Sunday, July 01, 2007


I finally realised what my Big Idea about the Triesman Scheme for National Phrenology was. It's that British politics is afflicted with scienciness, by analogy to "truthiness". Thinking about the obsession with biometric quackery, I realised that over the last 10 years we've been governed by people who like the idea of science, but not anything specifically scientific because they don't have the knowledge, and not the scientific method because it requires a degree of intellectual discipline they simply don't want.

In Conrad's The Secret Agent, the Russian intelligence rezident who calls his agent Mr. Verloc in for a bollocking proceeds to brief him on a scheme to stage a provocation, in which an attack must be made on "science". The spook argues that only this will scare the British middle classes, because they can rationalise an attack on the rich and don't care about culture or politics, but do believe that science is somehow connected with their prosperity. Further, blowing up something scientific is so completely mindless that it's truly scary. (He doesn't think of the obvious response, which is to write it off as the act of a madman.)

Similarly, Tony Blair and his governments had a vague realisation that science (or more accurately, technology) was of economic importance. But his assortment of lawyers and professional politicians never had any sense of what scientists might want or need, and were deeply averse to taking scientific advice precisely because it was scientific, and thus tended to say that their ideas might be impossible, impractical, or misguided. If your political approach is based on operationalised postmodernism, you're unlikely to enjoy advice from a fundamentally modernist intellectual community.

So, Blair swung towards things that felt like science. Scienciness! And the things were those of the last period when he had neither been immersed in the law or politics - the early 1970s. Hence Maglev, monster mainframes, second-generation nuclear power, CCTV, and ID control. There's also the ressentiment factor - the drive to define against a strawman of the Left meant that the project took the opposite side to things the 70s and 80s green-left disliked. John O'Farrell, I seem to remember, once wrote that science seemed vaguely rightwing to his generation of the soft-left.

Curiously, but not at all surprisingly, all these technologies fulfil the requirements of what I call creationist technology. Highly centralised and capital-intensive, with very long OODA loops, they are highly congenial to managerialism and the politics of press-onitis.

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