWeb, while allowing the semiconductor firm ARM – one of Britain’s few national champions – to be sold to the United States. Yes, it was already in Japanese hands, but a government serious about industrial strategy might have looked for a way to bring it into UK ownership.

Perhaps if Cummings were to spell out his plans, they might make more sense, but for now, we must conclude that they are no replay of the 1970s, but a new, more incoherent political-economic mess.

Tom Kelsey is a by-fellow at the Churchill Archives Centre who works on economic nationalism, industrial strategy, and state power in post-war Britain

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