The Dreamings of Dominic Cummings

James Meek

I went travelling in Remainia. My aim was to write about St Albans in Hertfordshire, a city just north of London where voters and the local MP are out of sync on the wedge issue of the day. In 2016 the people of St Albans voted heavily to remain in the EU – among cities, St Albans was behind only Edinburgh, Cambridge, Oxford, Brighton and Glasgow in the rankings of pro-EU vote share. But its Conservative MP, Anne Main, is strongly pro-Brexit, and I was curious to see which way people are likely to jump come the next, surely imminent election.

By chance, in between visits to St Albans, business took me to other Remainian strongholds. After Bath, Edinburgh and St Albans in one week, I began to feel like a character in an implausible dystopian novel from the early 2000s. ‘It is the year 2019, and Britain is divided into two nations, Remainia and Leaveland,’ the blurb might run. ‘Remainia is a thriving country of young, highly educated people of a myriad ethnicities, the streets bustling with shops, cafés and restaurants. Leaveland is a country of the old, the white and the nostalgic, of ruined factories and boarded-up shops. Rushing along the network of high-speed rail corridors that enable Remainians to move from point to point around their country without touching Leaveland, a middle-aged Remainian writer confronts the possibility that unification of the two nations is not Remainia’s greatest hope, but its greatest fear.’

Long before the EU referendum there was a creeping polarisation of British towns, inevitable under a super-centralised, non-interventionist government. Inevitable, that is, when transport and communications networks became dense enough to enable people above a certain income level to choose their home on the basis of where it’s nicest to live rather than nearness to their workplace. Pretty towns with good amenities became prettier and better served still; neglected towns more neglected. Towns that could tick three or four from a list of teaching hospital, university, advanced technology enterprise, successful sports franchise, attractive natural surroundings, mainline train station, cultural prize of national renown and well-preserved historic town centre would flourish; towns with two or fewer would ail.

St Albans is neither as obviously prospering nor as architecturally arresting as central Edinburgh and Bath – its stupendous medieval cathedral is mostly hidden from the town centre – but at street level it seethes with well-heeled life. I spend enough time in Leaveland to see how rapidly the high streets of Britain are dying. Internet commerce sucks out the trade and darkens the shop-glass. In St Albans, and elsewhere in Remainia, the old retailscape of failing chains is being replaced not just by charities and pound stores but by independent cafés and restaurants and by shops that are as much galleries or consultancies as places you go to buy something over the counter. The city has outlets of makers like Le Creuset and Farrow & Ball that speak to customers’ expectations of long, stable, propertied lives.

There’s another factor swelling and enriching St Albans: the middle-class exodus from London, a twenty-minute commute away. As renting in London gets more expensive and as buying becomes hard for people who are well paid but lack inherited wealth, the city is losing more people to commuter towns and other parts of Britain than it replaces by births or migration from elsewhere in the UK. Only immigration from abroad keeps the city growing. Similar trends were seen in New York and Los Angeles before the flow of foreign immigrants recently started drying up too, and those megapolises are now shrinking. London may be about to go the same way.

I first arrived in St Albans one fine afternoon in late September. The schools were coming out. The boys and girls in their neat uniforms looked happy: black, Asian and white children laughing and chatting together. But a subjective impression of happiness is not much use to political engineers. I tried to see St Albans not only through my own senses but through the apprehension of the people trying to secure power over the country.

As preparation I read the last entry Dominic Cummings posted on his blog, from June 2019, just before he became Boris Johnson’s senior adviser – his main job, we assume, to win the next election for his boss’s new, Faragist Conservative Party as effectively as he managed the referendum campaign for Vote Leave. The text, about ten thousand words long, laments the primitive technology available to help ministers and civil servants make decisions and forecasts. Cummings considers the room in which the cabinet meets pitiful, with its chandeliers and mantelpiece carriage clock and long green baize table. The blog post has pictures meant to show how old-fashioned it is compared to Nasa’s Mission Control, or the control centres for power grids and the Large Hadron Collider, with their open-plan seating and banks of screens that show everyone who works there all the data, all the time. We see men in shirts and ties gazing glassily at columns of numbers and diagrams on computer screens. They handle switches and stroke keys. These are early examples of what Cummings – following the ‘tech visionary’ Bret Victor – calls Seeing Rooms, with the room itself a tool that gives a select few high-achieving savants all the tools they need to make informed decisions at speed. When he first visited the cabinet room, Cummings found no tools at all. ‘In the 19th century at least Lord Salisbury used the fireplace as a tool. He would walk around the table, gather sensitive papers, and burn them at the end of meetings. The fire is now blocked. The only other tool, the clock, did not work when I was last there. Over a century, the physical space in which politicians make decisions … has deteriorated.’

What is a tech visionary? Bret Victor, originally trained as an electrical engineer, was a senior designer at Apple, worked on an interactive climate change ebook for Al Gore and now runs Dynamicland, a digital interface lab in Berkeley. His brand of Silicon Valley solutionism is immensely appealing to someone like Cummings, who was dazzled when he visited the lab last year. One innovation that interests him is the ‘dynamic document’, in which all the background numbers in, say, an electronic version of a government report would be continually updated by live datastreams; anyone reading the report would be able to slide policy numbers up or down electronically to see the effect on outcomes. Another is a system, designed for engineers, that would, in Cummings’s dreamings, allow policy proposals to be digitally modelled without human backroom staff doing months of elaborate coding beforehand: when Cummings énarques speak or scribble their thoughts, cameras wired to high-powered computers would interpret their meaning and instantly display costed programmes, which could then be played around with.

There’s a stark mismatch between this utopia of technology-enabled government and the ideology of Brexit, the political-religious project that has given Cummings his power base and reputation. Brexit is an ideal of democracy as a simple expression of majoritarian national will, based on the privileging of faith, hope and anger over expertise. But Cummings’s actual governing ideal is anti-political, ultra-technocratic, excluding all but a tiny fraction of extravagantly trained (in the sciences) high-IQ individuals from the levers of control. He rejects the EU not because it’s undemocratic, as Leavers argue and many Remainers agree, but because it’s inefficient. And since most of these ‘inefficiencies’ stem from its deference to disagreements between its constituent nations, he finds, implicitly, that the EU is too democratic. He stops short of admiring the Chinese system but describes China as one of the few ‘high-performance governments’. His heroes aren’t elected: they are visionaries like Victor and past military bureaucrats like the Cold War deterrence expert Michael Quinlan and Leslie Groves, who ran the project to build the first atom bomb.

On the face of it, Cummings ought to have as much contempt for Boris Johnson’s Faragist Conservative Party as he does for Nigel Farage himself. And yet he appears to be doing his utmost to steer it to greater power. The work of Victor, and those grand 20th-century military bureaucrats Cummings idolises, is far closer to the data-amenable world of problem/solution than modern civilian governing, where spheres like ‘health’ and ‘education’ are great soupy swirls of problems and solutions. Elections are another matter: they’re all about the numbers, aren’t they? I can’t see St Albans through Dominic Cummings’s eyes, but I can try to see it as it might appear from the fantasy electoral control centre he would build if he could. What information might be displayed on the screens of Cummings’s Seeing Room if he selected ‘View St Albans’ from the menu?

Screen 1: The Voters

I met Claudio Duran, chairman of the Conservative Party’s St Albans branch, at his house in a woodland park on the northern outskirts of the city. For some reason he insisted that he and I and Alec Campbell, the former Conservative leader of the council (he lost his seat in May), speak in a small caravan in the middle of the field round the back.

The fact that both men voted to stay in the EU cuts no ice on the doorstep. ‘When Remainers see a blue rosette they immediately start shouting at you,’ Duran said. ‘You say, “Wait a minute, I voted remain too,” but they just want to show how angry they are.’

The nature of the constituency party is changing. Membership has risen by more than half in the past year. Maybe I was projecting, but neither Duran nor Campbell seemed glad about this. ‘We see some people leaving the party and others joining,’ Campbell said: ‘We’ve had a 65 per cent increase in membership from June to June. Some people wanted to vote in the leadership election. Some people are leaving because they thought being in Europe was absolutely essential and couldn’t countenance a party that supported anything else. The base has shifted, but I don’t see a split.’ What he was saying but not quite saying was that the party had only avoided a split by becoming a different party. In losing its most pro-EU members and gaining a small army of Johnson fans, it presents a significantly changed proposition to the voters of St Albans. And only a small swing would hand the seat to Jo Swinson.

Rain began to drum on the roof so hard we had to raise our voices to hear one another and the caravan started rocking in the wind. Campbell, a telecoms engineer by profession, a Remain voter who voted against Johnson in the leadership election, began talking about the polling firm BMG Research’s division of the British electorate into ten voter ‘clans’. In St Albans, he said, eight of the clans would definitely vote for or against the Conservatives. Members of the most heavily Leave-voting and Daily Mail-reading clan, the ‘Bastions of Tradition and the Individual’, are a lock for Johnson. Members of the ‘Global Green Community’ clearly aren’t. Only two clans, making up 35 to 40 per cent of voters locally, are in play: the ‘Notting Hill Society’, of economically conservative, socially liberal professionals and managers, and the ‘Orange Bookers’, the most pro-Lib Dem. It’s these two groups the Conservatives must draw from if they’re to win again here. What are the chances? ‘My message to Central Office,’ Campbell said, ‘would be not to alienate the people of St Albans.’

Dominic Cummings’s imaginary election visualisation certainly taps into the data from St Albans, but there are 650 constituencies, and the main input and output has to be national. A fantasy Bret Victor-style election touchscreen would be set with dozens of sliders, labelled with variables like ‘pro/anti-immigration’, ‘Euro warmth/hostility’, ‘greenness’, all of which Cummings could adjust to see how the combinations change the result in terms of seats won.

On the face of it, the Conservatives have a problem. If they pivot to placate the Orange Bookers and Notting Hill Society seduced by the Lib Dems in seats like St Albans, they will alienate the Leave voters they hope to prise from Labour and the Brexit Party in Northern and Midlands seats with a completely different demographic by broadcasting a more liberal and Euro-emollient message. In target seats like Bishop Auckland in County Durham the two big value clans they most need to convince – BMG calls them ‘Strength and Respect’ and ‘Proud and Patriotic State’ – are made up of older, whiter, predominantly working-class Leavers apparently moved by the nationalist rhetoric of Euro-belligerence.

But there’s another possible lesson to be drawn from the numbers in St Albans, and it’s better news for Boris Johnson. If Brexit dominates the election, then ramping up the discourse of treachery and surrender may actually help the Conservatives twice over in Labour seats. Some Labour Leave voters may be attracted to the Tory side; some Labour Remainers may opt for the radical Remain position of the Lib Dems in seats the Lib Dems have little chance of winning. The anti-Conservative movement in St Albans should have trounced Anne Main in 2017, when it got 57 per cent of the vote to Main’s 43. But it didn’t, because that progressive vote was split between the Lib Dems, Labour and the Greens. The fact is that, as I write, the actual polling output – the output as it would appear on Cummings’s screens – is flickering not from Conservative victory to Conservative defeat, but from narrow Conservative win to Conservative landslide.

Screen 2: The Screen Itself

Wait, though. What if the most important data about St Albans isn’t what the screen displays? What if the medium is the message? When I went to St Albans, I went before I went, virtually, on my iPhone. I called up maps, I used Google Street View, I looked at train timetables and downloaded tickets, I sent and received emails, I checked the weather. The part of the phone’s microcircuitry that makes this possible, that translates data coded as binary digits into text and pictures on the screen, is known as a Graphics Processing Unit, or GPU. As of 2012 the GPUs in two-thirds of the world’s smartphones were designed in Hertfordshire, at Kings Langley just a few miles from St Albans, by a British company called Imagination Technologies. The firm was galvanised in 1992 by the arrival of an Iranian immigrant, Hossein (now Sir Hossein) Yassaie. Imagination became known for its Pure brand of digital radios, but it was its GPUs that sent it global.

It’s likely that Bret Victor worked with Imagination GPUs when he was employed by Apple around the turn of the decade. For whatever reason, it wasn’t long afterwards that Apple, while it went on using the Imagination chips, began to poach Imagination engineers. Quietly, it opened a GPU design centre of its own in an old prison near St Albans Station – so quietly that there is still no Apple logo outside. In 2017 it announced abruptly that it would no longer use Imagination products. Imagination’s share price tanked. Within a few months the company, a bright star of the kind of British high technology cluster all politicians say they like, was snapped up by a Chinese-backed private equity firm. Even as Britain’s politicians were raving about taking back control, Britain was losing control to China and the US over the arch-tool of modern control, the circuitry behind the data visualisation interface that so fascinates Cummings, the technology to render information to and from a touchscreen.

The Imagination story is characteristic of St Albans, and Hertfordshire in general: a place high in expertise, an atelier of legal, finance and science clerks serving the global economy, often prospering, yet increasingly deferring to authorities in California, New York and Beijing. Hertfordshire is one of those skill pools that’s backstage of the seeming magic of the world’s screens without actually being ultimately responsible for it, whether that’s designing GPUs or enabling the global Harry Potter industry. The Harry Potter film set lies between St Albans and Watford, a stop on the trail that begins with the selfie queue by J.K. Rowling’s Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross Station, just over the way from St Pancras, where the trains from St Albans pull in to Central London. The big producers and stars fly in for a shoot at the Warner Brothers studio next to the Harry Potter set, but they don’t stay long. Painted on the wall of the Indian restaurant that now occupies most of St Albans’s Liberal Club is a fleeting endorsement: ‘Really enjoyed the lobster curry – Tom Cruise.’

Damian Boys is a former Conservative supporter turned Lib Dem. I met him at his semi-detached house in the mid-20th-century suburb of Chiswell Green. Married with two children, he’s an executive in an American tech multinational. He was working on his laptop at the kitchen table, in the morning lull before the American workday began. He represented himself as a proud globalist in a borderless world, on the phone to colleagues in the US, Italy and Germany every day, unconcerned by the idea of a federal Europe. He started quoting dreamily from ‘Territories’, a song by the Canadian band Rush. He went on for some time before he reached the line he wanted to share: ‘Can’t really feel/What international means.’

I asked him how he’d feel about a borderless world in which IT professionals from, say, India had absolute freedom to live and work in the UK. He turned visibly pale. ‘It’s easy to say you’re an internationalist,’ he said. ‘But no … the country wouldn’t have the infrastructure to support that.’

It’s a delicate balance for the Remainer psyche, holding the EU as a kind of bulwark, a halfway house between isolation and globalisation that allows a self-image of openness to the world but has the potential to keep the world’s big non-European powers, state and corporate, at arm’s length.

I confessed to Boys I’d taken a peek at his Twitter feed. The header photo is a picture of his yellow Lotus sports car. I said I noticed he’d been tweeting supportively about Greta Thunberg and he agreed enthusiastically that he had. I asked if he still had the Lotus. ‘Yes!’ he said, with just as much enthusiasm.

Screen Three: Verulam Lake

The ornamental lake in Verulamium Park in St Albans is not a Bret Victor-style interactive data visualisation. You don’t interact with it unless you’re a duck. It was only ever designed to look pretty. But it has turned into a gauge of an old-fashioned kind, like a mercury thermometer or a fuel gauge on a pre-digital dashboard. It’s fed by the River Ver, the chalk stream that flows through St Albans. The Ver is fed, in turn, by an aquifer deep below the Chiltern hills that also provides drinking, agricultural and industrial water across Hertfordshire. In the past there’s been enough water both for the region’s chalk streams – 85 per cent of the world’s chalk streams are in England – and for people to wash and work with. Now there isn’t. The Ver is running dry and, in consequence, you can now see the pale stones of the retaining walls of Verulam Lake and, in places, the mud at the bottom. When I visited, on the first day of Parliament’s return after the Supreme Court ruled the prime minister couldn’t shut it down at his convenience, coots were strutting across one cracked expanse of exposed lake bottom without getting their feet wet.

The Ver always runs low in autumn. Its upper stretches are a natural winterbourne, a stream that only flows for part of the year. But for it to dry up in the city itself, and further downstream, is a symptom of a crisis of overconsumption that’s been building for years. If the Chiltern aquifer were a reservoir, the internet would be full of alarming pictures of its fallen water level, but because it’s underground the problem is hidden. The fading of Verulam Lake is a warning for St Albans – a visualisation, for urban eyes, of the simple datum that the city is parched.

Six years ago Richard Thake, a Conservative politician from just north of St Albans, pointed out at a summit called to address the crisis that Hertfordshire was the heaviest consumer of water per head in England. ‘If we go on at this rate,’ he warned, ‘we are in danger of pumping the aquifer dry to meet the lifestyle of today.’ Yet Affinity, the Anglo-Dutch-German investment vehicle with exclusive rights to sell mains water in the area, still prioritises St Albans’s garden sprinklers, car washes and swimming pools over the survival of the chalk streams and the fish, birds and insects that depend on them.

Affinity admitted to me that Hertfordshire was in drought following three years of below average rainfall. Since the 1990s the company and its predecessors have cut back on abstraction from the Chiltern aquifer, and Affinity says it is trying to reduce leaks and get people to install water meters. But neither Affinity nor the government deems fish dying in dried-up chalk streams and the disappearance of kingfishers from the banks of the Ver – the crippling of an entire ecosystem, of which Britain is the world’s main custodian – cause enough to oblige the citizens of St Albans to use less water, or even to charge big users extra.

A network of local campaign groups tries to keep the issue in the public eye. John Pritchard, chairman of the Ver Valley Society, took me to a bridge seven and a half miles downstream from the river’s source. Here the Ver used to make itself known in a channel running between the M1 motorway and Watling Street, the old Roman road. What was once a regularly flowing watercourse is now overgrown and dry.

‘I think you have to go back to 2014 before you can find water running under this bridge, and historically that would have been a regular thing,’ Pritchard said. ‘We rely so heavily on ground water and we’ve been taking it for so long that we’ve got nowhere else to go. If we have another dry autumn … I would say don’t worry about the river’s problems, we will all have a problem.’

The debilitating brain fever of Brexit has sapped political energy that might have been spent addressing Britain’s ropey infrastructure and loss of technological autonomy. It has also shut out a reckoning with the burgeoning water emergency in south-east England. Whether it’s caused by climate change or by reckless use of a limited resource is beside the point. They’re two aspects of the same, human-induced problem. The well-tended gardens of St Albans seem a world away from Amazonian forest fires and melting glaciers but, as you have to force yourself to remember amid the sheer normality of a city projecting such a powerful sense of eventlessness, there is only one world.

Screen Four: The Cathedral Walls

One Saturday evening, I went to St Albans Cathedral to see a new work marrying 21st-century technology and sacred medieval art. Four paintings on piers supporting the northern, Romanesque side of the nave, dating from between the 12th and 14th centuries, badly damaged but peerless in England in kind and size, were to be over-projected with reconstructed images of what they would have looked like when they were new. Hundreds of members of the Friends of the Cathedral – who along with the Heritage Lottery Fund helped pay for the project – thronged the nave for an early look at the result.

Projectors in the upper gallery came on and the paintings were illuminated, showing the process of discovery and virtual restoration, stage by stage. Each saint had had their face scored out with deep cross-hatching at the time of the Reformation. Stephen de Silva, a cathedral guide, told the Friends that the lines cut into the face of St Thomas Becket, defier of the authority of the English king in the name of the rights of the pan-European Church, had been cut especially deep. ‘They seem to have been made with some venom,’ he said. ‘Henry VIII had a particular animus against him.’

A good data visualisation won’t just provide a snapshot of the present moment but will allow you to see change over time. It will show you the peaks and troughs and rising curves of past change, the repeating patterns, allowing you to make predictions about the future. The projections onto the ancient screens of cathedral stone were a deeper kind of visualisation: no numeric data here, but still a sense of time, suggestive of a history of echoing crises of insular affirmation against the wider world, alternating with moments in which that world was embraced. Long before Henry VIII, but contemporary, perhaps, with Becket’s portraitist, the St Albans monk Matthew Paris, chronicler and cartographer, was a virulent critic of foreigners who sent English tithes to mainland Europe.

It often seems as though Britain’s post-referendum political struggles have become more than anything a series of evocations of history, a realm resistant to algorithms. History offers models but their nature depends on subjective interpretation of events. Up until now the use and abuse of history has tended to be on the Leave side, with evocations of Empire and Churchill and Walter Raleigh. But that won’t last. One of the many reasons the idea of a Britain divided cleanly into Remainia and Leaveland is wrong is that those who would prefer to stay in the EU are as likely as Leavers to see themselves as custodians of ‘British history’. The two versions of history are derived from the same datapoints, the same series of events. It’s just that one version celebrates glorious isolation; the other is enmeshed in the history of the world beyond a few islands in the North Atlantic.

A few years ago, to celebrate the 900th anniversary of St Alban’s Cathedral, the sculptor Rory Young was commissioned to create, in carved and painted stone, seven martyrs for vacant niches in the 14th-century rood screen. St Alban is in the middle, but on the far flanks are recent non-British martyrs who were killed because they stood against fascism, rather than for their religion as such: Archbishop Oscar Romero, assassinated as he celebrated mass in El Salvador in 1980, and the anti-Nazi pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, portrayed standing on a crushed swastika. De Silva told me most members of the congregation approved of the new statues. The sense that individuals’ personal histories are wrapped up in national myths and legends is something I had associated particularly with Leave voters, but in St Albans I felt something similar was happening with Remainers, a consciousness of transnational histories of resistance to jingoism and chauvinism becoming part of an identity.

Alison Hills lives in a one-bedroom flat in a recently built tower block a few minutes’ walk from St Albans Station, in a cluster set amid dainty landscaped mounds planted with birch and cherry trees. From her sitting room you can see a gently rising treescape punctuated by red-tiled roofs. She grew up in Folkestone, settled in St Albans after studying law here, and commutes to London, where she works in a legal practice specialising in medical negligence cases. She’s in her late thirties. She used to vote Conservative, but not any more.

Hills was working at home, on the sofa with her laptop. It was two weeks after Boris Johnson’s purge of 21 Tory rebels, and the tenth day of his shutdown of Parliament; it didn’t seem likely at that point that the judges would dare to rule it illegal. Hills was angry: with Johnson, with the Conservatives, with her local MP.

‘What’s going on at the moment is the complete opposite of democracy,’ she said. ‘The fact Boris has sacked 21 MPs just because they didn’t agree with him says it all. There’s no democracy any more, it’s just dictatorship. St Albans voted 63 per cent to remain, and Anne Main has voted for no deal every time. How is that representing the views of her constituents? She voted against gay marriage. How is that good in this day and age? I’m sorry, but you’re elected to represent us. She just votes for the complete opposite of what St Albans wants.’

She took me through her personal-political journey: her childhood in Kent with staunchly Conservative parents, her loyalty to the Conservatives while she was a student, her apolitical phase in the Cameron-Milliband years while she lived in different places and cared for her father, who had bowel cancer. She didn’t vote in the last two elections, but thinks she would have voted for Cameron in 2015 if she’d been registered. ‘He just seemed very charismatic.’

She voted Leave in 2016. ‘There was all this information in the press about how much we were spending on the EU, how much control Brussels had over us, that these fees could be redistributed. All those lies we were told. If we had another vote tomorrow I would vote to remain, absolutely.’

She couldn’t imagine Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister; she didn’t trust him or Johnson. She was ready not merely to vote for the Liberal Democrats but to campaign for them – she joined the party a few weeks ago. We spoke just after the Lib Dems endorsed Jo Swinson’s radical offer to hardcore Remainers to scrap Brexit outright in the (fantastical) event of her winning the next election. Hills said she’d been shocked at first by the idea of annulling Leave voters’ referendum victory, but had come around. ‘They’ve always been very clear they’re a Remainer party, so when people vote for them, they know they’re voting to remain.’

Daisy Cooper is the Lib Dem’s parliamentary candidate. Like Hills, she’s a lawyer in her late thirties, born and bred in another English county (Suffolk in her case); like every tenth person in the city, she commutes to London. The disastrous introduction of new timetables for commuter trains last year raised her campaigning profile locally. Govia Thameslink, the firm that operates the route, failed to prepare enough drivers for the change, and for more than two months it was as if St Albans were two hundred miles from London instead of twenty. Hills’s experience was typical: a journey to work that usually takes thirty minutes took two and a half hours.

‘It seems like a terribly middle-class issue, but it wasn’t,’ Cooper told me. ‘Nurses were late for their shifts, people working night shifts couldn’t get home, teenagers missed exams, disabled people got crushed, nurseries were charging parents £10 per 15-minute delay picking up their children. It had a huge impact on people’s lives and on everyday health. You design your whole life around the train timetable – your school run, the places where you will or won’t work, where you can and can’t meet your clients. The train system, infrastructure, the NHS, social care services, our schools denied money. It really does feel like the country’s creaking at the seams and one of the biggest scandals of Brexit is that all these other issues are completely ignored.’

Discontented though St Albanians may be about pressing local issues, it was the spectre of institutionalised Little Englandism that really had them spooked. We were speaking on Day 11 of the rogue prorogation. The Lib Dems already felt they had the wind in their sails, having won control of the local council from the Conservatives in May, but Cooper said the purge and prorogation had brought up ‘a visceral anger on the doorstep, particularly among Conservative voters who feel the Conservatives have become a kind of English nationalist party’.

*

There is a sense of fracturing along the lines of ancient identities. Cummings, a history graduate, might appreciate more than his tech guru Victor the visualisation of defacement and restoration, crisis and resolution rendered on the walls of St Albans Cathedral. There are strong hints in that last blog post of an extreme technomania, of a belief that prediction itself – the way the future turns – might be amenable to the power of the algorithm:

Vote Leave hacked the referendum but such opportunities are [rare] … Arguably what is happening now is a once in 50 or 100 year crisis and such crises also are the waves that can be ridden to change things normally unchangeable. A second referendum in 2020 is quite possible … and might be the ideal launchpad for a completely new sort of entity, not least because if it happens the Conservative Party may well not exist in any meaningful sense.

Could this explain the paradox whereby a rabid advocate of technocracy is doing his utmost to install the utterly anti-technocratic Faragists in power? Could it be an experiment with history? For Cummings the whole Brexit crisis may be a venturesome trial with disposable vessels: voters, the Conservative Party, the United Kingdom. If it doesn’t work out, there’s always California, and the rest of the solar system. At times Cummings’s writings suggest that what he hopes to get out of helping the Faragists capture Britain is to be rewarded with the power of patronage: to be tasked with getting the UK to help Jeff Bezos build an international moon base, for instance – a pet obsession. But elsewhere he comes across as motivated by an anarchic curiosity, ready to trash his current political vehicle and possibly to break up Britain just to see whether anything interesting and useful results.