Comrade Dominic

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In the Soviet Union they had one in every ministry, factory, communal farm, university, school and military unit.

They were called commissars. Their job was to insure that workers stuck to the party line. They called it democratic centralism; a reversal of Western democracy.

There was a Politburo member allocated to develop ideology; appoint the commissars and coordinate their activities to ensure that a coherent and ideologically pure thought process percolated from the top of the bottom of the Soviet state. His name was Mikhail Suslov and from 1965 until his death in 1982 he was the number two man in the Soviet hierarchy.

Suslov made few speeches. His public appearances were rare. He was a backroom puppeteer who controlled the strings of appointed apparatchiks. He never sought the top job. He knew that real power was as the mastermind of ideas. You crossed Suslov at your peril and usually placed one on the fast road to Siberia or an unmarked grave outside the Lubyanka Prison.  It was the death of Suslov, not Brezhnev, that many historians believe opened the way to Gorbachev and glasnost.

Dominic Cummings is the Conservative Party’s Mikhail Suslov. His insistence on controlling hand-picked Special Advisers (aka SPADS) in every Whitehall Department is reminiscent of the party-controlled and ideologically-driven state. And, as Sajid Javid discovered, you cross Cummings at your peril.

SPADS entered the political scene in 1964 during the Wilson government. The rationale behind their creation was that ministers needed political input and it was wrong to ask this of the civil service who had to be apolitical. There are not a huge number of SPADS, about 70 at the last count. In 2000 there was an attempt to place a cap on their number. It came to nought; a failure that may come to haunt Whitehall under Cummings.

Until the Johnson government and Cummings, SPADs were chosen by the minister they served. They were usually associates with whom the ministers had an existing relationship. Their political beliefs were allied with that of the minister; and as both the Labour Party and the Conservatives are broad church institutions, that has not always been in lock step with Downing Street. But that is good. That is the way the system is meant to work. Dissent is important. It is necessary to identify both problems and opportunities and an essential ingredient of progress.

Dominic Cummings disagrees. Dissent is bad.  It slows things down. That is why he wants to muzzle the press and review the power of the courts. Ministers are now banned from speaking to journalists and only selected correspondents are allowed into lobby briefings. The law is nuisance because it forces the government to act according to legal precedent rather than political expediency. Difficult ministers are exiled to the backbenches, the House of Lords or out of Parliament altogether. Hitler built the autobahns. Stalin inherited an agricultural backwater and turned it into an industrial powerhouse. But at what price?

* American expat journalist Tom Arms is a regular contributor and author of the forthcoming book “America: Made in Britain.”

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • David Becket 18th Feb '20 - 10:18am

    This is the real evil in the current Tory Party, yet I suspect the passenger on the Clapham Omnibus does not give a toss.

    We have to fight this, it will not bring in votes, unless the whole charade blows up in Johnsons face. However we must make a stand.

    The Sabisky incident, and Johnsons lack of response, shos that Johnson is scared of Cummings. Not surprising, a bully is always cowers to a bigger bully.

    Dangerous times ahead, we must be prepared.

  • Brian Edmonds 18th Feb '20 - 10:54am

    Surely it’s time to stop mythologizing Cummings as the Machiavel who wields the real power. Suslov may well have played a similar role, but it’s no more than a subservient, enabling one. Anyone who has spent time in an organisation of any size will recognise the set-up: an apparently munificent figurehead who relies on a less savoury underling to do the nasty business. These characters are opportunists, who see a route to advancement, and a temporary fix for their esteem issues, as the avatars of all that is ruthless, grasping and offensive in the modus operandi of their masters. Johnson is using Cummings, not the other way round – let’s give credit where it’s due.

  • I agree that these are extremely dangerous times for this country and it will take our party and others to keep up their surveillance on the policies enacted by this government. Johnson and Cummings are a dangerous combination and each needs the other to fulfil their objectives and yes there many people out there that don’t give a toss until it affects their personal lives that is.

  • Cummings role actually seems similar to that of Peter Mandelson or Alistair Campbell. There is a touch of the Blair years about Johnson’s methods generally. That will be the cause of the eventual downfall.

  • Peter Watson 18th Feb '20 - 1:37pm

    @Glenn “Cummings role actually seems similar to that of Peter Mandelson or Alistair Campbell”
    Which I guess begs the question, “Do the Lib Dems have a Cummings / Mandelson / Campbell?”
    If so, then they need a new one!
    But if not, then do they need one?

  • The March budget will reveal who is in charge, lavish spending (by Conservative standards) then Boris but some form of new Thatcherism then it is Cummings… my guess, more frontline spending but overall spending static (so savage cuts in some areas). The mandate will be making the country Brexit ready, which covers all evils.

    Hopefully, the LibDems will come up with clever alternatives, showing their superior heart and intelligence.

  • Brian Edmonds 18th Feb '20 - 2:24pm

    @Peter: Surely this would presuppose we first had a charismatic leader who can convince the country they could be Prime Minister? Step forward…. Oh…..
    Heretical, of course, but we all know Nick was the last one to do the trick. Still, we have a few years until all this matters, so let’s take it slowly, and expressly appoint a caretaker leader until someone emerges as, or develops into, the real deal.

  • “Nick was the last one to do the trick.”

    As my two and a half year old granddaughter says, when faced with the unpalatable, “No, I don’t think so. I’m not the least bit impressed by that”.

    And as I feel in my bones, looking carefully at the potential runners in the field, I can’t see any potential winners. Unpopular as it may be here, a Starmer/Nandy double act has far more fire power and competence.

  • @David Raw I am genuinely puzzled why, as a Liberal Democrat, you write things such as “And as I feel in my bones, looking carefully at the potential runners in the field, I can’t see any potential winners. Unpopular as it may be here, a Starmer/Nandy double act has far more fire power and competence.” What do you hope to gain by bigging up our political opponents?

  • Peter Watson 18th Feb '20 - 4:38pm

    @Brian Edmonds “so let’s take it slowly, and expressly appoint a caretaker leader until someone emerges as, or develops into, the real deal.”
    I don’t think it helps having an “acting co-leader” for so long: it looks like there is little confidence in Ed Davey as a leader, undermining his credibility if, as seems most likely, he is the leader later this year. It probably undermines it further if he is then thought of as a caretaker leader!
    I can understand a desire to see what the other potential candidates have to offer, but it contributes to an apparent lack of purpose and the party should strive to be purposelessnessless (courtesy of Sir Marcus Browning MP, with a certain degree of uncertainty 😉 ), and those other candidates look like they might perhaps be best suited to establish themselves more firmly and compete to be the next leader but one.

  • Brian Edmonds 18th Feb '20 - 6:32pm

    @David Raw: A nostalgic moment of harmony with Jo, who also sadly prayed in aid the ‘wisdom’ of a small child during a crucial commons debate, when a robust exposition of our argument might have been more telling. You may find it hard to love Nick, but my point was that he had the look of a potential PM, and although the vagaries of FPTP meant we lost seats, he did achieve a record popular vote in 2010. Anyway, we seem to agree on the sad fact that we are currently devoid of potential winners.
    @Peter Watson: The argument is that we are a long way from the next election and hence we have no need to try and make the best of a bad job. If it sounds like I have no confidence in the current crop of MPs it’s because, like David, I see no winners there, and we won’t make progress unless we are brutally honest about that. You seem to support Ed because he is likely to become leader – unfortunately he needs more than that to cut it with the electorate, and it’s actually unfair and pointless to saddle him, or anyone else, with unrealistic aspirations. The fact is, we don’t need to circle the wagons – we have time to regroup and develop a robust policy agenda to support whoever may emerge as leader in the years to come.

  • marcstevens 18th Feb '20 - 9:46pm

    No he wasn’t the last one to do the trick and only got in as Charles Kennedy was pushed out. There were far better candidates than the two in the running, Huhne and Clegg, but they didn’t stand. Most of his OB followers were defeated in the subsequent election, at least 400 of us stood up for social liberalism and our numbers have grown since.

  • @ Brian Edmonds “(Clegg) had the look of a potential PM, “.

    He could be charming but……his judgement ? The difference between a selling plater and a classic winner, Brian, …. National League South and Premier League. I’ve met, talked to, and heard speeches b,y Jo Grimond, Harold Wilson, Ted Heath, Jim Callaghan, Maggie Thatcher and Gordon Brown and I’m afraid I must tell you he didn’t.

    I’ll concede he was a wee bit more impressive than Douglas-Hume. I better say nothing about Thorpe although I knew him. Paddy came near, as did Ming had it been ten years earlier. Charlie could have been near…. if he avoided certain disadvantages.

    @ TCO It’s called telling the truth as I see it, avoiding fly the flag self-delusion and the dissimulation I’ve notice creeping into the party in recent years. Do you think the former custodian really believed she could become Prime Minister ? (or say ‘Yes’ without hesitation about pressing the Nuclear Button given she had two small kids ?)

  • The original article very massively overstates it’s case. As Thatcher said, advisors advise, ministers decide.

    Clearly there is always a tension in a government or indeed a party between central control and debate and dissent and indeed some U-turns. Electorates reward neither disunity or ploughing ahead with unpopular policies. Remember the poll tax, anyone?

    But Thatcher, Blair, the coalition all had central control. Perhaps Major and May

    What is needed is a particular clear focus on those you are going to appeal to and what you are going to say you achieved at the next election (and do if re-elected then).

    Thatcher did that appealing particularly to the semi-skilled working class with things like selling off council houses, controlling the unions and improving the British economy allegedly “the sick man of Europe” at the time. Blair improved public services and until 2008 kept the economy ticking along quite nicely.

    But one of two things happen. No central direction from no. 10 and the government descends into bickering and the public have no idea what they are about. Central direction and they don’t listen to their critics when they should.

  • Brian Edmonds 19th Feb '20 - 10:18am

    @ David Raw: I’m no expert on either the nags or the beautiful game, but I get your drift. We’ll never know whether Nick would have made an effective PM, but that’s another question – the first thing any leader must do is get elected. In Nick’s case I think you judge him harshly and with hindsight. I never met him, but he was surely more than merely charming – in media terms he came across during that campaign as intelligent, articulate, sincere and self-assured. You may decry this as the pre-eminence of presentation over substance, but the last election was proof that without the former you’ll never get the chance to prove the latter. I think we agree that there lies the nub of our leadership dilemma.

  • Michael 1 18th Feb ’20 – 11:12pm……………..What is needed is a particular clear focus on those you are going to appeal to and what you are going to say you achieved at the next election (and do if re-elected then)………Thatcher did that appealing particularly to the semi-skilled working class with things like selling off council houses, controlling the unions and improving the British economy allegedly “the sick man of Europe” at the time. Blair improved public services and until 2008 kept the economy ticking along quite nicely………..

    ‘Who’ll ‘bell the cat’? Who are the group to which LibDems will appeal?

    As for the second paragraph; you can only sell off the family silver once. Boris Johnson ‘hoovered up’ the unskilled workers with ‘Brexit’ and, again, that will only work once.

    Oppositions don’t win elections; governments lose them…However, until this party decides ‘who/what/why/where’ its future lies, then it will remain a ‘fringe group with delusions of grandeur (a la 2019)

    The new government proposals on immigration is a ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut’. The idea that “UK businesses will need to adapt and adjust to the end of free movement, and we will not seek to recreate the outcomes from free movement within the points-based system,”, sounds good; but HOW? The reason that agricultural labour is mainly immigrant based is the salary. There is no cheap housing (Thatcher saw to that) and finding 60,000 ‘young, fit and able British persons willing, or able, to work, in agriculture, on minimum wage won’t happen; the same in service and social care.

    The result will be an electorate disenchanted with rising costs and falling services; forget ‘Brexit’ and concentrate on hammering home the governments’ distorted priorities…The HS2 fiasco, coupled with Boris Johnson’s obseesion with bridges, whilst flooding, homelessness, failing health and social care service are ignored.

    I’m not sure how much ‘dirt’ the tabloids can dredge up on Labour’s new leader but at the moment. , to quote another poster, ” Unpopular as it may be here, a Starmer/Nandy double act has far more fire power and competence”.

  • Alison Crawford 19th Feb '20 - 11:36am

    I am sorry that several of you seem to have a low opinion of Ed Davey. I heard him speak twice at the Western Counties conference and was extremely impressed by his huge knowledge and persuasive way of putting it across.
    I don’t think we need a caretaker – we have the real deal!

  • Not bigging up anybody, Martin, merely observing the talent in the passing scene after near on sixty years political experience. Some players have talent, some don’t. Some are shrewd and competent, some not. Very few have charisma. Grimond had it.

    Yes, I’ve met David Steel. He deserves credit for his courage and ability with the private member’s bill and opposition to the Springbok tour in the sixties. He did well to pick up the party and work with Callaghan after the Thorpe disaster and was a shrewd political operator during the Alliance. Today I don’t blame him for being annoyed with Clegg for failing to consult during the Coalition.

    Starmer is competent and Nandy has huge potential. It remains to be seen what the Lib Dems can offer…. who do you think it might be ? It would help, Martin, if Lib Dems could actually agree on what Liberalism is, which, judging by LDV, they don’t.

    Meanwhile the Tories pander to every prejudice, have a clear run without restraint, and the widening gap of inequality continues to grow.

  • It is sad that the Conservatives have no sense of parliamentary democracy. Our best bet to defend it is to partner with all the other Parties to bring in a comprehensive written constitution that details what can and cannot be done by government. Until this happens, we will just have to be content with campaigning on the fringes.

  • Tony Greaves 19th Feb '20 - 3:38pm

    I do not understand why people think that Mr Starmer is cut out for this job.

  • It always surprises me that people who would baulk at drawing debating comparisons with Nazi Germany happily do so in relation to the Soviet Union, as if the millions who suffered the most appalling fates under that regime were of no consequence.

    This article is in bad taste and doesn’t deserve to be published here.

  • nvelope2003 20th Feb '20 - 3:41pm

    Starmer like Corbyn seems to want to hand the Royal Mail back to the same people who have been destroying the lives of sub postmasters by false allegations of theft of Post Office money. Despite a Judge ruling against the Post Office and for the sub post masters they are apparently still pursuing this policy according to the BBC. No doubt with British Rail restored we shall have drunken train drivers allowed to kill passengers because they are afraid to sack them and if any collieries are reopened the National Coal Board refusing to believe people who have repeatedly warned them that a slag heap will destroy the local primary school if something is not done quickly.

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