Of Giants and Donkeys

According to the Sunday Times, the pending General Election will be “the battle of the Svengalis” (paywall) – between Dominic Cummings and Seamus Milne.

Unsurprisingly, Brexit limbo and #GE2019 was THE theme for the SmallDataForum as we recorded episode 30 on All Hallows Day 2019, otherwise known as #NoBrexitDay.

And since the PM whisperer has so much more of a public profile than his equivalent for the leader of Her Majesty’s opposition, it was Dominic “Machiavelli” Cummings, rather than the invisible man (paywall) behind Jeremy Corbyn, who enjoyed our full attention. Or at least mine.

More than anything through his expansive, Joycean blogs, the man who has earned the title shadow Prime Minister (unlike Jeremy Corbyn) has given us generous insight into his mind world, and the manifold giants upon whose shoulders he stands, to see further than most mere mortals. Unherd recently listed the “10 brains behind Dominic Cummings”, and the list is as curiously eclectic as one might or might not expect, ranging from Sun Tzu to Otto von Bismarck, from T.S Eliot to Richard Feynman, and way beyond.

Strangely, though, when I ponder the allegedly diabolical genius behind many a Boris and Brexit trope, a very different inspiration surfaces. Sadly I lack the Classics grounding of my fellow podcaster Sam, but I dare say the juvenile consumption of the collective works by Goscinny and Uderzo of Asterix the Gaul has provided rich comparative material over the years.

Thus it is the Roman agent Tortuous Convolvulus that comes to mind – the sloppily dressed windup merchant from the 1970 story, the psychological warfare weapon that Julius Caesar unleashes upon the indomitable Gauls, to sow jealousy, discord, and strife in the small village. And to great effect.

There is so much talk about ‘playbooks’ these days. Aspiring online trolls the world over could do considerably worse than learning from Asterix and the Roman agent (spoiler alert, though: it’s the Gauls who are laughing last; at least in the story).

To be fair to #ClassicDom, the media and expert hype heaped upon him as the brain wot won the EU Referendum would make it only too understandable if he got a little light headed on his own Kool-aid. Watching Mr “Choice Architecture” Rory Sutherland giving him the stage at Nudgestock 2017 is quite a sight to behold. Jingoism, xenophobia, us vs them-ism sound so much more highbrow when couched in the language of psychology and data science.

As Sam reminds us, we make decisions emotionally and then justify them rationally. And the more our justifications get challenged, the more we hang on to them. My friend Kris de Meyer spoke about this at TEDxLondon in June – he believes we can get the genie of polarisation back into the bottle.

Well it’s not likely to happen in British public discourse over the next few weeks, as Cummings, Milne and Co. have the entire Great British electorate to play with, where tried and tested tactics will bring another onslaught of focus group forged three-word imperatives such as “get Brexit done” and “leave means leave”. Or in the case of Labour in 2017, the double treble of “for the many, not the few”.

Which brings me to those most magnificent of Brexit commentators, the “four men with a ladder” of #LedByDonkeys  fame, who now have their first book out. It’s Neville’s first physical book purchase for years, and an early SmallDataForum Christmas present recommendation.

Cambridge Analytica whistle blower Christopher Wylie also has a book to his name now. In Mindf*ck, he continues his critical reflection and introspection regarding his role in the fine mess that we’re finding ourselves in. John Naughton’s review provides good insight. As does the interview Wylie gave Radio 4’s Beyond Today programme a couple of weeks ago.

Critical introspection is also what may have driven Twitter’s Jack Dorsey in his decision to stop all political advertising on Twitter. Although, given the timing of his tweeted announcement, which coincided perfectly with Facebook’s earnings call, it was surely at least in part a riposte to Mark Zuckerberg’s dismissive comments about Twitter’s importance on a recent townhall, the full transcripts of which were published as a scoop by the Verge. It would seem there’s about as much love lost between Zuck and Jack, as there is between Farage and Cummings , the carapaces surrounding each man’s ego equally fragile.

What all of this will mean for the pending UK elections? Only a fool would dare a prediction, and so here are ours: following Sir John Curtice (and a growing number of pundits) each of us foresees a hung parliament – which wouldn’t bode well for our modern Tortuous Convolvulus and his chubby Caesar. That would make a ‘remain coalition’ and a second referendum rather likely (as argued by Ken Clarke), and I express the hope that this would also reinvigorate the debate around electoral reform.

Neville is convinced that the system is not going to change – perhaps but the electorate is, and wasn’t there something about democracy and the sovereignty of the people?

Anyway, on the 17 December, when the ‘three wise men’ of the SmallDataForum gather for their festive luncheon, we will have a result to discuss. We will fight our Brexhaustion over Italian wine and pizza, in defiant mainland European style.

Listen to Episode 30:

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