Aside from its narrow victory at the 2016 Referendum, the VoteLeave campaign will be remembered for two things.
The first is the law-breaking, abuse of data and massive infringement of personal privacy with which it became associated during and after its campaign to secure victory. Second, it will be remembered for the way it precipitated the emergence of Dominic Cummings, the former Director of VoteLeave who is now the most influential figure within the Johnson government.
As our country loses its way at the hands of its deceivers – with the Downing Street political leadership now wilfully planning to inflict upon us an avoidable ‘no-deal’ Brexit – what remains of the fracturing UK has in the past week seen the coalescence of these twin legacies of the VoteLeave campaign.
It was with little fanfare that Johnson on 22 July 2020 announced that his former Director in that law-breaking campaign has now in effect been given access to government data policy across Whitehall. Of course, this change – as the Lords statement below shows – is talked-of in euphemisms: it is the ‘Cabinet Office’ which will now run all data policy – the department run by Cummings’ long-time collaborator and political soul-mate Michael Gove, but into which the core Johnson team is now planning to move as part of Downing Street’s political takeover of the formerly neutral civil service.
How come the lack of fanfare? Well, because this decision was announced not to our elected representatives in the House of Commons, but in the above, four-sentence Written Statement relayed to Parliament by the Leader of the House of Lords. And not only was Baroness Evans of Bowes Park given the task of letting it be known that “the change is effective immediately”, she was also given the task of doing so at that point in the Westminster calendar when Governments usually slip through their most diabolical acts: a day before the recess, thereby avoiding parliamentary scrutiny as MPs head for home.
Scrutiny is just one of the issues at stake. But, first, what did Baroness Evans’ announcement actually announce?
The ceding to itself by the Cabinet Office of all government data policy, reverses a decision made by Theresa May in 2018, when the development of this policy across departments was placed in the hands of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (‘DCMS’), headed at that time by the now-Health Secretary, Matt Hancock. Hancock oversaw – among other aspects of data policy, including the first steps towards drawing-up a still-awaited National Data Strategy – the clarifying of a Data Ethics Framework, in the foreword to which he wrote:
“The pace of technology is changing so fast that we need to make sure we are constantly adapting our codes and standards. Those of us in the public sector need to lead the way. As we set out to develop our National Data Strategy, getting the ethics right, particularly in the delivery of public services, is critical. To do this, it is essential that we agree collective standards and ethical frameworks. Ethics and innovation are not mutually exclusive. Thinking carefully about how we use our data can help us be better at innovating when we use it. Our new Data Ethics Framework sets out clear principles for how data should be used in the public sector. It will help us maximise the value of data whilst also setting the highest standards for transparency and accountability when building or buying new data technology.”
It is planned that some data-focused officials from DCMS will, as a consequence of this policy power-grab, now move to the Cabinet Office – the centre of absolute power within the Cummings-dominated, Johnson-led government. It can be assumed, however, that the process of ridding Whitehall of anybody not singing from the Cummings song-sheet will undoubtedly be working in over-drive when decisions are made as to who precisely at DCMS will be permitted to enter the citadel of 10 Downing Street, and who will be left out in the cold. As to the fate of Hancock’s ‘Data Ethics Framework’, no sign has been given that it will find its way into the hands of Downing Street’s new management
Why does all this matter?
The deliberately rushed and last-minute way in which the Government’s announcement was made, says much. But although a great deal has been written about the benefits of centralising data policy as a means of streamlining government decision-making, and maximising the benefits to policy-making and implementation offered by technological development and data use, these are not really the issues now at play.
Why so? Because those now in power have a long way to go before it can be assumed that they can be trusted with the data now poised to pass routinely across their desks. Trust in those with power is the sole test by which we must now ruthlessly judge the decisions being taken by the Johnson government.
When the 19th century parliamentarian Lord Acton on 5 April 1888 wrote in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men,” he was voicing an insight into political life which has not lost its currency with the passing of time. When we learned on 10 July 2020 that the Cabinet Office run by Gove had – without issuing a tender, as government practise requires – awarded a contract worth £840,000 to a research firm, Public First, whose key figures are associated with both Gove and Cummings, the potency of Acton’s observation was yet again affirmed.
As has been reported, the Cabinet Office sought to explain its deeply questionable approach to the award of this contract, by claiming it was permitted to issue it under emergency regulations invoked due to the coronavirus pandemic. It was then established, however, that some of the firm’s work for Gove under this contract, was in fact related to Brexit, not the pandemic. Now, since 22 July 2020, this same Cabinet Office has – at the stroke of a pen – ceded to itself total control of all government data policy.
While control of policy is the first step, control of the data will naturally be the next.
Against the background of the VoteLeave campaign’s ethics, ambitions and attitudes, the hollowing-out of the processes central to our democratic way of life, has been further boosted by the access these abusers of data will now have to all areas of our public service. Cummings’ emergence as the ultimate “unelected bureaucrat” is a mark not of how dynamic and promising the future of our country is, but of how dark are the times in which we are living and into which his kind have plunged us; his disdain for our democracy is a core feature of this rapid national decline.
As we know, despite his security clearance not having been clarified publicly, Cummings has recently visited several of the most tightly-guarded UK defence establishments, such is the primacy of his role within the power structure – this, an individual who on his own CV states that “I worked in Russia 1994-7 on various projects”. Just as Johnson has spent the past year refusing to answer the questions that publication on 21 July 2020 of Parliament’s report into Russian interference in our democracy has now posed to both him and his prime ministerial predecessors, so Cummings’ vague reference to the three years he spent in Russia now requires full explanation.
But that explanation will not be forthcoming. Why so? Because deceit, obfuscation and demagoguery are central to this Government’s modus operandi. Neither Cummings nor Johnson regard the public they have manipulated for so long, to be worthy of such explanations. We know this because Cummings has made it clear, not just when it became apparent that pandemic ‘lockdown’ rules didn’t apply to him but earlier, in his post-Referendum account in The Spectator of 9 January 2017, of how the VoteLeave campaign won.
He opens this account by citing a Russian proverb: ‘He lies like an eyewitness’, and then continues:
“…the most effective person in politics for whom we have good sources, Bismarck, operated always on the principle of ‘keep two irons in the fire’. (We tried to mimic this by adopting a message that we thought had the highest probability of winning in the largest number of plausible branching futures, hence £350m/NHS.)…the £350 million / NHS argument was necessary to win…‘The official bill of EU membership is £350 million per week – let’s spend our money on our priorities like the NHS instead.’ (Sometimes we said ‘we send the EU £350m’ to provoke people into argument. This worked much better than I thought it would. There is no single definitive figure because there are different sets of official figures but the Treasury gross figure is slightly more than £350m of which we get back roughly half, though some of this is spent in absurd ways like subsidies for very rich landowners to do stupid things.)”
In plain English, the VoteLeave campaign never committed to using the “£350m” of UK weekly contributions to the European Union to fund the NHS – because it knew all along that the UK did not contribute £350m weekly to the EU…“because we get back roughly half”.
But as we know, the lie worked to devastating effect: the people were well-conned, and the rest is history.
While this may seem like ‘history’, it is a story which is in fact only just beginning, because the centralisation this week of data policy has now handed to those same liars the ultimate tool with which to fully hollow-out the democracy and freedom we are already fast-losing at the hands of a Government which has proved itself catastrophically incapable of fulfilling its primary duty: that of protecting the people in a time of crisis.
Presumably aware that its disastrous handling of the coronavirus pandemic has turned the people against them, the Government’s seizure of ever-tighter control of the levers of power is an obvious response. And data is the core ingredient of that control, for a Government whose key personnel first secured influence through deceit and law-breaking, but who will now be looking to find powerful ways of retaining the support of an increasingly beleaguered, disillusioned and impoverished population.
Just as the Cabinet Office used public funds to pay for questionable research under the guise of the pandemic, so it should be assumed that our national data will come in very handy when the next electoral contest requires it. In 2016 VoteLeave broke the law – and with Downing Street now fully under their management, what is there to stop them doing so again?
As their track record suggests, they will not be hampered by scruples.
Mark Huband is a writer on international affairs, and is the editor of West England Bylines