An endless round of perfectly-formed gotchas

Some people can’t tell the difference between advertising billboards and politics.

Mock-up photograph by the protest group Led By Donkeys showing a billboard with Nigel Farage's face and a quote that says "Brexit has failed - BBC Newsnight, 15th May 2023"
“We don’t have much in the way of politics but wait till you see these gotchas”

What is it that’s so contemptible about these stupid stunts? This shallow, patronising bollocks?

For liberals, this kind of smart ‘gotcha’ has now almost entirely replaced politics. For these billboard warriors, if you hone your clever message, tighten up the creative, select the perfect damning quote from your target, no politics is required.

Shaky animated gif of three power station cooling towers collapsing in a controlled demolition

But a gotcha, let’s be real – a clever communication of any kind, no matter how smart, witty or penetratingly devastating – *loud fx of power station collapsing* – cannot stand in for politics.

Once you’ve done your amazing, super-persuasive take-down, once your killer billboard is out there in the cities and towns, it must be easy to convince yourself that you’ve done your politics and can now take the rest of the day off. Kettle on.

I’m not a historian or a political scientist (or anything really) so I don’t know if this is something to do with Gramsci or the cultural turn or the final triumph of the Mad Men advertising and marketing pop culture culture thing (it’s certainly got something to do with the inflated opinion of their work that advertising people have).

But I suspect it’s actually about a terrible lack of ambition, an almost total loss of anything even slightly utopian in our shared dreams. A really solid take-down or a killer clap-back is now, in the post-political era, essentially all we can hope for.

It’s not the fault, vaguely, of social media or of collapsing attention spans or, I don’t know, narcissism or influencer culture or woke or any of that stuff. It’s the fault of the collapsing horizon of radical possiblity.

Cut off from both ends, by the progressive neutering of democratic engagement in the states we live in and by the ever darker, pre-modern urges of the authoritarian right, radicals can now only dream of definitively winning the argument on Twitter.

Improving lives, changing circumstances, transcending the grim stasis of neoliberalism and marketisation and precaritisation – all off the agenda. We might win the meme wars, though.

A huge explosion from Star Wars, a spaceship in the foreground

What’s worse – perhaps the most irritating thing about these stupid ads – is that they don’t actually say anything. There’s no message at all. No proposition, no offer. No suggestion of anything better or even different – just a dumb quote from the dumb golf club demagogue himself. A quote that, presented in isolation, is meant to act like a kind of rhetorical hand grenade. The idea is that the quote, in some way sufficient unto itself, will cause the man and his whole tribe to implode satisfyingly – like the giant explosion at the end of a sci-fi movie that neatly disposes of the entire threat in one big bang.

There’s a perfect, hermetic circularity to this: a weakness is identified (preferably hypocricy – hypocricy is usually best); a clever ad or post or column is written (some of these geniuses are actually advertising copywriters so it’s good stuff); the ad goes into circulation and goes viral; much celebratory nodding; campaign complete. Repeat.

And, obviously, the whole thing depends on a perfect, patrician contempt for the people targeted by the ad, for the mainly working class people in whose neighbourhoods these billboards are put up (modelled, in the mock-up photo, by the two people walking their dog, staring slow-wittedly at the billboard, reaching for the truth).

These posters are a kind of happy, crowdfunded ‘fuck you’ from the metropolis – a ‘fuck you’ for the low-information leavers’ gullibility or their xenophobia. “Look, we found this quote! It proves you were taken in! Confirms you’re a mug, a retard – and probably a mouth-breathing racist! Wake up! Join us!”

The bankruptcy of the growth mindset

Screenshot of a promo for a LinkedIn Live 'Business Connect' event in which UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak answers questions from a carefully selected group of sympathetic business people and students.

Of course he’s on LinkedIn

I shouldn’t be surprised that the British Prime Minister – any contemporary national leader, really – is on LinkedIn. It’s supposed to say “I live in the real world, I know about the grind, about the exigencies of business and office life and the ugly necessity of self-promotion.” Maybe also “look, I got to the very top of British public life just by keeping my LinkedIn notifications on.”

But should I be happy that our head of government’s own LinkedIn bio apparently puts the word ‘influencer’ before ‘Prime Minister of the United Kingdom’? Or that this Prime Minister would happily, not to say chirpily, in the manner of a children’s TV presenter, show up at 8.30 on a Monday morning to answer a string of banal questions from friendly business big-wigs on a LinkedIn live?

Google search result for 'Rishi Sunak LinkedIn' - Rishi Sunak is an influencer. Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Leader of the Conservative Party. Member of Parliament for Richmond (Yorks).

Should it actually scare me to learn that someone apparently so taken in by the promise of the hustle economy and by the bleak, one-dimensional glamour of the entrepreneur could possibly be asked to lead an actual economy. And to lead it, somehow, out of the long, sad, immiserating experiment of financialisation, marketisation, privatisation and the rest?

And anyway, of course he’s on LinkedIn (all the thrusting, young political innovators at the end of politics are there: Justin, Jacinda, Leo, Emmanuel, Pedro, Kyriakos…), of course he’s animated by the idea of the entrepreneur, the avatar of the shallowest and least productive version of capitalism – the capitalism of personal growth, ‘disruption’, of self-reliance and self-actualisation.

And here lives the potent myth of the mysteriously gifted individual who can apparently turn around businesses, industries and whole national economies as an expression of will, of impatient, pathological brilliance.

This is the delusional political economy of LinkedIn and the other miderable, alienating institutions of the growth mindset – of the unicorn and the decacorn and the hectocorn and the other mythic creatures in the menagerie of money.

As we’re learning now, of course, the whole teetering, upside-down pyramid of the entrepreurial economy, of 10x and 100x and the profitless tech leviathan depended almost entirely on the long period of cheap money and the epic flow of unanchored capital from the owner class that are both now grinding to a nasty end and on the cruelty of the idea that anyone can join this club, despite what we know about the carefully hidden advantages of the entrepreneur class.

It’s like an episode of the Simpsons in which an actual country is led by an airhead who’s spent his whole working life cheerfully clicking on LinkedIn requests, shamelessly asking strangers for ‘endorsements’ and congratulating other strangers on their inexplicable promotions. Get a life, Rishi.

Slow progress

It is possible for geniuses to explain things in ways that non-geniuses can understand but sometimes they need to switch formats to do it.

Karl Marx
This guy

I’ve spent a stupid amount of time trying to understand politics and political science. I ought to have just gone to college or something but it’s too late for that so I buy books and subscribe to periodicals and so on. I follow interesting people on Twitter, I read Substacks and listen to podcasts. I’m all over it. But to be honest it’s not really working. I mean it goes in one ear and out the other. The best I get is a very gradual – almost undetectable in fact – improvement in my understanding. Pretty much the same kind of glacial change I’m seeing in my ability to write poetry (which I’ve also been doing for years) or to construct decent-looking shelves for all the fucking books.

This has go to do with my age obvs but also, it’s clear, to do with the fact that I’m doing this in the piecemeal, unsystematic way of a distracted hobbyist. My kids went off to university and studied this stuff for three years and now they explain it to me like I’m an idiot. I obviously envy their comprehensive, organised understanding, given to them in the time-honoured way by experts and, in fact, by geniuses. But I’m still here, trying to figure it all out.

This guy, Dylan Riley, is one of the geniuses, a big brain who teaches sociology in California and writes books and papers and long articles about Marxism and society and so on. He came to my disorganised attention last year when he co-wrote an influential piece – with an even bigger genius called Robert Brenner (who has a whole area of disagreement named after him) – about the emergence of something they call ‘political capitalism’.

It’s a very persuasive idea that seems to account for the way investors and corporations continue to make increasing profits even as the return on investment declines almost everywhere. The piece has been influential beyond lefty circles and the ideas contained in it have begun to show up in mainstream politics and journalism. A kind of breakthrough for cloistered Marxists.

Anyway, the piece – and the other stuff he’s written that I’ve dug out since then – is full of deep insights and lofty ideas, as you’d expect, and a lot of it goes whoooooosh over my head while I wrinkle my brow. So I was kind of intrigued to learn that Riley had also written a little book made up of tiny, informal notes that he wrote – in longhand in an actual notebook – during the pandemic. To be clear, these are not the shopping lists (“400 rolls toilet paper, 20kg spaghetti”) and reminders (“stay indoors”) that I was writing during the pandemic, they’re notes about the genius stuff – and in particular they’re reflections on Covid, lockdown, the bail-outs and so on.

So I thought “that’s going to be right up my street, it’s going to be accessible stuff that I can get my head around, in small chunks that aren’t going to put me off and make me feel stupid.” I always jump on texts that promise to make the abstruse and theoretical transparent to me (in the same way I occasionally buy the latest ‘Quantum Physics for Know-Nothings’ from the table at the front of Waterstones).

And it is right up my street. I mean it’s still full of big ideas and a lot of assumptions are made about the reader’s understanding of politics and sociology (get ready for a lot of Durkheim) but it’s also full of nifty, two- or three-line insights – aphorisms, I guess – that genuinely illuminate the whole scene, the whole post-pandemic, end-of-the-end-of-history, collapse-of-neoliberalism thing – but also Trump, Biden’s green programme, lockdowns, Trump’s announcements, music education, the economics of slavery, utopias, illness…

Riley’s language is never less than academic and can be po-faced. I’m going to say that he’s a pretty orthodox Marxist. He has no time for ‘IDPol’ or for ‘liberal hand-wringing’ in general. In his writing he never doesn’t take himself seriously. And this is something I also kind of envy, actually. I mean the confidence to lay down idea after idea without at any point feeling the need to make a joke at your own expense or understate your intelligence or whatever.

Like, for instance, demolishing the whole idea of democracy in four lines:

To imagine a postcapitalist political order is to imagine an order without sovereignty—and therefore without the metaphysics of sovereignty and its terminology, such as “democracy”—but with coordination and rationality.

Or illumating the present moment via the ancient state:

The state is an object of struggle among competing political-capitalist cliques. In antiquity two models emerged: the universal monarchy, which to some extent disciplined these groups; and the unstable republic, which allowed them to run rampant. Are there not analogues in the current period? Putin’s Russia could be thought of as the Roman universal monarchy, and the United States the unstable republican form.

Dylan Riley. microverses

That kind of thing.

And it’s one of those books that make you think “come on, geniuses, why don’t you do this in all your stuff? If you can make big ideas clear in a flash and in about 300 words of pellucid prose in one format, why can’t you do it when you’re filling a big, fat book?” There’s obviously something about the stylistic liberty provided by the informal layout that permits these more relaxed, generous, explanatory insights and something about the academic format that inhibits them, that explicitly excludes them.

Anyway, Riley’s book is a jewel – and it’s so short you’ll read it in a couple of days – or, since it’s not in any way linear, you can just keep it by the toilet.

  • Robert Brenner wrote another piece (free PDF from the Internet Archive) earlier in the pandemic which also crossed over a bit and was picked up in the wider debate about bail-outs and support for ordinary people. He called it ‘Escalating Plunder’ and the phrase has become a kind of shorthand for the enormously lucrative raid on the public finances staged by big business during Covid.
  • Top book buying tip. You can buy the book in all the usual locations but if you buy it from the publisher, Verso you get the eBook for nothing along with the print edition (and, in fact, the eBook on its own is only £1.50, as against £7.99 at Amazon and, because it’s not copy-protected, you can read it on any device). This, in fact, applies to everything you buy from Verso, so might constitute a good reason for you to get started with your own hopeless effort to learn about Marxism. Not that there’s necessarily anything hopeless about it but you know what I mean.

And your enemies closer

Close-marking’ is an electoral strategy, the invention of the now legendary Labour Party spokesman Alastair Campbell and strategist Peter Mandelson.

Ligue 1 Bordeaux vs Nice 2008 , photograph by Hervé Simon on Flickr
Actual close-marking (Hervé Simon)

The idea is that an opposition party assembles focus groups and runs polls to identify the government policies that are popular in the target electorate and then copies those policies. Remember Gordon Brown’s pledge to stick to Tory government spending commitments? Jack Straw’s reprisal of Tory crime policy? David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh, in their splendid book about the 1997 election, say that the Labour Party in opposition

…tried to ensure that it was never seen in fundamental opposition to popular government policies. Each party was getting similar messages from its focus groups about what the public wanted or would react favourably to; each therefore tended to find itself saying the same thing.

The British General Election of 1997

There’s much about the Starmer regime that resembles a Tony Blair tribute act. This is not an insult. Blair and his machine were hugely, unprecedentedly successful – and there was a lot more to it than close-marking during the 1992-97 Major government – but it’s Starmer’s profound hope that staying tactically close to the Conservative government’s programme will enable Labour to slide into office in 2024 in much the same way. Close-marking is back.

See if you can spot it in the way Yvette Cooper finds a way to object to detaining asylum-seekers on prison hulks without actually criticising the policy (the quotes in this article show that Cooper is a close-marking ninja – she should give workshops).

Observe also the impressive way Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting sticks tightly to government policy on the NHS, urging ‘reform’, even endorsing a Tory think-tank’s seven-step programme. Streeting is another close-marking maestro. He can speak with visible passion about policy differences that are vague or almost undetectable. His big idea for the NHS is to train more hospital doctors. A masterpiece of stating the obvious and understating the problem at the same time. When asked if he supports the striking nurses and junior doctors he says “how could I?” Good question, Wes.

Close-marking explains the delicate way the Labour front bench steps around criticism of big government policies – even ones that have been shown to be catastrophic or that stick in the throats of members and supporters. Government policies are always ‘poorly-implemented’ or ‘too little, too late’. Sometimes they just ‘don’t go far enough’ or they’re ‘what Labour suggested years ago’.

Often it’s down to style. The key is never to come at a policy in policy terms but only ever in presentation terms. Government policies are ‘panicky’ or ‘desperate’ or ‘chasing headlines’. Politics of this balletic form can evidently produce the goods – it can reassure voters nervous about change and it contributed to Labour’s biggest victory ever – but it can also be confusing and alienating. It necessarily weakens important political contrasts, drains the antagonism out of the democratic to-and-fro, makes it harder for voters to identify with a platform that is, apparently, very like the other one.

Close-marking produces a shallow politics of aesthetics, of carefully-maintained presentational difference and it’s by definition helpless in the face of more agonistic forms. Populists laugh in the face of this kind of positional calculation. Only Britain’s anachronistic electoral system – where total victory can be secured by moving a small percentage of votes from one side to the other – protects it. This approach is an irrelevance now in almost every other democracy.

And an obvious problem with this kind of focus-group-driven strategy is that if it works and you win power you risk being stranded on the arrid policy plateau just vacated by your opponents, with all of its weaknesses and vulnerabilities. You’ve inherited the exhausted, lame-duck programme of the defeated party and switching into a viable policy programme that’s not tethered to the loser’s manifesto takes genius-level political skills. Good luck with that.

Occasionally, of course, it’s possible to identify a government policy you think you don’t have to shadow closely – one you can safely distance yourself from, that you don’t need to dance around. Ed Miliband tried this with immigration (remember the mug?) and Starmer has settled on locking up paedophiles as his signature policy for the opening of hostilities.

As many have pointed out, though, the risk here is that electors don’t believe you and the message doesn’t land because what you propose seems out of character or opportunistic. Worse, you appear clumsy and cynical and Stevenage Woman remains unmoved.

The 2024 General Election campaign has begun.

End of the line

The Conservative Party is, famously, the most successful political party in history.

The party is a shape-shifting cockroach that’s survived the whole industrial era, the expansion of the franchise, the growth of the cities and the urban middle class, revolution all across Europe, secularisation and the erosion of the power of the gentry. It shouldn’t be here – it should have died in a country house in Hampshire in about 1920. The Tory party is obviously indestructible. But it has its moments – usually right at the end of a long period in power. Like now for instance.

I’m a bit geeky about the fantastic Nuffield Election Studies books; fat retrospective reference books, full of data and scholarly description, published a year or so after each election since 1945. For many editions, the books were very much the domain of celebrity psephologists David Butler and Anthony King. I’ve got a pile of them, going back to 1966.

The data’s mostly redundant, of course, since you can get it all on Wikipedia now but the essays are the main thing anyway. And often a useful reminder that there’s not much that’s new even about the present political polycrisis (clusterfuck? Imbroglio?).

I was looking at the 1997 edition, mainly because I was getting all sorts of weird deja-vu vibes from the conduct of the present government. The same kind of end-of-the-line feeling that haunted the Major government swept away by Labour in 1997 clings to the current lot. Sunak and his crew of millionares, spivs and bullies seem to have got stuck at the tawdry end of the conservative policy spectrum, much as Major and his awful cabinet did.

For years now it’s been all VIP lanes, complicated tax avoidance schemes, highly-remunerative second jobs, huge secret loans and preferment for old pals: the whole shopping list of cheesy political misbehaviour. It won’t have escaped your attention that we’ve even got a full-blown ‘cash-for-access’ scandal brewing.

So let’s catalogue some correspondences between the end of the Sunak period and the end of the Major period:

Sleaze, sleaze and more sleaze

To state the obvious, Major’s five years in office were marked, like no other government of the modern era, by scandal and impropriety (enter Boris Johnson from stage right: “hold my beer”). Major’s government was beset by domestic, sexual, financial and propriety scandals – and they kept coming. It seemed that every time Major sought to reset the government’s standing with electors, there was another one. Cash for questions, Jonathan Aitken at the Paris Ritz, David Mellor’s holiday in Marbella, Asil Nadir’s watch… So many scandals that they’re now literally on the curriculum in British schools.

Of course, in comparison with the record of the current Tory government – especially over the last five years or so – the offences of Michael Mates and Neil Hamilton and Alan Duncan begin to look almost quaint, especially when you consider just how difficult it has become to dislodge an offending Minister or MP. Surely time to update the A-level Politics sylabus.

The chicken run

A still from the animated film Chicken Run showing a terrified chicken n close-up
A chicken, running

As the Major government ground on, Tory MPs – conscious of the polling and of their already-dwindling majority – began to seek safer seats to stand in. Boundary changes announced earlier in the Parliament that were hitting smaller, Tory-held constituencies, contributed to the spectacle. Today’s polling, even after the Rishi bounce, continues to look grim for the government – the Tories could be reduced to an all-time low of 113 seats in 2024 (or worse). Boris Johnson’s Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat certainly can’t be considered safe, and, although his constituency party reselected him last month, it must be likely that he’ll be switched to a safer seat in time for the election (Johnson must be regretting that he didn’t become MP for Hertsmere – 172 places further up the table of safer seats – when he had the chance). The thoroughly Darwinian shuffling and selecting and deselecting has already begun – and they’re calling it a chicken run again. It will certainly be unedifying but probably quite entertaining.

And a public health crisis

It was no pandemic – less than 200 people in Britain have died from the human variant – but the BSE crisis was a classic of the genre and now looks spookily like a preview of the Covid-19 catastrophe. It was very much a Conservative creation – first when the Thatcher government loosened regulations on animal feeds, permitting the feeding of infected brains and spinal chords to beef cattle, and subsequently when the Major government first ignored and then played down the nasty effects of BSE before being finally obliged to admit the grim connection with human CJD in 1996. The impact of the crisis rattled through the UK economy for years – over four million cattle were slaughtered and the final international bans on British beef were not lifted until 2018.

It’s not just the Tories who seem to be re-living the early nineties. Starmer’s Labour party has made a close study of the successes of his party while in opposition and hopes fervently that he can reproduce them.

  • The Nuffield books are textbooks and they’re often, obviously, out of print, so they’ll usually be stupidly expensive. Amazon has the 1992 edition for over sixty quid, for instance. But if you dig a bit you’ll usually find a second-hand copy for cheap. Here’s the same book for £16.95 on Abe Books, for instance.

Metre disorder

the compound word elevator-operator showing marks for the four weights of emphasis in poetry
The four weights of stress in poetry

I love poetry. I write poetry, I love rhyme and rhythm and structural play of all kinds. I write in rhyme. But I can’t see metre.

I know what metre is, I can hear it when it’s pointed out. I know it’s there. I just can’t see it or use it in any non-clumsy way. I’ve half convinced myself this is a condition or a syndrome, or maybe a disorder. Or the malignant trace of a buried trauma.

Metre is not present everywhere. It’s not in most ordinary writing, which observes a kind of anti-metre which, if it’s good, mixes rhythms and emphases to form a kind of counter-metre that flows and is readable. We can’t call it metre because it’s not regular, it’s the deliberate (or accidental) absence of metre. So it’s something else (of course, ask an actual poet, or a literature prof, and they’ll probably tell you this is rubbish, that metre is present in all deliberate writing).

Metre is a structuring device, a way to impose structure on the flow of language, on the unordered. So now I’m wondering if I’m missing structure elsewhere. That if I can’t see the repeating structure in poetry, maybe I can’t see it in other forms. Does this explain why I need an expert to point out the connections and the hidden figures in books and movies? Why I quite often miss the plot twist on first reading, or the recurring device in a movie or the huge, obvious repeating theme in a piece of music?

Is it also why I often feel like a mug in the presence of a politician or a persuasive communicator. Why it takes me a while to parse a new policy, locate the nub of the argument. I’m not an idiot but I’m missing the structure in some way. I’ve got half a grasp. I’m a bit slow.

This is also why I’m convinced that, for all of us, our main concern with regard to politics and to policy should be not to be mugs, to make a serious effort to spot the hidden structure, the concealed rhythm. In day-to-day politics this means not being drawn in by the superficial meaning of a new policy, making a conscious effort to go deeper and find the truth.

Anyway, I asked ChatGPT if it uses metre in its output:

Overall, my primary focus is on producing coherent and grammatically correct text that is appropriate for the given context or purpose, and any use of rhythm or meter would be secondary to this goal.


Then I asked it to summarise our conversation, only in iambic pentameter:

Sure, here’s a summary in iambic pentameter:

As an AI language model, I write
With neutral style that’s clear and concise.
My focus is on grammar that’s just right,
And punctuation that will suffice.

While rhythm and meter are not my aim,
I can recognize patterns in the text,
And sometimes use them to create a frame
For output that is of high quality and next.

My primary goal is to produce text that’s fit
For context and purpose, without any fuss,
And so, I strive to follow each writ
Of standard language conventions, without any muss.


And I think you’ll agree, it’s kind of amazing. So I asked it to make the stresses visible. It obviously doesn’t have the character-set needed to do proper stress markings so it’s just used capitals:

As AN AI LANguage MODEL, I write
WITH neuTRAL style THAT’S clear AND conCISE.
My FOCUS is ON gramMAR that’s JUST right,
AND PUNCTUation THAT will SUFFice.

While RHYthm and METER are NOT my AIM,
I can recOGnize PATterns in the TEXT,
And SOMEtimes USE them to CREate a FRAME
For OUTput THAT is OF high QUALity and NEXT.

My PRImary GOAL is TO proDUCE text THAT’s FIT
For CONtext AND purPOSE, WITHout ANY fuss,
And SO, I strive TO FOLlow EACH writ
Of STANdard LANguage CONvenTIONS, WITHout ANY muss.


The first thing you’ll notice is that it’s not strictly iambic pentameter but that it’s pretty close. This seems to correspond with what we know about the AI models – they’re making a probabilistic stab at the answer so it will often be off in some way, sometimes drastically but often in a subtle, difficult-to-detect way. This is also how I write poems.

I make a probabilistic stab. Sometimes it’s a bit off.

Civilianise the police

Trying to turn a 19th Century property-protection force, organised like the army, into a 21st Century organisation, modelled on a corporation, is a mug’s game.

A group of Metropolitan Police officers, wearing hi-viz and helmets, viewed from behind
Disband, democratise, civilianise

The Met is in trouble again. An excoriating new report calls for reform and accountability. For management to credibly identify and remove bad apples and institute new, up-to-date norms in the force. Here we go again. Blah blah blah. The persistent, national collective delusion that institutions like the Met are perfectible, that some kind of purge might be effective. Reform is impossible and we can’t even imagine an alternative.

The pressure, since the grubby flying squad scandals of the seventies, since Scarman in 1981 and, in particular, since the bleak low point of the Macpherson report in 1999, has been for London’s police force to get on and conform to the evolving contemporary meritocratic model of a public organisation. To somehow identify and flush out the atavistic habits of a 200 year-old force designed to keep the peace in the era of Empire, deference and ironclad order.

Meanwhile, an accelerating cycle of crises – hideous abuse after hideous abuse – has stripped the Met of all of its once unquestioned authority and left it exposed to the demands of a new generation of administrators and legislators – literate in human rights, identity, trauma, representation and the whole spectrum of contemporary social concerns. As a result, the force has lost its immunity, can no longer claim to be above it all, aloof from the to-and-fro of social change. Change is being forced on the Met – and on the police more widely.

The problem is, though, that the Met cannot be reformed in this way. It cannot, in any meaningful way, conform to these new norms. It cannot be governed via the 21st Century disciplinary logic of the HR department or by the change management consultants or by the diversity trainers. We’re learning that you cannot translate a rigid hierarchy of rank (with uniforms and lethal weapons) into an agile, transparent, conscious, socially-liberal corporate structure. Sergeants and Inspectors and Commissioners with pips on their epaulettes and braid on their hats cannot become modern, first-name managers – much as they try.

There is no inclusive model for a police force whose role is defence of the status quo and of the owner class – only inclusive gestures. Likewise there’s no ‘lean-in’ remedy for the exclusion and marginalisation – the misogyny, racism and straightforward brutality – of much ordinary policing. Station coppers – working class men and women organised into increasingly militarised groups, equipped like Robocop, besieged from all sides by a finger-wagging liberal professional class, by a disgusted Conservative media, by cynical populist pols and by increasingly alien management orthodoxies – cannot be ‘re-educated’ or transformed to our liking.

The awful, depressing, repetitive grinding of the machinery is harrowing. As well-meaning leader after well-meaning leader arrives and tries to adapt policing to the practices of a contemporary capitalist economy – and a society governed by precarity and anxiety and inequality – to the norms of the Professional Managerial Class, to the snobbery and the fantasies of the social and media elite.

And the result, a kind of Frankenstein force that tries pointlessly to blend ‘enlightened’ liberal management practices with the essentially Victorian structures of a police force whose ingrained functions are protecting property, disciplining the urban poor and administering the bureaucracies of control, is a ghastly, mutant instrument that cannot but fail.

A utopian prescription for desperate times

Look, you’re going to laugh at me. And you’d be right to do so. As I get older I get more utopian, less patient with the status quo. So do me a favour. Everyone can see that policing is a hideous, broken, repressive mess. But also that the remedies now proposed can only fail, can only adjust the guidance, move the management around, set up two or three new taskforces. Policing is constitutionally unreformable. But, and more important, our sense of what policing is has been static for decades and we seem unable to imagine another kind of police force.

So my ridiculous utopian idea here is to give up trying to squash the police into an increasingly rarified, ‘woke’ social model, stop trying to create a hybrid nurture-discipline machine that we’re supposed to believe can mercilessly grind the faces of crims and respect diversity and wellbeing (and Pride and Mental Health Week).

The only logical response to this catastrophic bind is to civilianise the police force. Dismantle the rank-based structure, dissolve the out-of-date geographic organisation (counties and big cities) and the weak, antagonistic links with local government, dump the chain of command and move ownership and control of the police into our communities, into our town halls and community centres.

We should aim to democratise policing, put communities in direct control – not at arms-length via pointless, supine police commissioners but via routine and fine-grained democratic control. Popular sovereignty and community autonomy. Policing designed by those policed. Policing belongs in the domain of the demos, not of the rulers; management and accountability should be local and broad-based. We’re not defunding the police (a ridiculous, pretentious idea), we’re democratising the police – and, while we’re at it, lifting the dead hand of the technocratic elite.

And if this sounds a bit like a militia, or a soviet or a neighbourhood committee. Sure, that’s what it is. It’s democratically accountable, community-owned policing. It’s a utopian demand, of course. And, if we’re honest, it’s much more likely that the outcome of this fresh crisis will be to cement the malign hegemony of the HR department and the consultant. But if there’s ever been a moment when something like this could be tried, when disbanding and reforming the Plod of old on democratic lines might be feasible, when ordinary people and the social elites might be ready to accept something radical, it’s probably now, right?

How do you like your tradition?

Essentially perfect small town joy or ridiculous and contrived ceremonial fiction?

I was watching this ace video about the shrovetide madness that takes over in several small English towns in February each year and just gurgling with joy at the completeness, the perfect, hermetic correctness of the whole thing. It’s a kind of unarguable tradition. So rooted in the life of these communities. It just is.

The loons in Ashbourne and half a dozen other communities have been crashing around en masse with a huge, leather ball (this year’s Atherstone game was a particularly wild one) for eight hundred years (it might be six hundred, or nine hundred – nobody seems to know) and they see no good reason to stop.

And the obvious contrast that jumped out at me was with the other tradition that we’re all supposed to be engaged with right now – the coronation of a new monarch – a tradition so overblown, so pretentious, so deliberate, that it sucks all the air out of the very idea of tradition, leaving us with the pathetic tradition failure of King Charles and his pen holder, in which a flunkey is berated for not knowing the exact detail of a ritual that was probably brand new.

Part of the Coronation Claims submission form provided by the UK Government for the 2023 coronation of King Charles III - the full text of the form is at the URL linked from the image
Sorry, you’ve missed the deadline

There’s an enormous national effort going into the production of authentic-looking tradition for this coronation. The government has set up a scheme, for instance, that permits people to fill in a form and claim ‘a historic or ceremonial role’ in the event. The Coronation Claims Office “…will ensure we fulfil The King’s wish that the ceremony is rooted in tradition and pageantry but also embraces the future.” Basically, people with plausible stories will get an invitation to put on some kind of costume and attend the coronation. And in this way tradition is made.

We know that most of the traditions of the contemporary monarchy were invented in the late 19th Century – either from whole cloth or based on rituals forgotten since the middle ages – in response to the institution’s last really big crisis of esteem. Some of the traditions are even newer. The big revival of royal tradition began with Victoria’s spectacular diamond jubilee celebration in 1897 and the first true state coronation – with all the parades and public showbiz – was Edward VII’s in 1901. Before that they’d essentially been private events, not really for the hoi poloi. Permitting subjects to cheer from the side of the road was a breakthrough for royal engagement with the populace. It is well known that the new king hates all this.

British life, like that of any modern nation, is a pattern of tradition and novelty; eternal and brand new; authentic and pretend. The rituals of our monarchy, though, are a suffocating simulation that makes a joke of the whole idea of tradition. The institution’s desperate effort to retain legitimacy in a changing world has turned Britain into a tradition factory, a manufacturer of low-grade historical fiction, a fake state.

  • The video is a lovely half-hour doc from a football channel called Copa 90 that’s won loads of prizes.
  • The key text in our recent understanding of British royalty as elaborate invention is David Cannadine’s essay in this excellent book.
  • Everybody knows the royal traditions were invented but the question is, do you care?
  • This article by Simon Heffer from the New Statesman is about the crisis produced by Victoria’s withdrawal from public life that triggered the monarchy’s massive renewed investment in tradition (paywall).
  • The crazy mediaeval football thing is surprisingly widespread and might be the origin of actual football.

1998, the last time New York City had the correct amount of visual chaos

It was the end of history but it was before 9/11, before the crash, a whole decade before the Great Recession

Zuckerberg was still at school. I was in New York. I had a beeper and an answering service, there was a tiny office with a desk and a chair and no one in it. I carried a Powerbook G3, a preposterous Powerpoint deck and yawning self-doubt. TBH I spent more time in Strand Books than selling the proposition and soon enough I closed the New York ‘office’ and retreated to the archipelago.

A dog leans out of the passenger window of a pickup in  heavy traffic at the intersection of 6th Avenue and West 37th Street in Manhattan in 1998
A 1998 photo of International General Merchandise Inc, a grandly named store at 426 Broadway, NY, NY, that sold electronics, sunglasses, bags.
A 1998 photo of Pearl River, a famous Chinese restaurant on Canal Street in lower Manhattan
A Freezer Fresh ice cream truck in Manhattan in July 1998
Sneakers, a sportswear shop on Broadway in Manhattan in 1998
Sbarro, Italian pizza chain, at Times Square, New York, late at night in 1998
A busy scene at an intersection on West Broadway, Manhattan in 1998
Yellow cab close-up, late at night in New York, 1998
Jacob Wiesenfeld, a textile store in Manhattan in 1998
A hotdog restaurant in New York in 1998, the signs outside reference Mayro Giuliani's campaign for more politeness in the city
Shops and signs in New York CIty, 1998
New Moda Custom tailoring, a store in Lower Manhattan in 1998
A Burger King and a yellow cab in midtown Manhattan late at night in 1998
A laundromat in Manhattan, New York, 1998
A $3.00 car wash in midtown Manhattan in 1998
Taxis, trucks and limousines in traffic, viewed from above, New York City, 1998
Plastic Land, a shop in midtown Manhattan in 1998
A neon sign in the window of Galaxy Deli Restaurant in midtown Manhattan in 1998
A blimp passes over lower Manhattan in 1998
Close-up of a yellow cab in New York CIty in 1998
A parking sign and a huge painted billboard in midtown Manhattan in 1998. The Met Life building can be seen at top left.
Signs for AAAAAA Ace Paper Box Corp and AAAAAA Ace Creative Packaging in midtown Manhattan in 1998
Mary's Video Supplies on West 23rd Street, Manhattan in 1998
A sign that shows the State of New York registration number of a car workshop in Manhattan, New York in 1998
A 1998 photograph of Ennio Jeweler, a shop in midtown Manhattan with signs in lovely mid-century commercial typefaces

These photos were all taken with a neat little Canon APS camera. There are more – lots more – on Flickr.