Sunday, 13 January 2019

Prestige: the British disease

Were it not for the plummy accent and the dated attire, Jacob Rees-Mogg would just be another Tory backbencher as mundane as his ERG colleagues. The caricature, though, is a well crafted gimmick that affords him inexplicable popularity. Perhaps it speaks to the British perception of itself in the world. I'm sure somebody has a good answer but it beats the hell out of me.

He seems to have a following of those who style themselves as traditional conservatives in a time when conservatism is thin on the ground. If that be so, then Tories have been distracted by the appearance rather than the substance, in that there's nothing especially conservative about the hard right economic radicalism he's pushing for. The Singapore on Thames fantasy is closer to ultra liberation dogma.

Somehow, Rees-Mogg has become the high priest of no deal Brexit, where he has a devoted following of people willing to believe anything he says. Certainly his composure carries some weight. Sadly people still assume a smattering of Latin is a mark of education. It is only really an indicator that prestige education is a finishing school.

Brits, sadly, are suckers for this. Genuine expertise carries little weight. Rank and title is all that seems to matter. MPs especially are victim to this. Rees-Mogg believes that the utterances of the president of the port at Calais is gospel despite the official legal position stated by the EU in the Notices to Stakeholders. Primary sources don't matter if you can wheel out a CEO to tell you what the score is.

This is not limited to Rees-Mogg. Throughout the course of Brexit, we've seen bosses and mandarins from all sectors up before select committees. This has largely demonstrated how little awareness there is in senior positions. That much any normal person knows. Bosses don't concern themselves with the minutiae of how things work. But since MPs are reassured by prestige they believe what they are told.

This is one of the fundamental problems in British politics. MPs do little reading of their own and rely on people telling them how things work. If you give them anything to read it has to be brief, lightweight and large font. Mostly they rely on oral evidence and if they are to repeat an opinion then that opinion needs to come from a QC, professor or CEO.

One of the thinks I thank Brexit for is that the worlds professor and QC have become meaningless. It is no indicator of intelligence, ability or knowledge. Sadly, though, individuals are all too happy to invoke a QC or professor when they say something in alignment with their own scripture. Either that or you find someone saying what you need them to say and invent a title for them. This is as much a part of the tribal dynamic that afflicts Westminster. Each side builds up their own sacred scriptures invoking the prestige of their vocal supporters.

This is also why think tanks are a problem when they call themselves institutes. The institute For Government, for example is an imposing building just off the Mall, dripping with prestige by way of its proximity to Downing Street. In actuality it is little more than a youth club for denizens of the bubble - with minimal adult supervision. Most of its staff are teenage gophers starting out their careers as hacks and political wonks.

Being that it, like the Institute for Economic Affairs (a lobbyist for US corporate interests), by name alone it has an ill deserved weighting. That they tend to produce is self-referential, based on orally received evidence and referring to previous derivative work without going to primary sources. This is how they recycle the same errors. Generally there are none within this network who have ever worked in the real economy and probably never will.

The more I have come to understand the toxic influence of prestige, the more I have grown to despise the Westminster establishment. It irritates me that self-styled anti-establishment Brexiters are one minute talking about overthrowing the establishment one minute and in the next, they're retweeting Andrew Neil, the Spectator, the IEA and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

To me, the dysfunction of our politics is more than a little to do with the worship of prestige. It afflicts the media, politicians, higher education and public debate in general. Westminster is a highly toxic concentration of it, where the boundaries between each pillar of the establishment are ever more blurred.

The mismanagement of Brexit, as much as anything, is down to the inept intelligence gathering where nobody who really knows how anything works gets anywhere near the decision making apparatus while chancers and blaggers from within the circle jerk have unparalleled access to persons and offices on influence.

For this there really is no remedy. If you concentrate power and centralise the decision making, you will also concentrate media attention and the legions of parasites close to the centre. The only remedy is to break decisionmaking out of the bubble and put the power back in the hands of the people. As long as we are ruled from the centre we will continue to be victims of this phenomenon.

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