SO… I haven’t written anything since Tubingen, in part because I couldn’t be bothered and partly because it’s a bit impossible to focus on writing without an internet connection to my blog or with battery power that lasts only two hours. Those are rubbish excuses the real reason is I lack discipline and the sun is shining here in Italy. Sorry about that. Thank god I don’t have any sponsors relying on regular updates. However I do have an audience, even though it’s just my mum and maybe a handful of friends, they deserve to know what the hell I’m up to. I also need the writing practice.
Before I can even think about finishing off the posts I have drafted I have to write this. I have to get this off my chest before I move on. I deliberately left some time before writing because frankly I was so pissed off by the referendum result… I still am but this has now been tempered by time and the opinions of others. I left the UK partly to get away from: the ludicrous work culture, strange political opinions, over saturation of media and general monotony of a life at a desk. I did not for one second think that in my brief absence my fellow countrymen and woman would fuck things up so royally that I would feel like some sort of refugee both literally and intellectually. The Brexit vote has left me personally with less money, due to the drop in the exchange rate, with which to complete this journey. In fact I’m not sure I’ll make it all the way now but I’m going to attempt it anyway because going back would be failure and I’m not sure I know the country I would be going back to.
When my friends Danae and Philippe (whom you will have heard about in my first post away from home) asked about the which way I thought the UK would vote in Brexit I said honestly, “It’s on a knife-edge but I think we’ll stay”.
“The expected never happens; it is the unexpected always.”
— John Maynard Keynes
They work at the commission, one for a leftist Greek MEP and the other for the Legal Ombudsman. They are fully aware of the failings of the EU commission and parliament as well as its many successes. What I know about the inner workings of the institutions, which are so reviled by the British public, I know about largely through conversations with them. Even after talking about it extensively I must confess that I’m still fairly confused by the roles of many people and bodies within it. This is obviously a major problem. I think of myself as a fairly intelligent person with a good grasp on the political scene, at least within my own country if not globally, but the terms in which EU politics is discussed are largely divorced from the language of the average man on the street.
This why a plonker like Michael Gove, who regrettably went to the same school as me, can actually get away with saying this like “people in this country have had enough of experts”. I mean what the actual fuck! I bet those same people would still go to see a doctor. Actually I’m kind of praying the people who’ve had enough of experts will prefer to see a homeopath or maybe a witch doctor, feed their garden plants with Gatorade and hopefully die sooner rather than later. I’d be only too happy to present them all with Darwin awards for removing themselves from the genepool. I do agree with this article about how experts should change their language to accommodate lay audiences. The late quantum physicist Richard Feynman once said: “If you can’t explain it simply, then you don’t understand it well enough”. Perhaps if experts followed this rule we would trust them more.
On a more serious note the lack of transparency and easily digestible information is probably the single biggest reason why it’s been possible to rally public opinion against the EU in general. Nobody has a scooby what the hell it does and what the hell is going on half the time. I could say that the EU roasts young babies at the breakfast buffet and it would probably be believed. It may be my opinion and the opinion of the informed that the information exists and that one simply needs to go looking for it but I’ve come to realise thats bullshit.
People like to be spoon fed their information in their Facebook Newsfeed or their Twitter feeds, through the blogs they read, in their daily newspapers possible even their McDonald’s Happy Meals who knows. People like to believe a good yarn liberally sprinkled with some ‘facts’ or ‘statistics’ that usually tend to support their worldview (I’ll come back to this later). If the story is more than five minutes long to read or more than a two minute infographic video then they don’t care. I worked long enough for a PR firm to know that this sadly is the truth.
Possibly the saddest conclusion that I’ve drawn from this is that we are all intellectually lazy and the media conglomerates know this. We can be spoon fed what we want to believe in no matter what the facts on the ground are. I reckon people are lazy enough to believe a story that the sun wouldn’t rise tomorrow if it were repeated enough. I’m always reminded of the questioned posed by the philosophy professor Louis Mackey in the film Waking Life.
Another thing that pisses me off is the blind acceptance of a non-legally binding advisory vote from the British public. Granted it would be political suicide for any party or politician to stand up and say “Screw you guys you have absolutely no idea what you just voted for, we’re staying in the EU”, it would however be the truth as confirmed by the news reports that many of the Leave camp were protest voting. Protesting against ‘The Establishment’ whoever and wherever they maybe – as if voting with Farage and Johnson was somehow voting against the establishment. It’s a bloody vote setup by the establishment whichever way you look at it.
This was nothing less than a stupid binary decision on one of the most complex issues of our time – our sovereignty versus being subsumed into a European super state. I’m under no illusions – the EU is headed in the direction of being a federalist collection of states under one government and I’m all for it with some major provisos e.g. greater transparency, more devolved decision making and autonomy at the local/national level, the use and enforcement of a proportional representation voting systems in all national parliaments and the free movement of people and goods.
Make no mistake that the Lisbon treaty was a surrender of some sovereign powers, mainly of foreign policy to a supranational body, one that I’d like to remind everyone we once had a say in shaping. We can no longer think only in terms of the national interest. Such thinking has no place in a society where almost all business and, with the advent of communications technologies like the Internet, all people are globally connected and in many cases act outside of the control of their home countries.
I understand that the concerns of most people lie within their localities but we have to think about more than just ourselves, our towns and our countries… it’s pathetic and small. Perhaps this is largely a problem of the atomised and individualised psyches of the people within Western democracies, they can no longer think about collective action in a way they once did except on single issues. Perhaps Adam Curtis was right in Century of the Self and All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace when he said that personal self-expression trumped any rational attempt to form a coherent movement of people in twentieth century politics. People see themselves as cogs in a machine with no agency so much so they thought that a vote to leave wouldn’t even count. Wake up people!
The problem has never been with the EU the problem has been with us the voting public. We like to moan about this that and the next thing, complain that we would get involved but make the excuse that it’s too demanding or takes too much time, it’s too complex and that the experts know better or just not bother to vote at all and consider ourselves outside ‘the system’ because nothing ever changes. Politics is man-made, it’s simply another technology. It’s a set of rules like a computer program or algorithm devised to help us to make decisions, resolve conflicts, allocate resources, spread certain cultural values, enforce the rule of law and so on but that’s all it is. It’s not intrinsically evil, just like a car can’t be evil.
The current system of rules is a steaming pile of turd but it’s what we have for better or worse. What we need to do now is to unite to replace the system of power and decision-making that determines those rules. I don’t want an idiot like Michael Gove running the country based on what he believes. He’s the worst kind of fake populist, back-stabbing politician I’ve had the displeasure of sharing alumni status with. Or how about Boris the man without a plan or a hope in hell of reviving his political career. Now we have some woman called Leadsom who thinks she’s the next Maggie Thatcher. She wears that infamous badge of dishonour with pride as if destroying the livelihoods of those dependent on British industry is somehow a mark of success. I don’t care what these people believe in. I care about the facts and more importantly evidence that shows which policies actually work which must be discarded.
What these people have succeeded in doing, despite all the calamity around the vote, is to make us think that we still need them to help us make decisions! Whatever your opinion of the Brexit result one thing is alarmingly clear to the politicians – the British public rightly or wrongly is capable of surprising them with a vote result they never expected. Indeed watching the political response made me think of something my old friend Madeleine Butcher once said to me as she started her advertising career:
“I’ve come to realise that most people under 30 don’t know what they are doing. Most people over 30 are just pretending they know what they are doing.”
If we take that as a general rule we can take confidence in that. We can know that whatever action we take individually however big or small has about the same amount of risk of failure as those actions taken by our representatives. In short they have about as much clue about what’s going to happen in the future as the average man on the street.
In order to take actions that have a reduced the risk of failure we need to examine what works and what doesn’t work and for that we need to better understand the information from past actions. This means we all need to look at government policy from the past and see what the results of those policies were before blindly accepting the policies set out in future political manifestos. We have so much data from the Office of National Statistics and reports from scientific experts with detailed advice. Half the time this information is ignored in favour of following some idiotic minister’s ideologically driven belief. Policies like ‘trickle-down’ or a blind adherence to the idea of ‘free-trade’ or the contrary policy of protectionism or more insidious policies like lowering corporation tax to appear more ‘business friendly’ which is a race to the bottom.
This brings me to my last point – if issues are so complex how can we know what works and what doesn’t and whether a particular policy had an effect? Well the ONS allows us to examine patterns of data over time. The only thing we need to learn is to understand statistics for ourselves instead of relying on out of context quotes in the national newspapers. We need to develop critical thinking skills and know the difference between correlation and causation, above all we need to educate ourselves beyond what we were taught at school because we all need to be involved in shaping the future. Stop relying on politicians to change things they will only disappoint you as Cameron, Corbyn, Boris and Farage have. Understand the facts and check them. You must be able to discern the difference between a fact and an opinion and let your opinions be guided by the facts instead of trying to find facts that fit your opinion… perhaps a definition might help.
a thing that is known or proved to be true e.g. the Earth orbits the sun
In an effort to scale down the civil service Sir Francis Maude and his ilk have unwittingly given us the tools in the form of the Government Digital Service to fundamentally change how we run our country. They’ve sold us that rope that we will use to hang them… we only need to realize that true power already lies with us – if nothing else the Brexit vote should have proved that. That is why, despite it all, I’m optimistic. I’ll leave you with a section of the film Us Now by Ivo Gormley which talks specifically about the changes coming, changes in the way we do government. In this little clip Ed Milliband is a little uncomfortable trying to justify the need for government in its current form because he just can’t imagine the new paradigm: