The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has a new leader.
Unlike advanced democracies like Kenya, that leader was not be chosen by the British public. The new Prime Minister was chosen by a narrow clique of Conservative Party members — just 0.26% of the overall population. They are older, whiter, more male and affluent than the overall population, and generally live in the south of England.
From outside it is hard to understand recent politics in the UK. Following a year (and a career) of scandals, Boris Johnson finally resigned as Prime Minister — only to remain in office for another two months. Given the grave problems facing the nation, he argued it was important to have a steady hand at the wheel, before rolling up his sleeves and getting down to business — organising more parties, skipping critical COBRA meetings, and enjoying back-to-back holidays.
The Tory MPs who defenestrated Johnson (despite him clinging limpet-like to the windowsill at Number 10) immediately pivoted to defending him. He got all the big calls right, they said sycopathcially, describing the person they had just sacked for major repeated scandals. Boris Johnson had been fined by police for flouting COVID restrictions in Downing Street — the same restrictions he formulated and publicly announced in Downing Street. He had narrowly survived a vote of no confidence, and there remain serious concerns about secretive visits to a Russian’s parties in Italy. In a stunning twist few saw coming, the final straw was a sex scandal he wasn’t personally involved in.
The UK faces serious simultaneous crises. One of the worst COVID death tolls in Europe was spun into a world-leading vaccination drive, but the NHS and the economy remain on their knees. An oven-ready deal for Northern Ireland was poorly defrosted, and Scotland also looks set to tear the Union apart, but Boris Johnson’s ruling Conservative and Unionist Party, to give them their full title, only pours fuel on both fires. The sunlit uplands of Brexit are yet to be seen from the queues of lorries at Dover. Massive price rises led to double-digit inflation for the first time in forty years. Soaring costs and falling wages have led sober commentators to warn of civil unrest by Christmas.
Despite these crises, the candidates looking to lead the country at this critical time appeared amazingly detached from reality. One public leadership discussion barely touched on climate change, a fairly key area when Glasgow hosted COP26 in November. Meanwhile, the news was full of images of London literally on fire. Thankfully the fires have been put out by devastating flooding, but climate change was impossible for either Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak, the two front-runners, to address in any serious way, given lobbying pressures on their own party. They soon U-turned on the cost of living crisis, regional wage controls, tax reductions and their stance towards power prices because they are so out of step with the mood of the country.
Despite these crises, the candidates looking to lead the country at this critical time appear amazingly detached from reality.
Instead, all both candidates had to offer were increasingly unhinged culture war soundbites and empty posturing. The main issues facing the UK, Daily Mail readers would assume, are migrant boats, gender-neutral pronouns, and historians analysing Britain’s imperial history. How on earth has a self-described long-standing democracy descended to this level of childish tantrums? (I avoided the word mature, but decrepit/senile were my other option.)
There has been much discussion about the racial diversity of Tory leadership candidates. Of the initial eleven candidates, a narrow majority were not white. Sunak offered the possibility of Britain’s first non-white prime minister before his ratings tanked. Was the UK too racist for this to happen?
In many ways this is the wrong question to ask. Class and wealth have always trumped issues of race in British society. Long before Harry married Meghan, Queen Victoria was godmother to Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, who played a substantial role in Britain’s suffragette movement. Sunak went to the right schools, and is now incredibly wealthy, in part thanks to his fortuitous marriage into one of India’s wealthiest families. Despite marrying into wealth, he reflects Tory beliefs about personal aspiration, opportunity and achievement through hard work, in ways commentators on the Left often miss. Modern racism is less about skin colour than cultural norms and allegiances. Sunak’s expensive fashion tastes horrify some, but are genuinely and unproblematically aspirational for others.
I have family members who sound like Priti Patel and others who sound like Rishi Sunak. It mostly depends on which schools they went to. I received my own pronunciation from listening to BBC radio a lot as a child, and I sound alien in the area of East London I grew up in. I am constantly surprised by the positive reaction my accent receives from strangers. I am really not as smart as I sound, but it opens doors — in ways which are genuinely disturbing.
Priti Patel didn’t stand a chance in the Tory leadership hustings, but nor, I expect, would Liverpudlian Nadine Dorries. They both directly appeal to an extremely right-wing base, but lack the cultural polish to appeal to the party of aristocratic deference. Truss has lowered her speaking voice and speed to sound more like Margaret Thatcher, her cosplay role model. Former Prime Minister David Cameron was left unaccountable by the media for his disastrous premiership because he sounded right, and ticked all the right boxes.
In this respect the Lionesses, the almost entirely blonde English women’s football team, showed more diversity than the Tory leadership candidates when they won the Euro final against Germany at Wembley. Once they stepped up to the microphone after the game, between their wonderfully boisterous celebrations, it was clear they came from very different regions of the country. None of them had the Oxford Union polish beloved of the British establishment. Some had to work two jobs while playing at an elite level because of the low levels of pay in women’s football.
Contrast this with Nadhim Zahawi, one of the leadership candidates, who made much of his touching refugee story — his Kurdish family had fled Iraq when he was a child. Zahawi made headlines some years ago in the MP expenses scandal, having asked the British taxpayer to foot the bill for heating his horse stables during a period of crippling austerity. Even less mention was made this year of his grandfather’s role as governor of the Central Bank of Iraq under British rule, with his signature appearing on the country’s banknotes. Not such a typical refugee story after all. Meanwhile, a hundred thousand people from Hong Kong are estimated to have quietly relocated to the UK over the past year, with little coverage of this exodus in the media, or disquiet from the right; these are the “good” type of migrants.
The Lionesses, the almost entirely blonde English women’s football team, showed more diversity than the Tory leadership candidates when they won the Euro final against Germany at Wembley.
I am reminded of how the Imperial (and later Indian) Civil Service first accommodated non-white applicants in the Indian colony (although they had to apply in London from 1854-1922). As historian John Beaglehole describes it, the selected candidates would through training “have been transformed into brown Englishmen”. These “Brown Sahibs” then faced the complex issue of where their loyalties lay. In many ways, this is little different from the co-option of the Kikuyu Home Guards in Kenya, the British Chinese of Singapore, or going much further back, how the Roman Empire expanded. A large empire simply can’t be created or sustained by violence and extraction alone. It must co-opt local populations, and provide genuine benefits to them. This adds a murky moral complexity to empires that should not be ignored.
At the Home Office, Priti Patel made plain her lack of empathy for migrants, building on Theresa May’s “hostile environment”. This seems hypocritical given her parents’ own migration from Uganda. However, again, the reality is more complex. They see themselves as the good immigrants who strive to integrate into UK society seamlessly. Patel’s father stood for local council elections for the borderline xenophobic UKIP party.
There is also, of course, a long history of racism and colourism within communities from the subcontinent. Wanting to exclude black people from the UK is not hypocritical if you regard yourselves as white-adjacent in some racial pecking order. Patel’s parents migrated in the 1960s — before Idi Amin’s expulsion of Asians in 1972. This year is the 50th anniversary of that traumatic event. I was not totally shocked to see an hour-long discussion in Leicester mention the deaths of up to half a million black Ugandans under Amin, but then quickly move on to discuss white and Asian experiences. There was no interest or concern about this apparently peripheral fact, and no black speakers on the panel. A discussion on the same theme held at Makerere University in Kampala barely overlapped in content. The cultural rifts are still complete.
This is gradual progress for a community traumatised by several layers of migration and still wrestling with integration within the UK. In my experience, this community is only beginning to process the convoluted nature of its own existence. Indians in the diaspora are gradually learning to talk about Partition in 1947, but the majority of Asians in East Africa have avoided that horrific rending. Their story is instead taken to begin with the forced exodus from Uganda, and then their struggle to get settled in the UK.
Wanting to exclude black people from the UK is not hypocritical if you regard yourselves as white-adjacent in some racial pecking order.
What they understand less are the dire conditions in British-ruled India that led them to take such risky voyages to try their luck in East Africa to begin with. Those stories are rarely told and have largely been forgotten, but I hope may be explored more over time. While this community still tries to prove they are the model minority, and fear future expulsion, they are less likely to look critically at their own complex history within the Empire. (Nikesh Shukla’s 1996 anthology The Good Immigrant explores these themes in some nuanced detail.) Priti Patel’s attitudes are not hypocritical in this lens, although this does not excuse her unconscious racism. As with many of the Tory leadership candidates, she is still trying to become a perfect brown Englishwoman.
Suella Braverman, replacing Patel at the helm of the Home Office, is the daughter of Kenyan and Mauritian economic migrants to the UK in the 1960s. She seems determined to pursue an even harder line against current migrants. Unlike Patel she has the polish of a Cambridge education, and outperformed her in the leadership election. The new Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, was born to Ghanaian parents; Foreign Secretary James Cleverley’s mother is from Sierra Leone; International Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch’s parents were Nigerian migrants, while the new Environment Secretary’s parents were Sri Lankan. Zahawi is still in government, but moved from a one-day stint at the Treasury to run the Cabinet Office. This represents an unprecedented level of diversity in the highest levels of political leadership.
Although this looks like the British Empire coming home, breaking through a political glass ceiling against racial diversity, it may instead be a glass cliff. This is where minorities are overrepresented in risky and precarious positions. Ethnic minority politicians face stronger pressures to fit in, and subtle cultural pressures may have been internalised. While they may all now be true believers, appealing to the fringes of the party at several levels, they have been placed in situations where success is extremely unlikely given the crises Britain faces. When problems arise, they won’t just be scapegoated individually. The wider communities they superficially represent will also be tarnished.
The lack of LGBT representation throughout Truss’s cabinet reflects a more sinister imperial throwback resurrected in modern culture wars about trans rights. Traditional values often mean ones imposed by Victorian societies on colonies with more complex understandings of identity and gender. It is unclear how much further right Truss will lean on such issues.
Returning to the Tory leadership contest, this superficial diversity of race and gender hides a deep and more dangerous homogeneity. Groupthink is the real problem with the Conservative leadership candidates. They are surprisingly ill-equipped to understand, let alone deal with, the genuine problems facing the country, and so need culture wars and scapegoats to pin deeper problems on. The last scapegoat was Europe, but Brexit is turning out to be an enormous act of economic self-harm, just as predicted. Leaving the European Union also now makes it harder to blame all the UK’s current problems on Brussels.
Ethnic minority politicians face stronger pressures to fit in, and subtle cultural pressures may have been internalised.
Both Truss and Sunak studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford (PPE), a degree widely seen as preparation for political leadership. As a Guardian headline put it in 2017, PPE is “the Oxford degree that runs Britain” before listing a rogues’ gallery of graduates who wielded substantial political or cultural power. The three-year degree gives its graduates a superficial sense that they understand political issues, but more importantly that they are following in prestigious footsteps. It conveys a right to govern. I see no coincidence that it was instituted in the 1920s just as the former Imperial Civil Service was being wound down.
This isn’t just a problem on the political right. Leaders from other parties are conditioned to believe they understand the key issues, wherever they stand ideologically, and that endless debates at the Oxford Union are somehow the way to resolve them. The entire political debate has become frozen within a tired game, with set moves and strategies, where everyone assumes they have the answers.
Even Boris Johnson’s extraordinary moves to rip up long-standing diplomatic allegiances, trashing relationships and legal precedents, resonated with long-established beliefs on the far-right edge of this established game board, and were drummed up relentlessly by Britain’s populist media oligarchs. Both Truss and Sunak now have to appeal to that fringe, regardless of more widespread popular opinion. But the fringe is part of the game.
As Dr Kay Sidebottom has also commented regarding the leadership debates, rhetorical styles of argumentation and debate are also rooted in whiteness and patriarchal notions of leadership. Instead of open questions and curiosity, leading to fresh insights and open to genuine cross-pollination of ideas, debates tend to dissolve into amusing jibes, pugilistic point-scoring, and superficial rehashing of the same tired issues. Good leadership is very different from speaking well in an Oxford Union-style debate, but boorish backbench braying is what the House of Commons has been reduced to. Many figures in the media also studied PPE, and confuse this form of political theatre with substantive politics. The degree is based on speaking insightfully and convincingly about unfamiliar topics in small weekly high-pressure tutorials — not on true depth of knowledge.
So in response to a devastating cost of living crisis, and what NHS leaders are warning will be an unprecedented humanitarian crisis Truss and Sunak had little new to offer. Conservatives still believe privatisation, tax cuts and further deregulation will fuel innovation. This is despite the evidence of several decades of similar policies leading to rivers overflowing with raw sewage while privatised water companies bank huge profits instead of investing in capacity. The previously privatised but then partially renationalised rail network is paralysed by underinvestment and strikes.
Good leadership is very different from speaking well in an Oxford Union-style debate, but boorish backbench braying is what the House of Commons has been reduced to.
The only way to fix the NHS, they aver, will be to privatise it, although that is still too deeply unpopular to say out loud. Sunak looks to the United States as a model, even though healthcare outcomes in America are far worse per dollar than in most of the G7. Britain’s low productivity, they assume, must be due to work-shy workers, despite all available economic evidence that even people in traditionally sustainable work, teachers and nurses amongst them, now need to resort to food banks.
These policy positions almost amount to theological faith but reflect a particular and rigid way of seeing the world, a form of shallow arrogance and lack of genuine curiosity. I have some unusual insight into this because I too studied PPE at Oxford around the same time as Truss and Sunak, albeit almost by accident. My heart was set on zoology, but a few weeks before the application deadline, I heard for the first time about a subject called Philosophy. I hadn’t known people could study the questions I was asking in my own head, and changed my options accordingly.
Until then I had focussed on sciences, but economics as one of the social sciences should have been easy to adjust to. Instead I repeatedly bounced off it. The theories did not seem based on evidence, or rigorously tested, but were instead more conceptual and ideological. It was only several years later, with further studies in the Philosophy of Science and further reading, that I began to understand why.
Economics split from the other natural philosophies at a critical juncture when Newtonian physics was in its ascendancy. In Enlightenment Britain, mathematics appeared to be the language of God, while wealth from industrialisation and the global British Empire validated the ideas of free marketeers. Economics acquired an almost Creationist religious belief in systems achieving a healthy equilibrium through the workings of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. Less predictable concepts about entropy, chaotic non-linearity, and the complexities of biology were only unravelled much later in other sciences, and are yet to upgrade mainstream economic thinking.
What we now see in politics reminds me of clashes between rival paradigms in the history of science. Adherents from opposing schools of thought would talk past one another, often using the same shared words but embedded in contrasting networks of meaning. Their underlying assumptions and choice of key examples would be different. These were confusing periods but preceded what is known as a paradigm shift, to an entirely new way of seeing the world. This feels similar to how people on the broad right and left of politics talk past one another. I now think both sides are grasping different pieces of a jigsaw, but missing the overall picture.
In Enlightenment Britain, mathematics appeared to be the language of God, while wealth from industrialisation and the global British Empire validated the ideas of free marketeers.
An example forgotten outside geology is illustrative. Since the early 1800s Neptunians believed the world’s rocks were formed in water, while Plutonists believed volcanism was their source of origin. Both sides advanced different examples that seemed to bolster their own cases, but they were largely talking past one another. The reality was far more complex, and only fully explained with the discovery of plate tectonics in the 1960s. Both sides of a long-standing mainstream scientific debate, which spilt into elements of mainstream culture, were actually blindfolded and fumbling around a far larger elephant in the room. The surface of the earth is dynamically and constantly reformed by far older and more complex processes than any of them could have imagined.
I feel there are similarities with this current period of politics. Generalising wildly, both “sides” of the political spectrum see elements of reality, but fail to see the whole picture, or identify the underlying mechanisms behind it. For example, while people on the left decry the privatisation of the NHS, they simply do not grasp the depth of the financial crisis the UK has been in for decades. They assume there is actually enough money to go around, but it has been diverted in different ways. This is as much a failure to understand reality as the right’s focus on privatised healthcare, but each discussion barely overlaps with the other. Some people genuinely believe individual choices should always trump overall societal outcomes, and mistrust state programmes. This is of course an entirely false choice where public health is concerned, as the pandemic underlined. But while both sides talk past one another, in long-established patterns, they fail to see there could be a much wider picture they have missed. Our collective understanding remains fragmented, misleading and superficial.
The First World’s focus on PPE as a degree also seemed detached from the realities I knew from India and Africa, and that I saw while working with refugees in the Balkans as a student. I often say it took me years to unlearn what I had picked up, largely through working with children, spending extended periods in rural areas, and as a peace worker in South Africa. The models of human nature and understanding of global history were just hopelessly incomplete or, more dangerously, misleading. If you graduated with PPE and surrounded yourself with people with the same education, those beliefs would only become more entrenched with time.
Much of mainstream policy thinking within PPE privileges the most extreme outlier imaginable — Britain’s historic experience. Britain’s industrialisation then global dominance is unconsciously still a model for “economic take-off” in other countries. The reality is that most places, including Britain itself, have never actually offered enough sustainable jobs for everyone. This is a huge blind spot in mainstream thinking — both on the right and on the left — but we are still all promised it will lead us to a mythical Canaan. Either slashing taxes and regulations will unleash greatness, or focussed taxes and strategic investments will. This simply denies much actual global human experience.
But while both sides talk past one another, in long-established patterns, they fail to see there could be a much wider picture they have missed.
For a short period of time, Britain was globally dominant in an extraordinary way. It was the industrial workshop of the world, as well as militarily the only superpower by far. The deeper reasons for that dominance have actually not been fully understood. The real reasons were neither economic free trade and great men with Enlightenment ideas, nor ruthless capitalist exploitation and the stripping of other continents’ wealth. When you dig a bit deeper than these superficial but widespread and satisfying narratives, the real reasons are more complex and remain a little unclear.
This iconic period of relative wealth was also a time of massive social deprivation within the British Isles, but again not always in the ways people imagine. Free trade did not stimulate this growth, but only followed once Britain was so dominant it worked to its advantage. While Britain achieved an economic take-off other countries still wish to emulate, this went hand in hand with simply astounding levels of emigration, as people left for better opportunities elsewhere in the colonies. In some years, more Britons left annually than died in total during the First World War.
More importantly for people wanting to create Empire 2.0 now, the original dream proved hollow. The return of the British Empire to Britain’s own shores, in the form of Windrush and then the East African Asian exodus, was never expected, and laws had to be drawn up hastily to block further migration. Countries within the Empire had been fully expected to grow self-sustaining thriving economies of their own, and a place for Britons to keep migrating to from a small crowded island with bad weather. This wasn’t just a failure of the British Empire; it was not predicted by mainstream economic theory in general. Population growth alone is no explanation, since Britain’s own economic growth took place at a time of unprecedented population increases.
Again, something seems badly broken in the wider theories of economics, but you would not learn this within the confines of the degree I studied, and neither did the Conservative election candidates. Given their insistence on talking up Britain, and decrying “woke” historians, they also have a particular blind spot to seeing why their simplistic ideas about free trade unleashing creativity did not work then, and will not work now. More recently, idolising Thatcher’s period in power ignores the massive infusion of wealth from North Sea Oil, as well as technological and financial innovations that cannot be repeated now. Fancy dress makes for fun photoshoots, but not substantive policies.
The realities worldwide remain complex. The people who work hardest are often the poorest, while privilege often determines outcomes. At the same time market economies have genuinely lifted billions of people into previously unimaginable levels of material comfort and security. Capitalist exploitation isn’t the main reason for poverty — being excluded from modern markets and infrastructure can be an even worse fate. Seeing our world in terms of simplistic moral certainties can be comforting, but stops us from seeing a truly complex picture.
The history of science is littered with examples of how prejudices and parochialism limit our thinking. In some ways this is inevitable, as science is just a complex structure of good prejudices — our imperfect ways of understanding and predicting the world around us, absent the mathematically clear language of God early philosophers sought. In other ways, it can lead us badly astray.
For example, Charles Doolittle Walcott discovered the Burgess Shale fossils in Canada, which document an unexpected range of both early and novel body forms. Despite excavating over 65,000 specimens between 1910 and 1924, he never actually understood what he was looking at. His preconception that life moved from simple to complex clouded his vision. These incredible fossils went largely unremarked on for another forty years, when fresh eyes recognised they represented animals which had simply never been seen before — 508 billion year-old fossils had the power to astound science, but science had to be open to that possibility.
Seeing our world in terms of simplistic moral certainties can be comforting, but stops us from seeing a truly complex picture.
Another example is Swiss geologist Louis Agassiz, who realised glaciers could explain a lot of erosion patterns and landscapes in his homeland. British geologists dismissed him out of hand, largely because they had little first-hand experience of glaciers within the British Isles. Ice could not possibly be so important. When the foremost geologist of his time, Charles Lyell, recognised that glaciers created the unique landscapes of his own family estate in Scotland, he was wary of giving public support to Agassiz. In a similar way, rich British elites have no understanding of the corrosive power of poverty, or are unwilling to acknowledge it.
People can travel an enormous amount without leaving their bubble of elite cities, social classes and limited conversations. Sunak surprised and alarmed a group of British schoolchildren last year by enthusiastically claiming to be “a total coke addict”. He had no awareness that for normal British children since the 1970s this sounded like a serious drug addiction. (Sunak collects Coca-Cola variants from around the world, his favourite being the Mexican variety because it is the only variety flavoured with cane sugar.) Instead of sounding likeable, this just made him sound more elite and out of touch with a country boasting a record number of food banks.
Truss has travelled through almost every flavour of British politics, attending anti-nuclear protests as a child, representing the Liberal Democrats at university, and being a strong Remain candidate in the Brexit referendum. She also has photoshoots around the world, as her tax-payer funded Instagram account attests. (This was actually a smart move, given a superficial electorate.) However, it is unclear how much she has learnt from any of these journeys. Both Truss and Sunak have burnished their images, but the moment they speak on policy they sound tone-deaf, callous and hopelessly out of touch with everyone except the tiny Conservative membership who themselves inhabit a narrow media bubble. Their candidates’ leadership campaigns prompted numerous U-turns on substantive issues, and even left most Tory voters missing Boris Johnson.
Some of these U-turns were quite extraordinary. The Conservatives aim to “level-up” the country by diverting resources from the South-East to their new but vulnerable Red Wall seats in northern England. However, Truss announced pay cuts for people in the same areas then quickly had to walk her proposals back, in a dishonest fog of denials. In a country facing an unprecedented cost-of-living crisis, all the candidates had to offer are tax cuts, and they initially refused windfall taxes on energy companies causing the most obvious pain. Even though climate change is becoming a visible issue, the leadership candidates were vilifying cyclists, and proposing to expand fracking for more fossil fuels.
The promise of economics was always growth leading to abundance — but something went badly wrong. People trapped in the existing paradigm tie themselves in knots trying to explain phenomena like persistent poverty, which really should not exist. Some sections of society must be to blame. Instead of abundance, they justify scarcity and advocate for painful trade-offs. Such observers focus on how some people must be holding our economies back, instead of asking why our economies don’t serve more people. Truss has said potentially damaging things in the past, blaming “workshy” British people for the country’s poor productivity, instead of understanding how high living costs cripple workers. Commentators like Yuval Hariri wonder if most of the world’s population are basically now superfluous in economic terms, putting the cart before the horse in an extraordinary assessment of value.
I am reminded in an odd way how early chemists became trapped because they believed fire was a substance, not a process. This belief was challenged by strange behaviours when they investigated processes of rusting and burning with precise measurements. Some metals gained rather than lost weight, whereas their theory led them to believe they would lose weight as they released the fire they were assumed to contain. Rather than such evidence leading them to question their assumptions, some postulated the existence of mysterious substances like phlogiston, with negative weight. Only in the 1770s did Lavoisier start unravelling the mystery, when he realised gases were a substance with weight. The discovery of oxygen finally explained what was really happening at a chemical level. The experts had the whole situation backwards because of their prior assumptions and earlier theories they now needed to question and ultimately reject.
People trapped in the existing paradigm tie themselves in knots trying to explain phenomena like persistent poverty, which really should not exist.
Current discussions of poverty and inequality feel the same to me. They are based on incorrect assumptions and models and so fail to see, let alone explain, much of the actual world around us. The “experts” who have studied these things in detail become intransigent. They genuinely see the world through an incomplete or failing paradigm, which biases what they pay attention to, and leads to damaging policy options.
The PPE I studied did not touch on either urbanisation or infrastructure. I now believe these are the largest issues we need to confront today. Low productivity in Britain is partly due to an inflated housing market, and cannot be addressed by simply cutting wages or taxes. Right-wing political thinkers were very influenced by Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom but are now blind to recognise how soaring property prices are creating a new form of that social relationship, and lasting exclusion.
The Tory voters both candidates needed to appeal to are generally older, home owning, have savings and no mortgages — and many will be landlords themselves. They do not experience the same housing and cost-of-living crisis as the majority of the country. Instead, they feel out of touch with young people and their concerns. This is the gallery that the leadership campaigns played to, scapegoating a young and apparently workshy and feckless generation they barely understand.
(Silicon Valley ideas also inspire Sunak, but are digital distractions on top of deeper concrete issues. They also come from a similarly evangelical bubble of people echoing one another’s ideas, detached from wider realities kwa ground.)
At the same time, those on the left like to see corruption and greed everywhere, but their picture also needs challenging. Not only do workers suffer from crippling high costs, but so do most employers. The pressure for tax cuts comes not solely from plutocrats with mega-yachts, but also from small business owners. Companies are always under competitive pressure from capitalism, but now these pressures are becoming unsustainable. Focusing on rich outliers tends to obscure this, but stressed conditions are what has allowed unhealthy monopolies to become so dominant. In ecosystem terms, environments under massive stress become more prone to disease, parasites, and unhealthy collapses of biodiversity. When we only focus on aspects we see as parasitic, through outdated paradigms, we can easily miss this larger picture.
Returning to my prior interest in zoology, I was recently struck by an idea of Konrad Lorenz, the ground-breaking Austrian behavioural scientist. He talked of methodological Ganzheitsbetrachtung (holistic contemplation) when examining animal behaviour, but it can be extended to any complex system. This means putting aside preconceived notions to engage with the whole animal, in a spirit of love and respect, before zooming in on its various parts.
This summed up a lot of what I thought was wrong about the academic training I had received. Instead of looking at complex human issues with curiosity, they are usually approached with preconceptions and ideological biases. The analytic approach is often to separate out issues in a surgical way, and try to address them individually. This works well in engineering, but such a physics-based mind-set does not fit complex interwoven systems better analysed through the more appropriate understanding offered by biological lenses.
In ecosystem terms, environments under massive stress become more prone to disease, parasites, and unhealthy collapses of biodiversity.
A lot of our understanding of human behaviour and motivation is directly contaminated by such thinking. When individual animals are placed in a sterile environment and given specific prompts and rewards, their behaviour can become distorted and unhealthy. However, such experiments were used to directly inform economic thinking about human behaviours and rewards. It is only in more recent decades that scientists are studying animals in more complex environments, and drawing more holistic lessons for what we need ourselves.
For example, a rat isolated in a cage, presented with plain tap water or water laced with sweetener and addictive morphine, will soon poison itself to death. This finding coloured a lot of economic and social policy around addiction. New experiments in the 1970s questioned if the animals were responding to their artificially barren environment. Tests with rats in larger cages, with richer environments and other rats for company, did not self-medicate in the same way. This finding has profound implications in many fields, including social housing, but I’m not sure if Sunak has reconsidered his own coke addiction. How much do our unhealthy diets reflect our poor living environments?
Instead of taking each problem in abstract, putting it into a cage and prodding it, we need to take a more holistic and curious approach — which often means expanding the questions we ask. The housing crisis can’t be solved by building more houses in already overpopulated regions; we should ask why people are all moving to the same cities to chase limited jobs. Carbon emissions won’t be solved by electric vehicles, but by reducing the overall need to travel so much. Extremism in many forms won’t be prevented by deradicalising converts but by asking why so many people experience life as frightening and confusing in the first place.
We inhabit an industrial world designed around limited conceptual paradigms that have reached multiple dead-ends, and are currently failing. Simultaneous crises with the climate and fuel prices show that our current solutions are simply not sustainable. We need fresh conversations, ideas and new perspectives. One reason why Britain face such a poor range of leadership candidates is that the smarter people have left politics already, in the face of simplistic populism. They recognise there are few obvious, let alone easy, answers to deep-rooted problems. Britain has been left sifting through opportunistic dregs, and one of the worst cabinets in recent history.
Even outside Britain, it is possible to see a wider legacy in surprising ways. Frightening but normalised Islamophobia in India and radical terrorism across a wide swathe of Africa seem like polar opposites. Drug violence in Latin America contrasts with the resurgence of patriarchal militant Christianity in the USA. Russia’s imperial designs in Ukraine, Britain’s rehashed culture wars, and Bolsonaro’s attempts to deforest the Amazon can seem unconnected.
One reason why Britain face such a poor range of leadership candidates is that the smarter people have left politics already, in the face of simplistic populism.
At heart however, I believe all these social crises feed on the same pressures. Vast numbers of disillusioned people can’t see a viable future for themselves, and politicians come to power on the back of identifying scapegoats to blame as well as past (if illusory) certainties and golden ages. Lots of people simply can’t make a living in our current economic paradigm. Historically this has happened before, with devastating effects, in Weimar Berlin. With climate, food and energy crises, these pressures are only increasing. Instead of delivering abundance for all, economics is now making us increasingly desperate, and we need to understand the real reasons for this.
Britain faces multiple extreme crises in the coming months. Its specific problems are unprecedented, but many of the proposed solutions will be echoed around the world. Without leaders who really look afresh at these issues, without preconceptions and pre-set responses, these crises will only deepen and fester. Aside from frightening social pressures, climate change poses a genuine existential threat. This will not be addressed by pandering to the energy lobby, Daily Mail readers, old Marxists or radical greens.
In short, Britain now has a new leader, but not new leadership. We all need better.