What would Otto von Bismarck, the chief architect of Germany’s 19th-century unification, do in the situation currently faced by the British government? This apparently esoteric question is more pertinent than one might think, because ‘what would Bismarck do?’ is something that Dominic Cummings, political playmaker to Boris Johnson, who has been ‘gaming’ the current crisis all summer, has often asked himself. We know this because Cummings’s sprawling and fantastically self-revealing blog (still live at the time of writing) is punctuated with thoughts about Bismarck. For Cummings, Bismarck is the sacred monster of tactical politics, the genius statesman whose political moves repeatedly surprised and wrong-footed friends and enemies alike, both at home and abroad. He may seem an improbable model for political strategising in the era of Twitter and Cambridge Analytica, but it is one of Cummings’s core convictions that sources which may seem, as he puts it, ‘very esoteric’ can turn out to be ‘extraordinarily practical’, i.e. ‘give you models for creating super-productive processes’.
What bearing might Bismarck’s tactical bravado have on the current parliamentary imbroglio? The answer lies in the sequence of events that led to Bismarck’s ascendancy in Prussian and later German politics. In 1860, the government in Berlin presented the Prussian Parliament with a military reform bill. The liberal deputies refused to support it. Wilhelm I dissolved Parliament and called elections, in the hope of producing a more pliable house. But the new chamber was even more resolutely liberal than the old. In the spring of 1862, this parliament, too, was dissolved, but the new elections of May 1862 merely confirmed the intractability of the standoff. More than 230 of the 325 deputies now belonged to liberal factions.
Prussian politics had reached a deadlock. There were some within leadership circles who favoured an all-out break with the constitution. One of these was the chief of the military cabinet, Edwin von Manteuffel, an army man who despised parliamentarians and liberal journalists (he was famous for having shot one in a duel) and who equated his relationship with the monarch with the fealty of a German tribesman to his chieftain. Others, such as the minister of war, Albrecht von Roon, chief architect of the proposed reforms, preferred to search for a compromise that would secure key aspects of the bill without destabilising the parliamentary order.
The man called in to resolve the crisis was Bismarck. At first he looked for a consensus: he pruned some of the more noxious aspects of the bill and met with liberal leaders to agree a compromise. He was well on the way to getting a modified version of the bill through the chamber when he realised that he was being outflanked on the right. Manteuffel and some reactionary associates were urging the king to shut down the compromise, on the grounds that it was unacceptable for mere parliamentarians to tamper with the military prerogatives of the crown.
It’s what happened next that matters. Seeing immediately that the game had changed, Bismarck dropped the compromise and switched to a policy of open confrontation. The liberals were furious, but the king and the reactionaries were mollified. The military reforms were put in train and taxes were collected without parliamentary approval. Civil servants were informed that disobedience and involvement with the opposition would be punished with immediate dismissal and Parliament was goaded into ineffectual and self-undermining expressions of outrage.
The parallels are thought-provoking. Two governments in pursuit of important business are minded to push an ‘incompetent’ parliament aside, at least temporarily. The baiting of MPs and civil servants and the threatened recourse to prorogation and early elections are common themes. Bismarck invoked the theory of the ‘constitutional gap’, according to which the executive was entitled – and indeed obliged – to continue governing, even if Parliament refused to collaborate in supposedly crucial tasks. A broadly similar case has been made for the British government’s current course by the prime minister. Both crises remind us how difficult it can be for parliaments to handle a hostile executive: large, unwieldy and committed to complex procedures, elected chambers can appear hopelessly slow-footed in stand-offs with politicians willing to break or bend the rules.
Most politicians in modern democracies prefer consensus to conflict. Bipartisan bridge-building is seen as a higher-order achievement in environments where partisan antagonisms can easily have a disruptive effect. Bismarck operated differently. He saw that the outrage and conflict stirred by provocative gestures were more clarifying and more enabling to the skilful politician than ostensible harmony. He resisted the temptation to resolve political conflicts and crises prematurely. It wasn’t just a question of encouraging them in the first place (though he did that too), but of letting the resulting turmoil evolve to the point where plausible options began to surface. He operated outside the ideological prescriptions of any single interest. The result of these non-alignments was a remarkable freedom from ideological constraint, an ability to spring from one camp to the other, wrong-footing his opponents or exploiting the differences between them. He could do that in part because although he believed deeply in the Prussian monarchical state as an autonomous political actor, he was not a ‘conservative’; he did not share the romantic corporate ideology of many of his aristocratic peers.
It is this ability to keep changing the game that fascinates Dominic Cummings who, as a non-member of the Conservative Party (and indeed of any party), enjoys a similar freedom from conventional constraints. Cummings has often returned to that transitional moment when Bismarck began breaking the rules. On the day the ‘fateful telegram’ arrived summoning Bismarck to the prime ministership of Prussia, Cummings wrote in a blog of 2014, ‘a profound non-linearity hit world politics.’ Non-linearity may be scary and even dangerous, but it is also creative and exciting, especially for Cummings, whose blogs fizz with amoral scenarios in which recondite branches of knowledge and counterfactual scenario-designs intertwine to produce unexpected ‘hybrid solutions’ rich in suggestions for the present. The advent of such thinking at the apex of politics is not a uniquely British phenomenon: in certain respects, Cummings resembles the sometime theatre director and senior Putin adviser Vladislav Surkov, composer of geeky dystopian fictions and prophet of ‘non-linear warfare’.
‘What would Bismarck do?’ It can be instructive and fun to escape the tyranny of the moment by taking the ‘long view’ of our current predicaments. But when you trawl the past in search of timeless power plays, the differences in context are apt to be lost to view. The Prussian constitution and the Prussian Parliament were the fruit of the Revolutions of 1848. They had only existed for 11 years when Bismarck started tampering with them. Prussian political culture was built on a tense dualism between Parliament and a military monarchy jealous of its prerogatives and suspicious of any form of oversight. By contrast, the British Parliament is very old, very established and very confident. The dualism that once pitted Crown against Parliament has not existed in Britain since the end of the 18th century. These are some of the reasons the government’s gambits fell flat last week.
This is not necessarily the end of the matter, of course, because the 2016 referendum has opened the door to a dualism of a different kind, between representative and direct forms of democracy, or as the current government likes to put it, between ‘Parliament’ and ‘the people’. And playing public opinion off against elected assemblies was another of Bismarck’s specialties.
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