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14 August 2012

Cameronism: The ghost of an idea

Tom Greeves is a speechwriter and actor, and also that rare beast, a rightwing stand-up comedian. Last year, with his serious hat on, he contributed a provocative article to Total Politics:

  • "…I find myself increasingly exasperated at the proliferation of ideas in politics. Everywhere I turn, there is a new think tank, a new pamphlet, a new policy… It’s fiddling while Rome burns.
  • "It’s not big ideas that are the problem. Big ideas are vital. Capitalism, democracy, freedom of speech, equality before the law, the nation state – these are great ideas. And they are being squeezed out of the forefront of politicians’ minds by the plethora of small ideas."

One of the small ideas he gave as an example was the Big Society. Arguably, he was wrong to do so. The Big Society is a big idea, or at least it would be if it had been properly developed, rather than being left hanging in the air as a disembodied concept, the ghost of an idea.

The problem with contemporary politics is not too many ideas, but not enough action. In the real world, turning political principles into practical policy takes a huge amount of work. You can’t just talk a reform into existence.

Of course, it’s important that Governments are able to properly communicate their intentions. But things have gone too far. The communicators – i.e. the spin doctors, brand consultants and PR wallahs – are now so central that everything appears to revolve around them and what they do. Thus, within this world, the purpose of an idea is not to provide a plan of action, but something to talk about.

These disembodied concepts – or ‘memes’ as they’re sometimes known – have a tendency to cheapen not only politics, but serious discussion of all kinds. It is a point forcefully made by Evegeny Morozov in a coruscating book review for the New Republic. He’s particularly scathing of the role played by the TED conferences – high profile international gatherings where flashy ideas compete for attention:

  • "Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED "ecosystem"—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void. Richard Dawkins, the father of memetics, should be very proud. Perhaps he can explain how ‘ideas worth spreading’ become ‘ideas no footnotes can support.’"

Morozov is a little hard on TED. At their very best, TED conference presentations can be jaw-droppingly brilliant – like this one from Hans Rosling. And yet he is right to condemn the "shrinkage of thought for people too busy to think":

  • "Brevity may be the soul of wit, or of lingerie, but it is not the soul of analysis."

Indeed not. When it comes to serious thinking – especially that involved in serious policy making – there can be no shortcuts.


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