In autumn 2013, Dominic Cummings, the shady snake oil salesman at the head of Vote Leave, wrote 237 pages saying poor people are poor because they have inferior genes and brains and rich people are rich because they are superior.
Benedict Cumberbatch, who we are familiar with playing self-proclaimed “high-functioning sociopath” Sherlock Holmes on BBC, is about to portray one of the shadiest people in British politics, in “Brexit: The Uncivil War”, screened on Channel 4 on Monday.
I say “in British politics”, but that needs clarification. Rather than an elected MP, Dominic Cummings was special adviser to Michael Gove when Gove — a rather Machiavellian back-stabber himself — was Secretary of State for Education and trying to propel his way to the top.
To those who knew him at all — primarily political hacks — Cummings was a shady Gollum-like figure who happily wallowed in the filth of Westminster to do Gove’s dastardly bidding, while Gove attempted to affect a look of amiable benevolence — as opposed to grasping malevolence. With limited success.
And so, it was no great surprise when the Vote Leave campaign took shape, in the run up to the referendum on membership of the EU, that Gove’s old hench-manipulator would become the shady Machiavellian campaign director.
Since the EU referendum, we have found out a great deal more than was known at the time about the goings on in the pro-Brexit camps. Illegal breaching of spending limits, dodgy dealings with dodgier people, and the misuse of data to manipulate the psychologically susceptible, to name a few things that REALLY should be investigated fully before the UK is dragged over the cliff of Brexit.
If this was France, people would be on the streets burning stuff in outrage for the affront to democracy. But this is Britain, so instead we are treated to ‘national treasure’ Benedict Cumberbatch playing at being Dominic Cummings for a couple of hours.
Perhaps Cumberbatch and the rest of the cast will do such a good job of depicting what went on that people will be on the streets (though hopefully not burning stuff). However, my worry is that he will unrealistically humanise him, and the manipulations that led to a marginal Leave vote will look like high jinks, laughed off by viewers rather than cause alarm bells to ring.
A core message of the Brexit campaign was to “TAKE BACK CONTROL”, which was potent because many voters feel, for a variety of reasons, that life is out of control. Inequality has increased over decades, jobs are routinely unstable and poorly rewarded, and affordable housing a thing of the past for many. The campaign consequently focused a great deal on the poorest, who were led to believe they have the most to fear from EU migration.
Given that so much of the focus was on the fears of the poorest, and the strategy was led by Cummings, I would like to share some things that he wrote in the autumn of 2013, before his job was to manipulate the fears of the masses. As you will see, the writing does not reveal a man who respects the ‘common man and woman’ — far from it.
Even though he and Gove would claim at the time to be concerned with improving British education for all, the document Cummings authored suggests he believes that achievements are primarily defined by genes.
In a rambling 237-page rant, entitled ‘Some thoughts on education and political priorities’, Cummings suggests that much of the population is limited in our response to education by genes. Apparently an intensive, expensive and protracted education would not enable most to excel in the way Cummings believes he has.
Putting to one side how costly Cummings’ education was compared to the average person’s, he defeats his own argument by claiming that state education in England is no better than mediocre. How would we know that individuals are failing to excel due to being from ‘poor genetic stock’ if teaching is poor? People with considerable potential are hindered by unsatisfactory educational opportunities.
By the same token, those of us who have been fortunate enough to attend university will be familiar with dim, rigid-minded people from expensive schools who mystifyingly managed to get all A grades at A-level. The very fact that wealthy parents will pay more than the average person’s salary to send their child to schools that churn out youths with uniformly high grades is a strong indication that they recognise the relative importance of nurture over nature.
Neither a geneticist or psychologist, Cummings (who has a BA in history) nevertheless jumps into claims about the primacy of genes over opportunity: “There is strong resistance across the political spectrum to accepting scientific evidence on genetics. Most of those that now dominate discussions on issues such as social mobility entirely ignore genetics and therefore their arguments are at best misleading and often worthless.”
He also states: “When people look at gaps between rich and poor children that already exist at a young age they almost universally assume that these differences are because of environmental reasons (‘privileges and wealth’) and ignore genetics.”
Cummings suggests that “finding genes responsible for cognitive abilities” coupled with using computers to personalise learning will bring “dramatic improvements to education”, but “this will not remove genetic influence over the variation in outcomes or close the gap between the rich and poor.”
And, in a statement so pompous that I’m still reeling more than five years after first reading it, Cummings adds: “One can both listen to basic science on genetics and regard as a priority the improvement of state schools; accepting we are evolved creatures does not mean ‘giving up on the less fortunate’.”
So, there you have it, less prosperous Brexit voters, the man who sold you Brexit says you are poor because you have inferior genes and brains, and better education won’t change that.
Given his lack of knowledge in the field of genetics, Cummings would have been wise to listen to the experts, who have long recognised that learning opportunities are more important than genetic inheritance.🔷
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(This piece was originally published on Medium.)