THE ‘FISCAL EVENT’ OF KWASi KWARTENG AND LIZ TRUSS brought the nation to the edge of a 2008-level financial collapse in September. The blinkered and arrogant insouciance which informed it had long been visible in the sweeping, unevidenced assertions of Britannia Unchained and we will all be paying for it for years to come.
Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity was published in September 2012. Its authors were five ambitious young Conservative MPs: Kwasi Kwarteng, Liz Truss, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab and Chris Skidmore. They were all elected to parliament in for the first time in 2010 and, with the exception of Skidmore, who has announced that he will not be standing at the next General Election, have been controversial and poorly performing ministers.
The assertion which has become most widely known from this book – “The British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music”– would be quickly demolished by any A level teacher or university tutor. Lazy, prejudiced and without supporting evidence, it is a horrifying example of the manner in which group-think and personal bias may embed bigotry not only in an electorate, but in policy-making at the highest levels of government.
The attitudes crystallised in this piece of jejune and irresponsible writing are at the root of what happened in September and of the consequent defenestration of both Chancellor and Prime Minister – to say nothing of the massive harm done to the UK economy, to responsible governance and to the standing of the UK on the international stage. All for a poorly informed rant from a small group of people supporting each other’s world view and who wanted to appear decisive and radical. The hard of thinking will always find easy, unchallenged popularity in each other’s company.
Around a month after this debacle, multi-billionaire Elon Musk set the world of Twitter astir. Advertisers fled in droves, as did users of the platform. Skilled and essential members of staff were disposed of and something of a panic arose in the Twittersphere. As its new owner chopped, changed and postured, the turbulence was summed up in a timely snapshot by Ekklesia Director Simon Barrow.
The breadth of a peer or influence group is significant. Small coteries are easily carried away by their own unexamined excitement and desire to impress each other. And the more powerful the members of of the coterie are – or perceive themselves to be – the more likely they are to do serious harm. Indeed, they tend to see that harm as part of the excitement and as a signifier of their superiority. Mark Zuckerberg’s motto “move fast and break things” perfectly captures the self-regarding, futile disruption which is often taken as cutting edge and therefore worthy of emulation.
Most of us are not politicians, billionaires or tech bros. But it would be unwise to imagine that we are immune to some of the hubristic desires they display: to be ‘in’ with our peers, to be thought of as movers and shakers or as someone who will always have a go-to opinion in a fast moving world. We may be afraid to say “I don’t know” or “I need to think further about that”; afraid that refraining from expressing an opinion may be seen as inadequacy rather than discernment; eager to appear dynamic, whatever the consequences may be.
Robert Frost offered the concept of the road less travelled as the one which makes all the difference. It may not be easy to make that choice. The fork in the road can be difficult to see because what is closest to us is often the hardest to discern: “you don’t see the tiger that eats you”. And even when the way is clear to the eye, the decision to diverge from the peer group can be daunting.
But it is worth creating a degree of distance from egotistical iconoclasts when making that decision. The individuals or groupings who ignore experts and ride roughshod over the accumulated wisdom they dismiss as ‘orthodoxy’, do immense damage. Far from being intrepid pioneers, carving out a way into new territory, they are the prisoners of a cruel and chaotic mindset which leads nowhere in its desire to be admired and/or feared.
Confidence grows best alongside humility. Standing back to listen and reflect is the less frequented route which opens the path to considered ground and this is the region from which it may indeed be possible to “make all the difference”. Find that standing. Move a little more slowly. Mend the broken.
© Jill Segger (England) is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, The Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Her acclaimed book Words Out of Silence was published by Ekklesia in 2019. She is an active member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and has a particular interest in how spirituality influences our social and political choices. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Jill became an honorary associate director in 2010 and works on editorial issues. She is also a musician and has been a composer. Her recent columns are available here and her pre-2021 articles can be found here. You can follow Jill on Twitter: @quakerpen