Demystifying Dominic Cummings – Why Smart People need Speechwriters

Posted on 13 June 2017

Language most shows a man. Speak that I may see thee.

This quotation from the playwright, Ben Johnson, is the raison d’être for speechwriters. Public speaking gives us an intimate view of the speaker. The speaker can choose to write something for herself or himself, but it’s very easy to ‘leak the truth from every pore’, that is to say: reveal things about yourself that are irrelevant or inappropriate that damage the case or alienate the audience.

The paradox is: by working with a speechwriter you can cut out your own personal effluent, but it’ll still be you.

I went to Nudgestock 2017, the conference about behavioural science organised by Ogilvy Change last week. My reason for going was to see Dominic Cummings, the scary éminence grise behind the Vote Leave campaign. I run an organisation that strengthens the European Union, I wanted to listen to a man who has subverted it.

His was by far the most electrifying speech of the day. He has an elegant mind. He was a peculiar mixture of arrogance and humility. He explained very clearly how he segmented the audiences and worked out a strategy to frustrate the Government. He could work with three things, the fear of immigration, the perceived failure of the euro and the fact that most people don’t know what the EU is.

He knew most people didn’t know what the EU was because he ran the Business for Sterling campaign 16 years earlier. This also taught him which straplines worked.

It was useful to compare Cummings’ presentation, with Blair McDougall’s speech about winning the campaign for the union at our conference in the Scottish Parliament last year. The subject matter was the same. Blair came across as funny, warm and very smart, Dominic came across as humourless, cold and intemperate.

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As I listened to Dominic, I couldn’t help thinking of all those ex-pats who’d lived in Brussels over the years to work for the European Union, the millions of hours of British politicians spent working with other Parliamentarians across Europe to build relationships, the Erasmus students who’d had formative experiences in foreign universities – all those rich human experiences that are now threatened by Brexit.

Dominic had decided that the EU was creating a rerun of 1930s – in his 20s – and he has used his formidable brain to manipulate audiences and extinguish this threat. He claimed that the Brexit vote neutralised Nigel Farage and wiped out UKIP.

You have to hand it to him. His work exploited the weaknesses of the European Union and the British Government. EU Commissioners are arrogant, the euro has caused huge problems and the immigration issues are very disturbing. The Vote Leave win could be described as a ‘cleansing’ – you need challenges like this in a democracy.

But you could use Dominic’s vehement arguments to make the case for the abolition of the House of Commons or local government. And indeed he did. He described MPs as utterly useless, advertising agencies as hopeless and he said that business people should be running politics.

He makes rancorous criticisms of individuals and institutions. He steps on people’s toes and, if you don’t agree with him, you feel an overwhelming urge to retaliate against him. Like Jonah, he has contempt for those who are running the show. The implication is that if he, and one of his small teams, were in charge, things would be so very different.

Dominic Cummings is perceived as having achieved something rather extraordinary. So why does he parade his defects of character at the podium?

He could be self-deprecating, he could cut out all the vitriol and just concentrate on the positives, he could make good jokes. He claimed to have a better understanding of the people outside the M25 than Osborne and Cameron, but he still hasn’t left Oxford. He’s still performing in his own tutorials.

He opened with a cardinal speechmaking mistake. He said he would only speak for 10 minutes and then take questions. In fact he went well over time – closer to 20 minutes.

Of course, he would say, he is who he is. But perhaps the sign of real maturity is that you don’t have to be who you are. My favourite educational motto is ‘Manners Makyth Man‘: Dominic Cummings hasn’t got any manners.

There are three very strange things about him. How is it that someone who understands the importance of emotion in politics, fails to express any warmth at a personal level? Why is it that someone who wants above all things to improve education, show a complete disdain for its first principle? And how is it that someone who is so smart be so foolish?

Brian Jenner



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