Sunday, 17 September 2017

In the belly of the beast


Ironic it is that I have spent much of the week exalting the virtues of independent blogging while not actually having written anything at all. I do, however, have something of an excuse this week in that I've been out and about in London on Leave Alliance business.

In any case, nothing has changed. For all the noise we are still nowhere, with little more than partial leaks and speculation to go on with the occasional decoy thrown in for good measure. Not until we see what Mrs May's Florence speech says next week will we have any more of a clue. And even then, there are no guarantees. 

It's actually telling that I should have been invited to do The Times Brexit podcast. Ordinarily to the legacy media, the blogosphere does not exist, but even they're so stuck for fresh material they will reach out - if only for the free content. It was, however, an interesting distraction and a chance to see inside the belly of the beast. 

The purpose of my visit to London, however, was to visit the Institute for Government for an informal chat on trade and international organisations. For those not aware of their work, the IfG is a non-partisan governance think tank doing a fairly competent job of breaking into Brexitology. They produce some adequate briefings for the layman, and though vastly superior to the output of Tory think tanks, their desire to stay neutral makes their material sterile to the point of being inert. 

It's not until you see their operation that it becomes clear why. The IfG is based in exclusive offices just off The Mall. Their outfit trades entirely on prestige. The illusion of importance. A confidence trick. It's all about putting on big name events and conferences, stroking the egos of nonentity politicians and releasing reports to set the agenda for the day.

If they want to stay in business they have to play the game and be cautious with their criticism. If they upset or offend then pretty soon senior politicians won't turn up to their events. That's how the game works. But that's actually how they end up saying nothing and accomplishing very little. For sure they have a steady stream of notable politicians darkening their door, but without robust criticism it is largely the bubble speaking unto the bubble. 

One feature of the Brexit debate is a number of similar organisations producing dozens of reports, all of which are forgotten within a day of publication. Many of them do not expand the debate nor do they add much to what we already know. It would seem that their only business is to stay in business - to remain at the centre of the bubble for its own sake. 

Though we have heard much over the last few years about "the establishment", this is as establishment as it gets. The network of London think tanks make up the core of polite society where the dead hand of decorum means that there is no quality control whatsoever. The system is its own insular universe of mutual praise so there is no quality control at all. Everything everybody does is "marvellous" and "brilliant". We don't call 'em metro-luvvies for nothing. 

This goes someway to explaining why I am not well received online in that I say all those things that one is not supposed to say, and do not offer unwarranted praise. Privately I am told by many that they agree with what I say but cannot be publicly associated with it. It wouldn't matter if I sanitised it, I'm just saying inconvenient things and in the bubble any criticism is "impolite" - but more importantly, a commercial risk. 

But this is why the output from think tanks tends to be so lacklustre. They won't say what needs to be said in no uncertain terms. It needs to be said without hesitation or reservation that the government's current strategy is entirely wrong-headed, and that the consequences of a no deal Brexit can hardly be overstated. It must also be said that the inane and singularly crass economic theories of the hard Brexiters are nothing short of negligence bordering on lunacy. 

But there is another reason the bubble debate is so utterly shallow. Half of the politico-media bubble is run by unsupervised children. There is no premium on quality research. Interns and junior wonks are cheap - good for looking up facts and figures - and that's what they think research is. They can cobble together factual reports - but there isn't the breadth of experience or maturity to bring any real insight to it - or to see any of the strategic opportunities that good research creates. What they produce is forgettable PDF fodder. 

It is not my intent in any way to denigrate the IfG in that they are as good as that system is ever going to get - but this dynamic is entirely typical of London think-tankery - which is entirely dependent on bright young things of a certain ilk. The PPE master race. This also extends to our media where leader articles for international flagship newspapers are written the office juniors. The political apparatus is the same throughout as Oliver Norgrove confirmed to me.  

Of course I did not need to go to London to learn this. I've been around the block a few times and had my introduction to this world before thanks to the late Helen Szamuely. It is from her I learned my healthy disdain for Toryboys, wonks and apparatchiks. All the same it was interesting to view it through more mature eyes. 

At one time in my life I might have been star struck by a prestigious office at the heart of the machine, excited by the prime minister's police motorcade dashing by with a sense of purpose and urgency. Now I view it with wry amusement. It's all a facade. Every bit of it. I hate Westminster that little bit more every time I am pulled into its field of gravity.   

Now that I'm knocking on a bit, in my late thirties, London leaves me too tired to even think. But I guess that explains its political inhabitants. And for once I don't mean that in a sardonic and disrespectful way. It really does beat you up. A meeting here, a presentation there and then media interviews for the rest of the day. You cover a lot of mileage. You barely even know what is going on in the news while you're out and about, let alone able to form a coherent opinion on it. When you get home, all you want to do have a large glass of wine and hit the sack.

This goes someway to explaining why MPs are so hopelessly reliant on the legacy media and parliamentary briefings for information. And this explains why MPs haven't a clue between them. Who is writing the news? Who is writing the briefings? Think tanks!

The dynamic is made worse when MPs have only a very short attention span and only a limited window for absorbing information. You have to break complex issues down into the basics so they can be communicated orally. That doesn't work even at the best of times since they hear so many conflicting views, but when we are dealing with something like Brexit, coherence is next to impossible. Not least since MPs agree with the last person they spoke to and the think tanks aren't even getting the basics right.

Ultimately the system is broken. The inputs don't work. You can set the agenda for the day if you have certain assets at your command - but that's literally all it achieves. It doesn't contribute anything. Thus these think tanks are just stepping stones for bright young things to have a career in media and politics - only to become not-so-bright, not-so-young things running The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator. 

In the end, the work has to be done from outside the bubble and fed into the system through brute force. This is what we did with Flexcit and this is how The Leave Alliance continues to punch above its weight. A band of bloggers don't need an SW1 address and don't have the distractions of life in the bubble. No useless meetings to attend at the other side of town.

They say we could achieve more if we were less "abrasive", not offending and not speaking out - but what does that achieve? The bubble dwellers are all very professional and polite to each other - but because they won't call out folly and corruption where they see it, the Legatum Institute snake is coiled around the throat of government. It's the elephant in the room. The IfG knows it, The Times knows it, and I'm absolutely certain the Telegraph is in on it. It's the biggest open secret in Westminster - and nobody is talking about it. 

And that's why they don't like bloggers intruding on their territory. Not only do we see the elephant, we have name for it, and we are breaking the rules by being impolite. They tell us we will get nowhere - but we are still here, still shaping the debate - and we are not going away. 

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