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Small Worlds – Riffing off Peter Foster’s Facing Facts

Is Britain becoming a small nation? This is the question that Peter Foster, the Daily Telegraph’s new Europe Editor tries to answer in a beautifully readable and engaging PS21 pamphlet launched last week entitled Facing Facts: Is Britain’s power diminishing? 

Peter returns from a decade spent abroad (Delhi, Beijing, and until a couple of months ago, Washington DC) to find Britain profoundly changed.  He also returns full of questions on behalf of others about the reasons for this change: why are you behaving like a small nation ask his interlocutors?  In other parts of the world there is great concern about Britain’s apparent retreat, its reluctance to lead, its slow but steadfast marginalization from European politics—in a word, Britain’s ‘growing smallness’.

Posing the question in these terms and with such ‘sweep’ entreats us to connect a number of issues and themes that are on the agenda (from the reluctance to intervene in Syria, to the reluctance to welcome migrants, from the relationship with China, to the relationship with the rest of Europe), but tend to get examined separately.  Peter forces us to connect the political dots.  Taken together the stances and choices he outlines mean something, they are the symptom of something; and they are greater than the sum of their parts.  For us at Counterpoint, they’re very much the symptom of what we’ve called the ‘century of populism’.  The growing supremacy of a type of politics which is set to overwhelm us unless we choose to eschew it in much more effective, creative and forceful ways than we have so far.

 

Populism or the price of leadership

At a time when the ‘P’ word is everywhere – to mean just about anything – Peter’s paper is a relief because it’s a reminder of what populism does. It shrinks you, it paralyses you, and it makes you very, very near-sighted.

Two socio-economic mega-trends explain the growth of these politics. First, the broken promise of steady growth (and jobs to go with it); This painful process of declining living standards for the middle classes (other than those who have engaged in massive borrowing) and stagnant progress for those aspiring to middle-class status (dating back from long before 2008) has thrown vast swathes of our societies in a state of deep anxiety over a radically uncertain future and bitter resentment toward the political and financial elites.  This combination of anxiety and mistrust and the, somewhat understandable, cynicism to which it gives rise to contradictory attitudes of both disengagement, but also hyper-criticism (and, despite the hype, the kind of engagement we see, say around the election of Jeremy Corbyn, or even around the SNP, doesn’t quite reassure).  The result is the systematic undermining of any political or economic initiative. All this is compounded by the second mega-trend, triggered by the spread of information technology and a digital revolution that has made knowledge and information widely available at little or no cost. This revolution has also raised citizen expectations about immediacy of understanding, transparency and accessibility – precisely at a time when the complexity of decision-making tends to make our existing institutions look incompetent and out of sync.

In such a situation – of deep, rapid and inexorable transformation – leadership is the only way forward.  The paradox being that populist politics in their hyper-critical mode and their forensic dynamics increase the cost of leadership exponentially.  Who in their right mind would want to enter this arena? The populists are the only ones still at it.  While the others increasingly adopt the former’s simplistic rags in the hopes of surviving what they see as the ‘test of public opinion’.

So, while, populism is in part about mobilisation, it is about much more than that: it is about a contagious political paralysis and pervasive commercial, cultural and social myopia. The various failures, risks of failure and avoidance of risks that Peter describes in his pamphlet are the paralysis and myopia at work.

 

Little Britain?

Britain is not alone in this parochial predicament – but the turn inwards, the provincialism is distinctly at odds with its tradition of openness and internationalism, with its multiculturalism and liberalism– and it’s taking its allies by surprise.  This populist rash allows short-sightedness to masquerade as pragmatism and isolationism to pass for pacifism. But also, and absurdly, in the context of all this bizarre Nimbyist bravado, it allows for imprudence in the name of mercantilism and appeasement.

This nonsense of a Britain that is claimed to be all at once powerful enough to make it outside the EU, but too weak to avoid being overwhelmed by what is depicted as the pettiness of Brussels; Or that is GREAT enough to weather any of the reputational and other dangers implied by a nuclear power deal with China, but too weak to take in more than 20 000 immigrants—this should serve as evidence that there is no plan beyond appeasing a misunderstood public and attempting to secure, at all costs, the immediate and derisory satisfaction of a few measly point of ephemeral growth.

 

Small worlds

As our nations try to shrink themselves to match populist demands, it is the world that they are attempting to shrink. Populist politics is about what some economists refer to as ‘small worlds’ – worlds in which there are no surprises and therefore no lessons to be learnt.  In Ken Binmore’s Rational Decisions (2009) he discusses the limits of Bayesian small world models where there is no learning in the face of new information.  This is because, in a small world there are no lessons to be learnt, because there are no surprises: events are governed by a fixed number of possible models, new information merely leads us to favour one of our pre-existing models over another, comforting us and shrinking the world further.

The drive to shrink the world is a powerful one at the moment, here in Britain, in most European countries, and in the United States. And because the world is in fact large and unshrinkable (Binmore’s proposition), the only option left to politicians is to shrink ourselves in the ultimate political delusion of self-preservation.

So what would accepting to govern in a large world mean?

My conviction is that it would mean first and foremost outlining the new rules of legitimate leadership; What does legitimate leadership look like, sound like, when respect must be built on a very different set of skills and trappings? Accountability and knowledge remain central, but they need to be ‘demonstrated’ in new ways. Expertise cannot be based on the monopoly of education or information since these monopolies are broken.  So what does a shared expertise look like?  And how do you source it with care?  As for accountability, how do you accommodate expediency and while respecting privacy, and even secrecy.  It cannot be replaced with transparency – a word that conjures up surveillance and a level of scrutiny at which no one (no family, no individual, no group, no party) can possibly look both authentic (a relentless contemporary demand) AND good.

Over and above any set of policies, it is this new grid of legitimacy that needs to be elaborated urgently – and the national and the European level. This means moving beyond polls and surveys, opening the black box of public opinion, remaining critical of Big Data while making the most of it, delving much more deeply into the values that underpin behaviours, preferences, mobilisation, passivity, choice and decision.  In a word putting in the work to know ourselves – again.

Catherine Fieschi

Catherine is the Director of Counterpoint

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