“Never interrupt your enemy when he’s making a mistake.” Regardless of whether Napoleon Bonaparte actually said that, it’s good advice — though often ignored.
In 2017, Theresa May interrupted her enemies by calling a snap general election. And, yes, they were making a mistake at the time. Mrs May even said what it was when she made her fateful statement to the nation: the determination of the Remain parliament to block Brexit.
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As we now know, the attempt to overturn the referendum would bring together a new coalition of voters in 2019. But in 2017 it was still too early to bring matters to a head. The hardcore Remainers had yet to fully demonstrate their contempt for democracy. The snap election diverted the public’s attention to other matters that had very little to do with Brexit — and on which the Conservatives were ill-prepared. The Government lost its majority, and the PM her authority.
But then something extraordinary happened. Almost as soon as the election campaign was over, the Remainers resumed making their mistake! Instead of seeking to influence the terms of Brexit, they went all out to undo it. That gave Boris Johnson his opportunity. Far from interrupting his enemies, he allowed them to advance — moving further and further away from ‘respecting the result of the referendum’. By the time another election became inevitable, it couldn’t be about anything but Brexit.
The result was an interruption that the Conservatives could benefit from — an interruption not to the enemy’s mistakes, but to something much more important: the underlying pattern of British politics.
As I’ve argued before, the British party system is unusually stable. In every election for almost a century, the Conservatives have come first or second, and Labour second or first. Every Prime Minister has been either a Tory or a Labourite. For all the complications, the fundamental choice (in England at least) is red or blue. For a lot of the electorate that hasn’t just meant picking a side, but also sticking with it — in many cases from generation to generation.
Hence those seats — especially along the Red Wall — that demographically should have gone blue long time ago, but which stubbornly stayed red. Until, that is, Brexit pushed a new choice — Leave or Remain — to the front of voters ‘ minds. For the first time in generations, the red/blue pattern of politics was interrupted, creating the space in which people could do something new.
We tend to think of political change as being either evolutionary or revolutionary. In fact, the same mechanism is used to explain both: the dialectic. This is a repeating three stage process consisting of the thesis (the established way of thinking), the antithesis which the thesis comes into tension with, and the synthesis which is the outcome of that tension. The synthesis then becomes the new thesis and process starts again. Various ideologies have dialectical accounts of change, not least the dialectical materialism of the Marxists — in which different class interests come into conflict, producing revolutions that push history to next stage until communism is finally achieved. Then there are the fuzzier, non-Marxist versions of the dialectic that are more about resolving conflict, achieving justice or advancing knowledge than revolutionary struggle.
Either way, it’s all about the new challenging the old and thus propelling history in some sort of forward direction.
Even conservatives can find themselves accepting a dialectical view of change — seeing their role as being to slow things down so that we don’t charge off in the wrong direction. Or, as Bill Buckley put it, a conservative is someone who “stands athwart history, yelling ‘stop!'”.
But what if that’s not how it works? What if the real force for change in history isn’t revolution or progress — but interruption?
To understand why this might be, we first have to understand that old, established ways of doing things are actually much more dynamic and powerful than new ideas. That might seem counterintuitive — and certainly not what we’ve been led to believe — but think about it: continuity over time depends on some sort of forward momentum.
All sorts of things can give the established order the power to persist. Most obviously, it occupies and follows the path of least resistance — people tend to do things that they’re used to doing. Compared to doing something different, it requires less thought — and sometimes no thought at all.
But there’s may be more than mere inertia at work. A tradition is a living thing, animated by custom and practice to preserve, propagate and elaborate the collective know-how of an entire society. That’s powerful stuff and it actively resists disruption — using shame, ostracism and taboo just like an immune system uses antibodies to defend self against non-self.
As human beings, we’ve also developed the ability to invest in a long-term course of action. We defer gratification and avoid distraction, because to change direction could mean losing our investment or at least putting it at risk in ways that were never planned for. This is another force for continuity.
Indeed, the interest that people acquire in a course of action isn’t just limited to the hoped-for end result, it’s also present in the activity itself. To be the one who sets something in motion and keeps it moving along is to establish one’s relevance. It is you who becomes the story. It is for you that other people work. It is through your hands that money flows — and information, influence and patronage.
While ideologues may seek power in order to ‘do something’, the reality of politics is more often one of people doing something in order to gain power. Which is why governments keep on doing the same old thing whether it works or not; as long as it keeps on delivering power to the same old people, the other outcomes are secondary.
Finally, I’ll mention what may be the most powerful force for continuity: copying. We may like to think of ourselves as innovators, but most us of us are imitators. It’s what makes us so successful as a species, we don’t have to individually and independently invent each and every new thing — we just copy from the creative minority.
As René Girard taught us, copying is also competitive — we want things for no better reason than that other people want them. In a world of scarcity, success therefore means having — and being seen to have — more than what other people have. Thus imitation as competition is not just a force for continuity, but hyper-continuity — of things becoming more exaggerated versions of themselves, even to the point of the absurdity. Nowhere is this more amply demonstrated than in the world of fashion. Consider, for instance, the periwig.
Have you ever wondered why it was that European men in the 17th and 18th centuries wore wigs? I don’t mean wigs as in the surreptitious concealment of hair loss (which continues to this day), but as an adornment for its own sake. It all started in the early 17th century, when it became the fashion for young men to sport long curly hair. The ageing process does terrible things to the male hairline and so artificial substitutes were adopted by those whose natural endowments had let them down, but who could afford the services of a wig maker. The periwig thus became a symbol of wealth and status — which may endure longer than fleeting youth. In which case, the more obviously wiggy the wig the better. Over time, these constructions became increasingly elaborate (as satirised in William Hogarth engraving The Five Orders of Periwigs) and also involved the use of special powders to whiten or colour the hair.
It seems extraordinary to us today that people should have gone to these extremes of unnecessary effort and expense. But such is the self-propelling force of the established order. Even the most bizarre and frivolous concepts can generate overwhelming momentum once they become rooted in the soil of practice and precedent. In comparison, a new idea is an insubstantial thing — a dandelion seed floating on the wind, unrooted in anything that might nourish its development.
Being sold on notions of progress and enlightenment, we imagine that history proceeds on the basis of a battle of ideas — of thesis and antithesis. But the struggle between old and new is not between one idea and another, but between solid practice and vapid theory and in most cases that’s no contest at all.
Even the best ideas — that is to say, the true ones — can go ignored. We love the story of the emperor’s new clothes — because it tells a story in which truth triumphs just by being told. But the bitter irony is that this is a fairytale. In reality, the truth can be told, and heard, and yet make no difference. The Five Orders of Periwigs, published in 1761, was truth in the form of satire — and yet wig-wearing would go on for decades longer.
New ideas that succeed on their own merits, challenging and changing the old order by virtue of their content alone are exceptional. As Tom Holland shows in his masterwork Dominion, Christianity is one of those rare examples — changing societies long before (and after) the ruling class claimed the Christian faith as the source of their authority.
But apart from these occasional bolts from the blue, what changes history is not the old order challenged by the new — but the old order interrupted so that something else can take root in the space left behind.
Looking back over history, these interruptions often take the form of war or natural disaster. For instance, the Great Fire of London allowed a new London to rise from the ashes. The baroque splendour of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, as we know it today, replaced its gothic predecessor. (However, it’s also worth noting that the city’s medieval street plan was retained — and not for lack of contrary proposals from eminent persons. But what were these mere ideas compared to the practice of established property rights?)
The destruction wrought by the Second World War is another example of how interruption can bring about change — though, in this case, not for the better. The postwar planners and architects transformed the urban landscape, but that wasn’t just down to the force of their ideas. In fact, their schemes — such as Le Corbusier’s plan to rebuild Paris — were thankfully frustrated before the war. But, afterwards, in those cities where bombing had destroyed the old order, the modernists finally got their way. It wasn’t long before we realised what a horrible mistake that was, but that’s the thing about interrupting the old order — it gives new ideas their chance, including really bad ones.
That was certainly true of the First World War — which brought about the end of empires. We retrospectively edit history to present the successor regimes as the inevitable embodiment of challenger ideologies whose time had supposedly come. But the reality was messier. In Russia, for instance, the Tsarist regime was brought down by crushing military defeat — allowing a wide variety of revolutionary movements to contest for power. It was certainly not all about the Bolsheviks. In the elections of 1917, they won less than a quarter’ of the vote. Nevertheless, Lenin seized power because, amid the chaos, his forces happened to be in the right places at the right time. Other communist revolutions — for instance in Germany and Hungary — did not luck out and were soon defeated.
War can bring about peaceful change too. There doesn’t even have to be a power vacuum for someone to step in to. The interruption of the normal routines of life can be enough for people to re-think what it is they actually want. That was certainly the case in the British general election of 1945, whose 75th anniversary was last week. Winston Churchill offered continuity, but Clement Attlee offered a New Jerusalem. Labour had offered radical change before the war too — but at no point was that enough to deliver them a majority let alone a landslide. The War, however, was a sufficient interruption to how things used to be as to make change inevitable. Labour, as the party that recognised that fact and offered a coherent vision as to what that change might be, was thus ideally placed at war’s end.
All of our most important elections have followed significant interruptions. Margaret Thatcher’s triumph in 1979 followed the Winter of Discontent. The New Labour landslide in 1997 was made possible by Black Wednesday, which had ended the Conservative’s reputation for economic competence. And, then of course, there was 2019 — an election won on a promise to complete an interruption (“Get Brexit Done”).
And so we come to 2020, where we find ourselves living through a much bigger interruption than any of us could have imagined. Whether things return to normal is a matter of if not when.
Having had our habits broken for us, we’ve been given pause for thought. And that’s allowed us to ask ourselves that most dangerous of questions: ‘what’s the point?’
The point of work, of course, is obvious. The point of commuting, though, the point of the office — well, that’s a different matter. We went through the motions, conformed to the pattern because that’s what everyone else did. Lockdown, however, showed us that another way was possible.
Indeed, we may be surprised by the extent to which some things change. Universities, for instance, are under threat as young people — and especially overseas students — wonder if there’s not something better and less expensive they could be doing with their lives. Not even schools can assume their indispensability. In America, there are signs of growing interest in alternative ways of educating children. The teachers’ unions are quite properly concerned for their members’ safety, but they shouldn’t play too hard to get. Interrupting established ways of doing things can have unintended consequences.
The most dramatic transformations may be to our culture of consumption — and hence to our basic economic model.
While some people still struggle to cover basic necessities, it’s also the case that we’ve never consumed so much that we don’t need. This an era of luxury and not just for the very rich. Millions of households have a second or third car… or take two or three foreign holidays every year. It’s become unexceptional to spend £1,000 on a mobile phone, when a £100 would be sufficient; not everybody does of course, but there’s enough who do to support a mass market.
From fast fashion to McMansions to long-haul flights, our excessive consumption sits ill at ease with our green pretensions. But we didn’t think about the contradictions, because we were too busy copying what everyone else was doing, wanting what they wanted.
But having been taken off the hedonic treadmill by lockdown, we now have a chance to wonder whether it’s worth the bother and expense. Like our wig-wearing ancestors, we might just conclude that, no, it really isn’t.
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