The Reformation 2.0 – Fear and opportunity

It has long been my contention that while history is characterised by relentless and grinding change, society and culture are sticky accretions perpetually damned to seek a fixed point of stability. The desire for a reference point around which agreement can be built and compliance measured being the natural condition of a social animal. I further contend that the nations that are most successful are those actively seek ride the change, and even shape external events, where others at best endure and worst erode. The analogy I like to describe the effect of relentless change on culture and society being plate tectonics; where active faults can either slip easily to the new equilibrium, or stick…


It is in this context that Brexit is interesting, for we have to hope for something better than an ugly counter revolution where we begin burning Brexiters for their heresy.

And indeed, in our renunciation of the current order so encourage external powers to coalesce as a force in opposition!

However, these weren’t the sole and final results the first time around either. The concord of British history being quite comfortable with the Reformation marking the beginning of a vibrant and confident nation that went on to enjoy centuries of success.

What this arrives back at is the need for a society and culture that embraces change, and is able to focus sufficiently on the objective of shaping that change in its favour.

The biggest threat to an attitude that embraces change is fear. A fear that demands comforting certainties. Certainties best provided for by creating institutional blocks to ‘dangerous’ change.

Such institutions would include:

A desire for a consensual political culture, one where disagreement results in calibration rather than adversarial challenge.

Formalised by a proportional electoral system that fractures ideology among smaller more coherent parties, and forces them to compromise to achieve a governing coalition.

A desire for a less dangerous political governance, one where potential bandwidth for action is deliberately limited in order likewise limit the scale of possible damage.

Formalised by a constitutional roadblocks where the power of parliament is curtailed, where elements of the constitution remain verboten, and super-majorities are required to legitimise change.

A desire for a less fractious political discourse, one where contentious issues are dealt with by ‘taking the politics out of the matter’, and leaving it to expert opinion to arbitrate.

Formalised by a supranational system of governance that categorises democracy into areas of fixed technocratic competence, and a residual component left for the state to play with.

The biggest threat to the focus required to shape external events is a lack of confidence. A lack of confidence that instinctively hedges against perceived inadequacies. Hedging that creates institutions incapable of asserting legitimacy in the face of contention.

Such institutions would include:

A desire for accommodation of multiple identities, in which the nation accepts the aims and expectations of sub-groups as  not achievable within the wider whole.

Formalised by a highly federalised structure of regional parliaments, leaving a ‘national’ Senate without the political legitimacy to pursue an activist Foreign Policy.

A desire to prioritise social equity, in which areas of government activity which do not meet this goal are steadily re-prioritised to the point where they are no longer strategic in capability.

Formalised by the political downgrading of Defence & Foreign Policy as  important offices of state, and the growing functional co-dependence on allied nations to fill in fundamental gaps in capability.

A desire to prioritise understood outcomes over leaps in progress, in which the framework of operation militates against risk.

Formalised by the gradual encroachment of the Precautionary Principle in public policy making, beyond existential problems with long term horizons.

So, Mr. Beeftrix, you might ask, is the above just a long and convoluted way of saying; “change is great, as long as it’s only the change I am comfortable with”?

Not an unreasonable question, I suppose, and the answer is “yes”. But it’s worth pointing out that these preferences only enable possibility, they do not mandate it, and that that possibility can and will facilitate change that I fundamentally disagree with. I’m fine with that.

I live in an area where my vote will never elect a Parliamentary representative, but I do not seek a proportional electoral system whereby my ‘wasted’ ballot will have some direct purpose.

I firmly believe in both free enterprise and a world where Jeremy Corbyn could end it if elected, and I do not seek a political consensus that excludes what I consider to be his extreme ideas.

I am doubly amused by outrage against brexiter rejection of experts. The outraged are busy creating a straw-man for their own angry rejection, serving only to build a tempest of fury that takes them further away from the real motivations of those they despise.

What happened is simply this: In a normal representative democracy an institution can appeal to your identity as a powerful representation of your beneficial-collective, or, appeal as an institution intended to create a public good on behalf of that collective. Beyond this point you leave political decision making and move into dry civil-service implementation. But the EU is a hybrid that crosses the two. What began as a very technocratic institution designed to do quite apolitical things – such as facilitate the convergence of technical standards – has now morphed into an arbiter of policy. Indeed, key areas of political policy making such as a justice, social, and economic policy.Should prisoners vote? What is the maximum number of hours that can be worked? Should we discourage high-frequency trading?

These areas of policy could not be questioned, because, well, they just couldn’t! What would be point, for as EU competences they could not be amended or scrapped by national lawmaking. This sits rather poorly with the notion of a Sovereign Parliament, able to lawfully enact anything that a simple majority of its lawmakers agree to. Sorry, out of bounds. This sits equally poorly with a public culture that accepts a majoritarian electoral system, and expects the same lack of impediments to direct plebiscites. Hold on there, that’s not for you to decide. So what is to be done? Simples; pretend the EU isn’t making political choices upon which success or failure can be pronounced. No, it is all simply technocratic implementation of common standards. It is not subject to preference, the appropriate committee has deemed this outcome to be optimal.

This is the context into which Gove dropped his bombshell on experts. He called time on the conspiracy that hid political governance behind a façade of dry technocratic implementation.

And a lot of people seemed to revel in the new found opportunity criticise what was exposed as nothing more or less than a political institution to be weighed, judged, and pronounced upon. For politics is not subject to factual interpretation alone, it is explicitly a value based activity subject to personal preference and collective priority.

Why does it infuriate some people so? Because it forced those for whom the EU is an identity as well as an institution to confront the fact that very few people feel the same way. Their preferences were rational, the experts agreed.

Why the extended ramble in the merits of experts? Well, because it comes back to change. The need to accommodate it, and institutions that assist that process of accommodation. The more competences the EU absorbed, the more governance was merely the process of managing stasis.

What began in the 1534 as the Act of Supremacy, did not really end until until 1689 with the Bill of Rights. What began as the Reformation, ended with the Glorious Revolution, and much of the 150 years in-between was a response to the consequences of those early stages. Both internally with civil war and repression, and externally with lapsed authority of the Bulls of Donation.

We just have to hope that British society and culture are adaptable enough to achieve The Reformation 2.0 with less of the ups and downs necessary for the first.

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