February 15, 2024 - 2:00pm

Perhaps the most striking feature of the recently-renamed Overground lines is not (or not only) their “wokeness”, or the odd moral equivalences implied. It’s the collectivism.

Soviet Russia made much of collectivism as a policy, to the point of being willing to commit genocide in its pursuit: some 30,000 kulaks were shot and two million more deported during Stalin’s collectivisation of agriculture. But even as Soviet propaganda and policy enforced conformity, it still made room for great men: the faces of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin are instantly recognisable today thanks in no small part to their lionisation in Soviet propaganda.

Crude parallels between the contemporary West and Soviet Russia are the hackneyed stuff of boomer Facebook memes. But we might justly argue that at least where public iconography is concerned, if not on genocidal follow-through, Britain in 2024 outstrips 20th-century Soviet Russia in fanatical commitment to the collective — and in corresponding virulent aversion to the particular, the distinctive, or the exceptional.

The Overground names have occasioned a barrage of angry contempt, much of which (ironically) directed at a named individual — London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan. But, in truth, TfL has been less woke than prudent. And targeting Khan is a mistake: for the opinion that counts, always, is that of the chattering classes. Today, they are deeply averse to anything that smacks of “Great Man Theory”, whether in history, art or public life.

Many of London’s most famous pre-war landmarks commemorate noteworthy individuals. Perhaps the most iconic of all these is Admiral Nelson, looming atop his 169-foot column, whence he surveys the pigeons, tour groups, mime artists and bewildered provincial families usually milling about in Trafalgar Square.

Built in three years, between 1840 and 1843, today it is as impossible to imagine a single individual being thus honoured as it is to imagine a structure of such scale being built without decades of bureaucracy, bloviation, and lawfare. No matter who you proposed, chattering-class critics advocating for some interest or other would complain that they were unjustly elevated.

Now, kings, queens, and leaders are out. In their place we focus on structural forces, “systemic” ills and other more nebulous dynamics: the wholesale replacement of Great Man Theory with a more flat-structure, soft-skills-and-spreadsheets “modern” outlook we might call Greater Managerialist Theory.

The new Overground names align with this moral and aesthetic shift: none commemorates an individual. Instead, we find swarm heroes such as the NHS (Mildmay), women’s sport (Lioness), mass immigration (Windrush) and feminism (Suffragette), plus one (perhaps ironic, given some of Khan’s other policies) abstraction: “Liberty”. The overall effect is of a kind of moral flattening, in which state-funded healthcare, militant feminism, and football are all somehow on the same footing, via a vague sense that all represent officially sanctioned forms of swarmist moral endeavour.

But the real reason critics are fuming is not that this is an ill-judged imposition on an unwilling public. Rather, it accords perfectly with elite tastes, and with the mode of government these prefer: the diffuse contemporary style I think of as “Our Democracy”, as distinct from the 20th-century understanding of “democracy”. Here, named leaders and the electoral process serve largely as confirmation of (or at best temporary obstacles to) decisions made pre-politically and largely unaccountably, via the interaction of rules, institutions, and seemingly leaderless pressure groups. The Overground consultation itself was a note-perfect instance of Our Democracy in action: a decision taken, as TfL boasts, via an opaque caucus of committees, activists, “communities” and other “stakeholders”, all overseen by a for-profit branding agency, DNCO.

Critics may point out in vain that the iconographic collectivism of Greater Managerialist Theory elides as many tensions as the uncritical lionisation of (say) an Edward Colston under Great Man Theory. For example many of the cottage hospitals, of which Mildmay was an example, fiercely resisted incorporation into the NHS. Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst asked Sylvia and her East London suffragettes to separate from the Women’s Social and Political Union, on the basis that working-class women were unfit for the vote. And the 1948 arrival of the Empire Windrush was not, as the more recent mythos has it, at the invitation of the then-Government, which at the time treated it as a political problem.

No matter. Public opinion in Colston’s era was content to ignore his flaws. Ours will continue to look past the fractures in modern swarm idols. For one thing is as true of Greater Managerialist Theory as it was of the Great Man variety: the winners write the history books.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.