The tyranny of the tiny
Martin McCluskey asks us to consider the important work we could be doing if we weren’t stuck dealing with politically manufactured problems like Brexit and Trump. This article was originally published on Martin’s own blog.
Last week, Elon Musk launched a rocket that could take a man to Mars.
At the same time, in Scotland, some SNP MPs were arguing about the shape of a map. In Washington, President Trump hatched a plan to have tanks roll down Pennsylvania Avenue. And in London, the Brexit shambles carried on.
Never has politics felt so small (while the consequences are so great) and our leaders so unsuited to a time of massive technological and social change. Donald Dewar once referred to the “tyranny of the tiny” in response to those who would take Scotland out of the UK. Today, we are at the mercy of a new tyranny of the tiny, as too many world leaders look the other way on problems that are just around the corner.
At the turn of the 21st century, we looked forward to a period of prosperity, where we could be happier, healthier and safer than we ever were in the 20th. In large part, that’s exactly what has happened. We’re living longer as the threat of disease and famine has diminished. Our standard of living has improved, even if it needs to move quicker to keep up with other changes. And while war once claimed the lives of millions in a matter of months, today’s conflicts — while still horrifying — have not had the same impact.
As Barack Obama put it when he edited Wired in 2017, “if you had to choose any time in the course of human history to be alive, you’d choose this one.”
But still, insecurity and uncertainty prevail, brought about by a lack of proper national leadership. Debates between members of the government in the UK look like arguments between members of a special interest club, not between people we put in charge of running our country.
When my generation looks back on this period in forty or fifty years, it is at risk of looking like a waste of a great opportunity. Here we are — healthier and safer than we ever were — but looking inwards, and being held back by Prime Ministers and Presidents who are hostages to the extreme fringes of their political movements.
And if we don’t get a grip, the next series of major changes to how our world operates will happen before we’ve even had the chance to think about what to do about them. Just think about what could be achieved with real progressive leadership in a world where Brexit or Trump had been defeated, not by a narrow margin but by a significant progressive majority.
In that scenario we could be using the time now to prepare our country, and our world, for the challenges that are coming round the corner. Real challenges that are going to affect the way we live and work, whether we like it or not, and not ones that we have created for ourselves, like leaving the European Union.
We could be working even harder to achieve the real progress on climate change which threatens the lives of millions of people. We could be building a progressive consensus on how to tackle income and wealth inequality, which risks tearing the fabric of our society apart. And we could be getting to grips with how artificial intelligence and automation can make our lives better, rather than simply being a risk to jobs.
Instead we are, at best, tinkering around the edges and, at worst, sticking our fingers in our ears as we focus on politically manufactured problems. So when people ask why we need real progressive leadership today in the UK from Labour, or in the US from the Democrats or in any of the leading world economies, it’s not just because I want to see my side win. It’s because we quite literally can’t afford for them not to.
While tech experts and entrepreneurs are putting rockets into space and coding the next algorithm that could put thousands of people out of work, public debate has become more and more narrow. As one leading coding expert said to me recently, “it’s not that we don’t want to talk to politicians, we just aren’t speaking the same language any more”.
In an environment where experts, facts, reason and logic are derided, this might not be a surprise. However, we proceed on this basis at the expense of a whole generation whose lives will be affected (for good or ill) by the major changes we are currently ignoring. For the very large majority of under 35s who voted to Remain — and who will inherit the results of the Brexit negotiations — there needs to be a progressive argument that addresses the triple challenge of climate change, inequality and automation that will define this generation’s prospects.
When John F Kennedy announced his intention to send a man to the moon over fifty years ago, he spoke about a generation refusing to “founder in the backwash of the coming age”. Last week, Elon Musk built on the legacy of Kennedy’s leadership, and billions of dollars of historic public investment, to put a rocket into space.
Fifty years from now, will we look back on this period as the peaceful and prosperous moment where we met the challenges of the future, or as the time when politics failed to command a majority for progress? The challenge now is to engage with the future, instead of being held hostage by our pasts.