WE DON’T yet know what effect the terrible murder of Labour MP Jo Cox will have on the Euro referendum.
Police are investigating, with a clear suspect in custody, and we should all proceed according to their findings.
How best to honour a fine person, who was killed as she exercised her political duties and responsibilities? Perhaps it’s appropriate to try to analyse a particular referendum policy debate, as coolly and rationally as possible. Ms Cox would have wished us to continue the best practices of democratic debate.
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So, today I want to write about an element in the Brexit campaign that fascinates me. It’s what I would call its strand of hyper-capitalism – a kind of start-up patriotism, encapsulated in the phrase they drum through their speeches: “Take back control”.
Take back control contains, I believe, a double strategy. A very clever libertarian elite within the Leave side is consciously stoking popular fears about immigration, and consciously linking them to questions of national sovereignty (or in Gove’s repeated phrase, “self-rule”).
Their opportunism is breathtaking. An urbane, cosmopolitan, ideas-driven set of right-wingers are playing with the fires of xenophobia – and this in order to get the chance to exert a wildly experimental brand of policy over one of the world’s major economies and polities.
These libertarian leavers believe they’re catching a wave of anti-institutional, anti-bureaucratic, pro-enterprise and pro-individualist attitudes sweeping across the developed world at the moment. The EU, a structure that penetrates common continental standards deep into the heart of particular nations, is a sworn enemy of this process.
Whether the Leavers win or lose the referendum across the UK this Thursday, I think it’s reasonable to anticipate they will have their own SNP-like surge, such is the mobilisation they’ve managed to achieve.
Either way, keep your eyes on two people: Steve Hilton, Cameron’s ex-adviser but now a Silicon Valley guru of “human-centred” policy, and someone you may never have heard of: Dominic Cummings, who is director of the official Leave campaign.
Cummings is a particularly intriguing character, a mercurial figure who could easily stalk the pages of the Booker Prize longlist. He’s the one who came up with the “Take back control” meme, registering the website voteleavetakecontrol.org very early on in the campaign.
Cummings used to advise Michael Gove when he was Education Minister. The adviser came to my attention in 2013 when he distributed on the web a piece of baroque scholarship called Some Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities.
Over its 237 pages, it reads like someone dropped a tab of acid in the slots of the Hal supercomputer from 2001: A Space Odyssey (indeed, Cumming’s Twitter account is called @odysseanjourney). He copiously quotes world-leading physicists, geneticists, economists and biologists, in an insanely show-offy way. But his thesis is clearly stated at the start.
With no false modesty, Cummings sums up the West: We live in “large, relatively complex, decentralised, technological, non-zero-sum, market-based cultures, based on science (increasingly accurate predictions and control in some fields), diverse aims, impersonal exchange, trade, private property, and (roughly) equal protection under the law”.
I could pick fights with that framework of modern life immediately. Where is the family, or public services, or the arts, or ethnic identity? But I’m quoting it to give you a sense of how these hyper-marketised, libertarian Leavers see the world. This is Thatcherism on steroids, hooked up to a big-data processor.
In Cummings’ view, those who rule us basically do not understand the world. “Humans have made transitions from numerology to mathematics, from astrology to astronomy, from alchemy to chemistry, from witchcraft to neuroscience, from tallies to quantum computation,” he writes.
“However, while our ancestor chiefs understood bows, horses, and agriculture, our contemporary chiefs (and those in the media responsible for scrutiny of decisions) generally do not understand their equivalents, and are often less experienced in managing complex organisations than their predecessors.”
I’ve no doubt Cummings and his kind are here to help us with all that.... But there’s an aspect to their conceptual arrogance that it is crucial to understand properly. It’s not because they think they know everything that his kind should be in charge of the British State. It’s because they know (or believe) that it’s impossible to know everything.
The core message here, buttressed by all the physicists and biologists Cummings cites, is that modern science is currently modest about its ability to predict the behaviour of complex systems. He says that modesty should also include complex human environments like education, or the economy, or health.
So if you want to foment change, say the libertarian Leavers, the last thing you do is pass another crude bureaucratic edict from the Brussels (or for that matter, Whitehall) machine. The point is to encourage experimentation, novelty, variety, non-standard approaches. You need a healthy, market-driven tumult, which will hopefully evolve robust new organisms (or organisations).
This explains the deliberate chaos of Gove’s free school movement, or the steady marketisation of health services – indeed, the relentless marketisation of everything. Inequality, in this picture, is required for the whole ecosystem to work properly.
The lib-Leavers do still want a state, but the only job it should have is to act as an occasional gardener and fertilizer of the societal jungle. Cummings said in a recent tweet (he’s an intemperate tweeter), “after Dirk Helbing & team [are] put in charge of Whitehall reform, we’ll be most advanced country in world…don’t worry”.
So who’s Dirk Helbing? A Swiss-German digital academic (strangely enough) who turns out to be (not so strangely) another rampant libertarian.
Do you want a country, asks Helbing in another recent tweet, where “people are expected to obey and perform tasks like a gearwheel of a perfect machine”? Or do you want “a participatory society, with space for humans with sometimes surprising behaviours, characterised by autonomous and responsible decision-making”?
Some might say the first option turns the regulatory powers of a democratic state into a scary cliché, and that the second option renders the subversive connectivity of the internet as a bucolic fantasy world.
But this is what you should know about the leading Brexiteers: They are intellectually committed chaos-merchants.
The fate of the post-Brexit state will be to stand even further back than at present, and let a maelstrom of markets and digital technology rip. Citizens and workers are to scrabble for some kind of “niche” in the whole mess. You have been warned.
Steve Hilton is a less academic, more fluent advocate for this libertarian viewpoint. But he also sees throwing off the regulations from Brussels as a huge opportunity.
“The systems and structures we have designed to run the modern world have become too big, bureaucratic and distant from the human scale,” wrote Hilton recently. “The real choice is not economic security or economic risk, but what kind of government will equip us best to cope with a risky, fast-changing world?”
He continues: “I think, on balance, that the answer to that question is a government that we control, that can move at a pace we set, rather than the inevitably sclerotic speed of a committee of 28 countries, with vastly different circumstances.”
No sense that international co-operation and standards – particularly in terms of environmental factors, or weapons proliferation, or health and poverty reduction, or workers’ protections, or human rights – might actually be the best way to “cope with a risky, fast-changing world”.
Nobody who’s been interested in Scottish independence since the 90s has ever had any illusions about the EU. It’s as good as the political balance of power in the nations that make it up. If we want a progressive Europe, then progressives should start to win some battles in their home countries. Our efforts can’t be faulted in Scotland.
A thumping Remain vote will show the world that Scotland is different – and particularly different from the cynical xenophobia, intellectual narcissism and zealous hyper-capitalism that the Brexiteer elites represent.
One hopes the heart-crushing murder of Jo Cox might allow some scales to drop from English voters’ eyes. But up here, we should see clearly what the Brexiteers are.