That our body politic is in ruins, few would deny. It can’t do Brexit, social care, housing or productivity. The most it can manage is to tax plastic bags, insult foreign powers, foster rancour and foment discord. Benign small “l” liberal rule seems to be giving way to policy paralysis, populist babble, infighting at the top and resentment everywhere else.
Blame is being sprinkled on everything from cowardly political leadership and wilful public ignorance to media dumbing down, WhatsApp filter bubbles, Russian wire-pullers and Cambridge Analytica. Who will make sense of all this?
Step forward Tom Baldwin, sporting his mysteriously titled exegetical tome. As both a former Labour spinmeister and sometime politics hack, he’s been in the thick of it. And to aid his analysis, he’s sought counsel from such luminaries of his elite metropolitan world as Tony Blair, Michael Gove, Lord Mandelson and Andrew Marr.
Since they and their ilk have presided over the current debacle, you might have expected an at least quizzical approach. Baldwin does identify a few irresponsible bad apples in both politics and the media but on the whole, it seems, these two tottering strongholds are peopled by pretty good eggs. They’ve just been blown off course.
In an erstwhile golden age they held benevolent sway unchallenged. Then something upset the apple cart. It was new communications technology, above all, that damnable internet.
Our rightful masters were, it seems, bemused by the cyber-monster. Worse, it was appropriated by their uncouth civilian subjects, who used it to deride their betters, and then, calamitously, to articulate and pursue a politics of their own, beyond the reach of their rulers. Often this was violently opposed to the latter’s most sacred doctrines.
Thus, according to our guru, the proper authorities have lost “control” to the likes of the “alt” Right and Left, who threaten to “delete” civilised values (geddit?). The solution, as also implied in Baldwin’s title, is to reboot an otherwise splendid operating system that’s been temporarily crashed by a freakish bug. How? Top of the list, use the power the established order retains, namely legislative dominion. Put the upstart internet back in its box through regulation.
Another way of putting it might be: shoot the messenger. Baldwin would have done better to spend less time interviewing his Westminster village pals and journeying instead to a Wearside Wetherspoon to consult a few deplorables. He might have discovered that his own kind’s once comfortable hegemony is being challenged by more than a readily correctable glitch.
Baldwin talks of rescuing democracy, but it’s a re-emergence of democracy in its raw form that is what actually irks him. For decades the liberal ruling class to which he pledges allegiance ignored popular sentiments it disliked. The internet may indeed have given vent to these unwelcome ideas but it didn’t create them.
Baldwin concedes that politicians and the media should try harder to engage with people who hold unpalatable opinions. However, he implies that they should tell such wretches why they’re wrong, not listen to them, and still less take their views on board.
On immigration, he says, Westminster’s mistake was to fail to point out that wage stagnation has been caused by automation rather than competition in the labour market. For him, the idea that there might be cultural as well as economic objections still seems to be unthinkable.
Plato warned that democracy would empower the mob to enact misrule. Our era’s solution was representation, but that seemed to turn into oligarchy when our supposed representatives forgot many of their electors and pursued an agenda of their own.
As has happened in the past, disgruntlement with this turn of affairs could bring about the collapse of the system. Chaos might follow and that could give way to tyranny, as is already occurring abroad. If such a prospect does indeed beckon, this book won’t do much to help us avoid it.
Ctrl Alt Delete: How Politics and the Media Crashed Our Democracy by Tom Baldwin (Hurst, £20), buy it here.