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Westminster conformism is worse than Dominic Cummings thinks

Dominic Cummings leaves another meeting gobsmacked by Cabinet incompetence. Credit: Getty

October 21, 2023 - 8:00am

Are you an NPC? The initials stand for non-player character, which is meme-talk for a person with completely predictable opinions. In place of original thought, they unthinkingly regurgitate whatever form of groupthink with which they’ve been programmed. The term is derived from computer games in which characters are either controlled by human players or by a computer. The latter have no independent personalities or free will of their own.

One can see why the analogy is so attractive to those who hate unquestioning conformism. Dominic Cummings, who is very much his own character, has just published a list of “SW1-NPCs” — meaning the non-player characters of the Westminster bubble.

Some of the entries are less fair than others, but the most unfair thing about the list is its brevity. Really, the establishment is mostly peopled by NPCs. Whether they’re journalists, lobbyists, politicians or civil servants, at least 90% of them speak and perform exactly as they’ve been instructed to. 

For an example of how this works just look at this week’s mainstream media reporting on Gaza — in particular, the blast at al-Ahli Hospital. Why did well-resourced, highly-experienced news outlets like the BBC rush to such premature judgements as to who was responsible? How could so many people sign off on a narrative for which there was so little verified evidence? Groupthink, not journalistic incompetence, was surely to blame.

Fortunately, flesh-and-blood NPCs — being human beings, not lines of code — can be redeemed. Freed from the expectation to follow the herd, they can start exercising their own judgement. And yet the general trend is in favour of conformity, enabled by technology. While the multiplication of media outlets creates diversity, the remorseless pressure for clickbait rewards uniformity within each echo chamber. The result is a wider spread of opinion, but also an increase in its predictability.

As for parliamentary politics, technology allows real-time message control across entire political parties, while simultaneously keeping MPs occupied with make-work like answering constituents’ emails. As a result, we’re being prepared for the next stage of tech-enabled conformity, which is the replacement of human NPCs with their computerised counterparts.

Large language models like GPT4 can already churn out convincing essays, poetry and pastiche — I’d be surprised if GPT5 or its equivalent won’t be able to compete with most of our political columnists. The more predictable and formulaic the hot takes, the easier they’ll be to automate.

The same goes for our elected representatives. In theory, MPs ought to be fearless defenders of the local interest, meticulous scrutineers of legislation, and inspiring orators in the chamber. Instead we’ve turned them into dutiful providers of citizen’s advice, obedient lobby fodder, and mindless parroters of the party line. The latter skillset is more easily automated than the former — so, perhaps without knowing it, we’ve brought forward the first AI Parliament by decades.

The forces of conformism are thus doomed. Either, they’ll be defeated by their non-conformist opponents, or they’ll be replaced by smarter, more reliable NPCs. For people, at least, the market value of unoriginality is about to crash. 


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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Glyn R
Glyn R
8 months ago

“Why did well-resourced, highly-experienced news outlets like the BBC rush to such premature judgements as to who was responsible?”
Some years ago now, I learned that academia perceived Israel as a white colonialist enterprise and thus the Jewish Israeli people were seen as white oppressors. This has stuck and, although the Israeli government has too often lived up to the label oppressor, it is the fact that they are perceived as ‘white’ and ‘western’ that ensures such righteous, unquestioning opprobrium. When we look at the other post war homeland created for a religious community, Pakistan, we see it meets with little or no criticism no matter its abhorrent record of persecution of religious minorities.
That said, I have always been concerned by the appalling treatment of Palestinian people and knew – as my father warned back in the 1960s – that there would be hell to pay. I had hoped for the two state solution but it never emerged. What has caused me alarm is reading the Hamas charter and its determination to drive the jews out no matter any historic claim and regardless of the history of islamic expansionism.

Last edited 8 months ago by Glyn R
Michael Saxon
Michael Saxon
8 months ago
Reply to  Glyn R

Israel agreed to a two state solution on 2 occasions but Arafat turned it down because the PLA / Hamas insist on the abolition of the Jewish state – “first the Saturday people, then the Sunday people”. The Muslim faith taken literally by the fundamentalist demands it. A two state solution is also no solution. It leaves Israel with even less strategic flexibility than it has now and the pressure to end Israel would not stop for long. Your reference to ‘appalling treatment’ is also a bit strong. Arabs make up about 20% of the Israel state and have their own parliamentary presence. Perhaps if you experienced rocket attacks, bomb blasts and terror attacks from the Isle of Man you might find some unfortunate treatment of people from that Island would soon happen here. And what if the ‘Man-kish’ insisted they take over large sections of the UK which your ancestors had held for thousands of years. You might be even more jaundiced if members of your family had been brutally murdered by a rogue regime just a few generations ago.

Glyn R
Glyn R
8 months ago
Reply to  Michael Saxon

I stand corrected. Until looking into the matter more closely recently I had been unaware that Hamas is not interested in a two state solution and has rejected proposals. Like many, I am afraid I have not been very well informed on this matter and have had to do my own research. While I had sympathies for Palestinians I also always understood and accepted that Israel had a right to exist and have defended that too.
I am horrified and depressed by the horrific, barbaric slaughter of innocent Jewish people at the hands of Islamist terrorists on the 7th October and I have been sickened by the rationalising of this massacre by so many people.

Last edited 8 months ago by Glyn R
Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
8 months ago
Reply to  Glyn R

It’s never too late to learn the truths of various matters. Takes a little work, however. For most people, History is a subject from school they put behind them as soon as they got out.

Pedro the Exile
Pedro the Exile
8 months ago
Reply to  Glyn R

Even if by some miracle a “2 state solution” (see how easily that phrase just slips off one’s lips-so elegant a solution!) was agreed,how long do you think it would hold under the multi faction Islamic interests in the region.I suspect it would be a sham.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
8 months ago

When I first heard about the bombed hospital in Gaza, I was really confused so I reserved judgement. My initial, gut reaction was Israel did a really nasty thing here. And then I thought well maybe Hamas did it themselves intentionally. Turns out another terrorist organization did it unintentionally.

It’s kind of pathetic that so-called journalists didn’t struggle with the same kind of reasoning and jumped to their biased conclusions.

Jitwar Singh
Jitwar Singh
8 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

What’s really surprising (or not) is that when OSINT revealed that it ‘most likely came from inside gaza’, it has dropped out of the news agenda.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
8 months ago
Reply to  Jitwar Singh

Sadly, you’re so right about this. Where is the discussion about Hamas launching rockets in heavily populated areas?

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
8 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

If it weren’t for the possible threat of work repercussions, journalists would be in those protest parades carrying placards and chanting with the rest of them. The trade attracts that sort.

mike otter
mike otter
8 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

This is because they are “activists” NOT journalists.

Su Mac
Su Mac
8 months ago

“I support the latest thing!”

It is tiring and time consuming to question everything and also beyond most people’s mental resources.

How many simple folk or children have you met with a fervent belief in human climate change who cannot give you any real facts about why they think it is true?

Most people are happier being told what to think, the mental equivalent of staying safely in the middle of the herd away from predators.

Especially in these days when to disagree with accepted truth on any of the big issues – Covid vaccines, masks, Net Zero, gender, Ukraine, Palestine, Bill Gates, economics – brings trouble, anger, a media searchlight and professional disgrace.

Our globalist society is expert at mental conditioning, God help us.

As our postman said of television “it is called programming for a reason”

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
8 months ago
Reply to  Su Mac

“…The mental equivalent of staying in the middlle of the herd, away from predators.” Best line of the day!

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
8 months ago

What an interesting and thought provoking essay.
One question definitely comes to mind about NPCs. If we don’t have one big Herd but a lot of small Herds, how do you define an NPC?
So, if the country – the UK – is a Herd, then people contributing to UnHerd would definitely not see themselves as NPCs; they would see themselves as pseudo-aggressive non members of the Herd.
But if UnHerd is a small Herd, then the contributors would mostly be NPCs, excepting perhaps Mr Champagne Socialist who would definitely not be part of the UnHerd Herd – hence the automatic downticks.
An AI parliament sounds better than the one we have now.

Last edited 8 months ago by Caradog Wiliams
Andy Aitch
Andy Aitch
8 months ago

Nailed, precisely!
Unherd journalism – mostly – continues to be interesting and thought provoking.
The herd quality is appearing more and more in the BTL community: predictable, partisan and often puerile when not simply rude.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
8 months ago
Reply to  Andy Aitch

I’m very disappointed sometimes with the predictable and childish comments; especially considering the thought-provoking quality of so many of the essays.
People should really work much harder at not hitting the send button! I’m sure they’ll feel better about themselves once they get the hang of it.

Last edited 8 months ago by laurence scaduto
Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
8 months ago

I think being able to question your opinions and change them when new evidence comes to light is a sign that you are not an NPC. Admittedly, many of us do look for like-minded others which might make it seem as if Unherd is skewed toward one way. However what makes Unherd to other social media platforms is that divergent thoughts are permitted here and not just deleted and banned.

David Morley
David Morley
8 months ago

Looked at from the outside, I think Unherd readers (or at least commenters) would be described as the Terf & Tory herd. A strange alliance of two beasts in one herd.

If we define NPCs as people whose reactions are predictable and follow a set script, this is a long way from being an NPC free zone.

Hope I’m not being too predictable in saying that 🙂

Last edited 8 months ago by David Morley
Gordon Black
Gordon Black
8 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

Yes, the downside of subscribing to sane, rational, impartial media is that you end up in this damnable sane-rational-impartial echo chamber. I need to broaden and engage with more looney, idiotic, bigoted stuff.

David Morley
David Morley
8 months ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

The first sign of an NPC is thinking you are the sane-rational-impartial one.

William Cameron
William Cameron
8 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

No. It’s thinking that if you stray outside your groups group think you will suffer for it.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
8 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

The first sign of an NPC is not thinking. 

Dave Weeden
Dave Weeden
8 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

Surely it’s ironic that Aris Roussinos wrote only yesterday “though there is no obvious linkage between any of these matters, if I knew your opinions on wokeness or gender issues, or on Net Zero or Covid restrictions, then I could ascertain, with 99% accuracy, your opinions on a distant ethnic conflict in the Middle East.”

Marcus Leach
Marcus Leach
8 months ago

Within our society an NPC could be regarded as synonymous with a mindless reactionary ideologue who perceives events filtered through their unsophisticated, rigid dogma.
Whether on not in real life one is to escape the designation of an NPC depends on providing a rationale for one’s opinion, beliefs and assertions and supporting them with logical arguments and objective evidence.
“Herd” implies a mindless coalescence. A person that can justify their ideas, beliefs and assertions through rational argument and objective evidence cannot be fairly described as the member of a “herd”. Rather they are individuals who agrees to a greater or lesser extent with others who have reached similar conclusions.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
8 months ago

Good point. Too many people follow the herd, even at Unherd.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
8 months ago

I would argue that CS gets so many downvotes because he simply smears people without making actual arguments.

David Morley
David Morley
8 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

The thing is, that when CS makes the effort, he actually does have something to say. He can even be witty. If only he drank more coffee.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
8 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

Maybe I’m biased. I gotta thing about calling people names. It’s why I detest Trump so much. I just can’t recall CS ever making an actual argument. Could be my own blind spot for sure.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
8 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

Nah, he avoids substantial issues. Happier with comments on fashion etc Low hanging fruit.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
8 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

I thought we agreed that CS is a robot.
But then, maybe agreeing isn’t that important.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
8 months ago

hence the automatic downticks

ï»żI think the downticks are generally provoked more by his childishness and refusal to present an argument than by his political stance.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
8 months ago

Caradog Wiliams seems to be Champagne Socialist under a different name.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago

An interesting polemic to start the weekend, I thank you.
By definition the Establishment MUST be peopled by NPC’s. although I would much prefer the term Gadarene Swine.
I admire your confidence in the powers of redemption, but sadly cannot share them.
More tea Vicar?

Marcus Leach
Marcus Leach
8 months ago

Live pictures of a rockets being fired from Gaza towards Israel, with one clearly malfunctioning mid-air and seconds later landing in the vicinity of the  Al-Ahli Arab Hospital. Pretty damning evidence. But that didn’t hold the BBC and the rest of the “progressive” Leftist MSM back from ascribing blame to Israel.
How many had those evil Jews killed? Less than 20 minutes after the impact the Gazan Ministry of Health had counted up a suspiciously round number of 500, and the BBC et al gleefully reported the figure – neglecting, of course, to mention that the Gazan Ministry of Health is a wholly own subsidiary of the Hamas terrorists that butchered over 1200 Israelis days earlier.
Even now BBC Verify is apparently still unable to determine for sure whether a small irregular shaped hole small a few feet wide in a burnt out car park was or was not the caused by a devastatingly powerful Israeli missile that leaves craters that size of an Olympic swimming pool.
The Leftist “progressive” dominated established media and its friends sequestered throughout our institutions have since 2016 ranted apocalyptically about the profound danger that the free flow of information has for the spread of misinformation, disinformation. malinformation (it’s true but we don’t like anyone knowing about it) . and plain old “fake news”. As a corollary they demanded that alternative voices be silenced, prosecuted and financially ruined.
With the US president about to touchdown and the whole region a tinderbox ready to ignite in to catastrophic war, the necessity of the most constrained, responsible reporting could not have been higher.
The Author suggests groupthink was at work. I think that within a short period after the initial impact the BBC et al knew that Israel was not responsible, and they certainly knew that the figures of casualties from Hamas that they were parroting were wholly unreliable. I think they acted as willing liars and propagandists for a central cause of the the Leftist “progressive” class (LPC) : the supposed blameless Palestinians against evil. colonising Jews.
The LPC that now dominates our politics, institutions and culture are a type of NPC. Their fundamental algorithm is division of humans in to groups, after which they are ascribed victim and oppressor scores that determine whether they are good or bad characters. The LPC then fight on the side with the highest victim score. Like NPCs, they are mindless reactionaries, acting without conscience, subtlety of thought and analysis. and willing to employ deceit to further the preferred groups interests.
History is not short of examples of the capture of great numbers of people by ideologies that defied reason and reality and turned its followers in to monsters. But it is profoundly disturbing to find oneself in the midst of a new one that has in such a short time achieved cultural dominance, threatens to throw over every advance in human civilisation and turn the world over to chaos. Modern communication, rather than supressing our proclivity as a specious to descend in our base animal selves, actively facilitated nurtured it.
Conformists are one thing. But what we are faced with is a capture of the West by the adherents a profoundly dangerous and unsophisticated identarian ideology based on lies and deceit.
I can’t recall where I read it, but someone noted that Hitler and Stalin were infinitely more dangerous than the likes of Mussolini because they actually believed in what they were saying and doing. Our present ideologues not only believe in their ideology, they believe they are good, kind and liberal people for following it. That makes them the most dangerous of all.

William Cameron
William Cameron
8 months ago

In modern life non conformism is derided and can be very costly. Try working for a bank and telling them their strategy is risky.Try working for a police force and telling them one type or class of people commit most crime. Try telling a GP practice that their methods of diagnosis (without using X-rays or Scans initially)get more wrong than right.Try getting a politician to agree that importing people who dont pay tax makes a country poorer.Try saying some religions are violent and dangerous. Try saying that women should have their own spaces.
etc

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
8 months ago

Agree. AI will insist.on it since.it is a mean reversion machine.

David Morley
David Morley
8 months ago

One can see why the analogy is so attractive to those who hate unquestioning conformism. 

It’s also pretty attractive to unquestioning conformists on the other side! We all think it’s the “others” who are conformists. While we are all free thinkers.

Last edited 8 months ago by David Morley
William Cameron
William Cameron
8 months ago

It is very seldom that Journalists jump wrong conclusions- and publish them- that disagree with their own view of the world.

Peter B
Peter B
8 months ago

Dare I say it, but isn’t the reverse effect true amongst the Civil Service these days – i.e. that there are too many “player characters” – people who believe they should be involved in defining and restraining policy rather than actually implementing it ?
And “player characters” in the media who push their own agenda. Alongside the lazy mass who largely repeat what they are told.
I think there are people straying outside the bounds of what they should be doing in all these SW1 fields. Essentially, people seem to have started trying to do the jobs they want to do rather than the ones they are nominally employed and paid to do. But this – sadly – isn’t that new.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
8 months ago

Most people are not original thinkers. If they were , society would collapse. The place for original thinking is a think tank. Unlike many countries, we dont have good think tanks.

JOHN KANEFSKY
JOHN KANEFSKY
8 months ago
Reply to  Anna Bramwell

You need a balance. Too many conformists and too many original thinkers are both problematical

William Cameron
William Cameron
8 months ago

Can someone please fix the awful signing in process. It’s demanding passwords twice.