Polls would suggest we are moving beyond the era when we sought to elect parties on the basis of their capability to manage the complexities of government. Politician’s competence in the past, which included their ability to evade difficult interview questions, to deliver slick soundbites and to appear to act as a cohesive group, always on-message, was their downfall. Their background (PPE in Oxbridge, careers in PR or law), while no doubt giving them a firm grounding in the business of Westminster and oratory, was also their downfall. These privileged few, born to be ministers, born to run our lives, have been stripped of their glamour (what little they had) and they now struggle to have anybody believe them. Or, more importantly, believe in them.
We are now at an emotionally-charged time in politics where evidence and dry rational argument has been overthrown (at least in terms of voter support) by the deployment of strong stories (not narratives, that’s the means by which the stories are deployed, see here). Two opposing stories are competing for the nation’s attention at the moment. These are (a) Return to Great (Imperial) Britain and (b) Slaying Horrid Capitalism.
Return to Great (Imperial) Britain (RGIB) is the last hurrah for a generation who were nourished in the excitement of Thatcherism and who spent childholds in the 1950s, who long to return to an era when the only language we needed worry concern ourselves with was English, when people with darker skin were OK but only if they were visibly supportive of RGIB. RGIB swirls around UKIP, Brexit and some Tories but it cannot be pinned down to one political party. The narrative is being spun by multiple politicians and is promoted by right-wing, established newspapers. It is driven by a visceral backlash against political correctness but I think has its heart less in racism and more in nostalgia. The most recent chapter is the leaked ERG Brexit plan (draft only), which talked of expeditionary forces for the Falklands, Star Wars missile defence and low taxes for all. None of this makes any rational, evidence-based economic sense. But we’re beyond economics now. Those who scoff are missing the point. It works, it works brilliantly, because it makes a huge amount of story-sense.
This is classic Rebirth story, with the country as a protagonist. Once upon a time, a long time ago, GIB dominated the world, there was no need to check ones privilege, it was fine to punch down, we had world-leading business and huge respect (not least for our part in WWII). Now, in those intervening years, the country fell into decadent decline, giving up power, even allowing grammar-school educated people to rule us (not comprehensive, thankfully!) There was a brief moment of respite, in the Thatcher years, when the country was an important player once more in war and the English-speaking world, but Blair and soft Tories (and that Europe!) have ruined everything once more.
The story’s arc sees RGIB coming out of the wilderness of political correctness and international compromise, rising majectically as a force to respected once more, replaying our glory in the skies of the English Channel and the bogs of Goose Green.
This is a powerful story. And it resonates for many.
On the other end of the scale, Slaying Horrid Capitalism (SHC) is a community-driven endeavour, driven by the energy of youth, by hope, by a boredom with complexities, all led by a group of ageing idealists, none of whom have any experience of leading much, beyond political movements. This reflects in a chaotic mess of in-fighting, bad feeling, emotion. But all this is swept aside by the fervour of a belief system and the one pervading piece of true knowledge: capitalism is horrid!
It is predominantly a Labour-party centred story, a Corbyn story, but is played out almost entirely in social media (with support from small left-wing online media sites and the occasional mainstream commentator). Brexit has added complicated nuance to the story but (thankfully) the RGIB elements fighting for a no-deal Brexit have done so with such laissez-faire dastardly glee, that SHC have latched onto them as an antagonist and avoided having to dive into tedious tariff and trade-related thinking.
This is an Overcoming the Monster story. The monster is the capitalist system, that allowed the 2008 crash, which led to huge levels of inequality in the UK and US. And, if Capitalism is the Dark Lord, then Austerity is his Witch-King, attacking the frontline of society with callous disregard for human suffering; almost revelling in the chaos and despair that it causes.
This is also a powerful story. And, given demographics of its support, it’s a story that will last into the future. My prediction is that it could lead to a socialist USA.
Neither of these stories have much Plot. Plot is a series of linked events driven by commonly-understood rules of cause-and-effect (see blog here). There is little economic evidence that we could afford expeditionary forces, missile shields and tax cuts; equally, riches for all citizens in SHC appears to be emerge from large corporations and billionaires paying more tax (what happens after we slay them?)
This leaves a group in the middle (the Centrists) who point to the evidence that a mixed economy leads to happiness and prosperity and also that Brexit is an economic disaster that will destroy people’s lives. Remainers and Centrists are therefore synonymous in this analysis and I recognise that this is simplistic (but I don’t care). Incidentally, I believe the Labour Party manifesto of 2017 and half the Tory party are also in this Centrist place, but with slightly differing versions of nudging us towards slightly-larger or slight-smaller government.
But Carry On What We Were Doing Before is not a story. And, to be fair to them, they’ve gone for something else. Centrists are writing a Disaster Movie script. This is specific variant of the Overcoming the Monster story. Disaster Movie story arcs have the following sequence: there is a threat to society; protagonist sees threat and warns society; society ignores protagonist; threat impacts; protagonist saves ‘good’ members of society; ‘bad’ members of society are destroyed by threat.
But despite this story being repeated across all forms of media, there has been little significant traction in opinion polls on the question of whether we should remain or not. And if anybody who knows the Disaster Movie story arc, and follows the sequence above, they will know it’s not having an effect on people because of this: the disaster has to impact society in order for the story to work!
We’re all sat here (with popcorn), being told planes won’t be able to fly, the value of the pound will sink and we need to get our tinned food in. Now they’ve told us about it, we want to see this shit! If we all behaved like good economic-focussed citizens (homo economicus) then we would be doing everything we could to stop the disaster. But we don’t (all) think like that. Stories are powerful, emotional; they run deep. Rational-thinkers know there aren’t ‘good’ people and ‘bad’ people in society; people who respond to stories will always think, if they are in the story, they’re one of the ‘good guys’ (not the ‘baddies‘).
So, if you are a rational Centrist, who weighs evidence and makes sound, utilitarian decisions based on numbers and modelling, what should you do? Continue to bang the disaster drum? Do you let the disaster happen? Then everybody believes you? Well, it’s too late then. And evidence is telling you that the poorest will be hit hardest and you can’t make that right in one go (SHC might help you here, but only in the short-term).
My view is a better story to develop is one based on Voyage and Return (The Odyssey, Alice in Wonderland). This story arc is as follows: the protagonist falls into a new world (where am I?); they enter a dream stage (this is weird); they enter a frustration stage (this is not so fun now); they enter a nightmare stage (this is horrible); they return to balance and comfort, having learned a wise lesson.
So, forget about trying to stop the horrible from happening. Accept it as a learning stage in the story of the country as a whole. The country is going to return from this dreamworld soon, you’re going to help it go home (to your evidence-based mixed economy) and the country will be a wiser character as a result.
But what about the poorest in society being hit? That’s a piece of cognitive dissonance that even I can’t reconcile (and yes, I’m a Centrist, interested in rational justification and evidence – I’m writing a blog about story arcs and politics, for pity’s sake!). Perhaps we should worry less about stopping the nightmare from happening in its entirety than trying to find ways to mitigate the impact on the poorest in society. The amount of energy being mobilised to try to stop Brexit is actually a huge risk of wasted effort: people aren’t that ready to cancel this thing. The Disaster Movie story arc doesn’t work if we decide to avoid the disaster: we NEED the disaster, in order for our emotional fulfilment when our hero saves the day!
So, perhaps we should change the story. Let’s call it We Ate the Brexit Pill. With an emphasis on the WE not they THEY. Let’s acknowledge our stages of this weird dreamworld, learn from it and prepare ourselves for the time when we return to normality (rejoin at a later date?). And whatever energy we have spare as a collective, whatever funding (Soros, SuperDry), whatever media voice, let’s try to understand, to plan for and to mitigate the impact on the poorest first and foremost.
And stop trying to tell a crap story.