The public never had a problem with billionaires until recently. It expects them to have secret lairs only accessible by helicopter off the coast of Turkey and for mediocre lookers like Elon Musk to punch above their weight in the dating game. When they post selfies of a weightless ten-minute spaceship ride funded by the sweat of a million Amazon drivers working for minimum wage, the public tugs a forelock and looks to the sky with admiration rather than envy.
A similar quarter has been given to politicians when the hollowness of promise is laid bare. The public expects its government to consist of careerist hypocrites. Provided it delivers an acceptable level of governance, the public tends to soothe its grievance, not by taking to the barricades, but through the nightly digest of minor celebrity. Gogglebox is the opium of the masses.
Last Autumn, Boris Johnson flew by private jet from the Cop 26 climate change summit in Edinburgh to the heart of the City of London, where he attended a function in the exquisitely elitist surroundings of The Garrick Club. “Stop quilting the earth in an invisible blanket of CO2” he preached over a feast of pheasant and port, warning the public that, pushed ever on by the reckless convenience of air travel, the Doomsday clock was about to strike midnight. The metaphor of The Doomsday Clock is borrowed from the Cuban missile crisis. That actually was a crisis. Parents packed their kids off to school not knowing if, by afternoon break, all would be vaporised in a mushroom cloud. If there is a man-made global climate crisis, it is hard to spot through the impenetrable fog of hyperbole.
Whether or not Boris believes a single word he utters in relation to climate change is a moot point; the purpose of the Conservative government’s adoption of the Green Party’s manifesto is not to save the planet but to signal the increasing irrelevance of both the political party and the public, both of which have become bit players in the push to build back better. Government no longer matters as the purpose of public office is to offer a cheap internship to those politicians who wish to flaunt their ideological credentials before the global oligarchy. Look no further than Nick Clegg to see how public opprobrium is no barrier to the meteoric rise of a mediocre man.
And citizens of the traditional nation state no longer matter as the reach of the new oligarchy transcends archaic notions of sovereignty. Look no further than Twitter to see how easy it is for a monopolistic, remote super-power to purge the demos of free-flowing thought. No one outside of the ideological bubble is immune. Not even a former President of the United States.
Of course, there is a risk when politicians feast with the Bacchanalian elite and post it all over Instagram. Whilst the public has a high degree of tolerance for the flaunting of excess at The Palace of Versailles, when the revellers sneer “Let them eat cake,” there should be little surprise that the price of a guillotine goes up. Hypocrisy we can live with provided we are not made to feel that the sustainability of the planet is dependant on our sacrificing an EasyJet fortnight in Faliraki in favour of a time-shared caravan holiday taken within spitting distance of home.
Even worse is when the elite take the public for fools, as it has done with the latest revelations about Partygate. Those in power cannot imagine that the public has the wit to ask the question: Why were those closest to the Covid data the least afraid of it? In a genuine crisis, the reverse would be true. If Covid were a sniper, randomly picking off those who ventured out to meet together, then Boris would not have hosted a Bring Your Own Booze party in his ample back garden. Parties—and there were a myriad of them—went ahead because those with access to knowledge were not afraid. Thus, the scandal is not about hypocrisy but something far more sinister.
Former Supreme Court judge, Lord Jonathan Sumption, identified the danger in his Forward to the report, In Defence of Freedom of Speech:
“Fundamentally,” wrote Max Weber, “bureaucratic administration means domination through knowledge.” Bureaucratic administration, as Weber perceived, is the defining characteristic of the modern state. It has many advantages: rationality, objectivity, efficiency. The danger comes when knowledge is not just an essential tool of government, but a public monopoly. This is what happens when approved bodies are empowered to determine what knowledge is true or valuable. It is a significant step on the road to despotism because it is based on the notion that intellectual enquiry and the dissemination of ideas should be subordinated to authority. It reflects a view of society as a single great organism that must have a single collective notion of what is true and good. Many people who are convinced of the rightness of their own opinions take this view. They regard dissent as inherently anti-social, even treasonable. This is among the hallmarks of a totalitarian society.
The move from democracy to bureaucracy and the rule of experts diminishes the bombast of the House of Commons and the more contemplative debate of the House of Lords. Within a generation, both risk being reduced to the theatrical spectacles of a bygone age. Even if, like Truman Burbank, the participants remain convinced of their authenticity, in truth, their activity will have no more effect upon the course of history than the weekend re-enactors of The English Civil War who award victory to the Cavaliers.
We have recently become aware that the doctrine of dominant thought has been extended within the ranks of the police beyond its wholesale acceptance of Stonewall epistemology. Next week, a police officer from North Yorkshire who has questioned the effectiveness of the government’s vaccine programme on her private Facebook page will be hauled before a disciplinary hearing. Her crime is to question the dominant knowledge, thereby making it appear vulnerable. In this brave new world, asking an awkward question will soon be a sackable offence.
The final word must go to Lord Sumption:
We have to accept the implications of human curiosity. Some of what people believe will be wrong. Some of it may even be harmful, not just to those who hold those beliefs but to others. We cannot have truth without accommodating error. It is the price that we pay for allowing knowledge and understanding to develop and human civilisation to advance.