The Concentric Parallocracy
by Alastair Singleton
2019 brought what was later seen as the perfect storm in UK politics. All that followed – and marks our world today - can trace the origins of its various elements back to the unholy mess that was laughingly known at the time as the Brexit Debate. Laughingly, you ask? Well, yes – in truth there was no real debate in any generally understood sense of the word, and, as it turned out, there was no actual Brexit either.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Where to start? With the benefit of hindsight, there were always a number of themes coming together, and the final outcome was not only entirely logical, but also, many would say, inevitable. The key one, of course, was that the traditional Westminster democratic model – two major parties with a first past the post system which effectively excluded outsiders, and where the whips aimed to stifle at conception, any sign of independent thought – was visibly creaking and beginning to fall apart at the edges.
An element of that was that the role that individual MPs saw for themselves had also fundamentally changed. They increasingly considered themselves as less representatives of the voters who sent them to the Commons, and more as an elite endowed with exceptional powers of thought and judgement, who, in the majority of constituencies, had nothing to fear from a regime where the electorate were seen to be doing their democratic duty if they paid their taxes and put an ‘X’ in a box once every five years. They rarely answered constituents’ letters or emails, and employed - often on an unpaid, intern basis – ambitious young graduates to handle their constituency casework. No wonder that a large swathe of the country became ever more disenchanted with politics and a system which seemed increasingly uninterested in and irrelevant to the challenges and struggles they faced in their daily lives.
On the economic front, the model pursued by both main parties recognised individuals and families as little more than consuming units of calculation. They had to be kept purchasing to keep the economy afloat, and they had to be accumulating debt to keep the banks in business. Meaning, values and wellbeing had no place in the model unless they could be accorded a monetary cost.
People began to lose hope. Distrust in ‘the system’, in politicians and in a factionalised, largely post-truth media grew, and, alongside it, flourished apathy. Fewer and fewer people could be bothered to be engaged, and society gradually polarised. Ever larger numbers lived an increasingly web and screen-based existence, claiming hundreds of friends on social media but rarely leaving their sofas to venture into the harsh world of reality. The exceptions – often characterised as metropolitan, liberal or elite – began to gather in exclusive, sometimes gated, neighbourhoods, and called out, blogged and pontificated into their own echo chambers.
The Young Foundation analysed what was going on and theorised about a ‘connectocracy’, a world in which those with both connections and exceptional emotional intelligence would gain influence and traction and then float gently to the top.
The Brexit negotiations, you may remember, were not going well. No side latterly even claimed to have a cohesive case for its position, and no solution of any hue seemed capable of gaining popular or even majority support as the Article 50 deadline rumbled ever closer. Politicians with an agenda and police commanders with impending pay negotiations muttered darkly about trouble on the streets.
Perhaps surprisingly, our saviour was a Frenchman. President Macron is a passionate European and much less anti-Brit than popular prejudice, historical precedent or Nigel Farage might have you believe. Seeing real challenge in the gathering clouds that the centrifugal forces of narrow nationalism represented to the very essence of the European project, he had a dream. He saw a Europe of concentric circles in which all could find a home. At the very centre would be France and Germany, with a few other Eurozone enthusiasts, and they could motor ahead towards the ever-closer political union of their most frenzied desires. Next might come a ring of rather less enthusiastic Eurozone countries, and outside those a final circle of countries who wanted to be part of Europe, but as supporters and participants in its trade and cultural parts, while avoiding (with honour) political subjugation. Within this outer ring, he argued, Britain could find a home – a place in the sun, even if the sunshine can at times be a little hazy at that remove.
With the stock market in meltdown, sterling falling like a stone and migrant labour fleeing Dover in record numbers, even dappled sunshine had a wonderful allure. Brussels stopped the clock – and because of a procedural issue I cannot in truth pretend to understand, although I gather it has something to do with French milk quotas – it remains 31st October to this day. Farage was granted French citizenship and made a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur, and our scallop fishermen were a ready sacrifice for Eurobond concessions in the City of London. We were back, all was made up, and sweetness and light reigned everywhere. A tearful Jeremy Corbyn and emotional Boris Johnson embraced at PMQs. If Julie Andrews had been available, there was an opening for a song. And it could all have ended there.
But it didn’t – and herein lies the interest. The concept of concentric circles caught, it transpires, the imagination of the bright young things in the Conservative Research Department, and, in a vape-filled room, a new model was cooked up. At a stroke, it seemed, the problems of the disconnect in society, the sense of disempowerment and the dysfunctionality of Parliament could all be sorted. If Europe could have concentric circles, the argument went, why couldn’t we, as nation states, do likewise?
Drawing on the RSA’s work around deliberative democracy, where electors can engage directly in decision-making, a pattern emerged. A Russian software house was cheapest in the expanded EU procurement scheme and created an algorithm of quite breath-taking sophistication. Logged-into via a Facebook or X-Box interface, it enabled the recumbent masses to vote or opine on every political issue of the day. Their preferences were recorded in real time via the dark web in Moscow, while in the UK each input tweaked the algorithm which sought always to find an equilibrium. Whatever was fed in, the result remained for ever in perfect balance. The citizenry rejoiced in their new sense of empowerment, and national wellbeing levels blossomed.
And beyond this lay the scarcely perceived second circle. Within this circle, Facebook and the X-Box had no place. In it a small network of largely metropolitan, liberal and elite, using the networks gained at Eton, the other public schools and Oxbridge, bolstered by friends with new-found or long-established wealth, made the decisions as they have always done. The Prime Minister spoke of our powerful, energised and burgeoning polity, while emotion-driven thumbs up and down the land pumped likes and emojis into their handsets, phones and controllers. Markets rose on optimism and confidence, sterling rebounded and our European neighbours regained their place as friends and allies. They returned in their tens of thousands to our car washes, our hospitals and the bleak wind-swept fields of East Anglia.
Backbench MPs found meaning in their lives, believing that they had somehow found some worth. Donald Trump tweeted what was going on, and how we scoffed. Everyone thought they had power, whether they did or not, and it all felt wonderfully good. Bankers, as ever, couldn’t quite believe their luck.
And that, my friend, is how the present system – known to the cognoscenti as Concentric Parallocracy – emerged.
Alastair Singleton had an early career in service with the Hong Kong and British governments, working latterly as a Diplomat in the Middle East and Whitehall. After studying business in France, he had a second career as a headhunter and entrepreneur. He has served as a trustee on a number of national charities, including VSO and Keep Britain Tidy, was elected to the South West Regional Council of the CBI and sat as a Magistrate for fifteen years in Bath. He has degrees from Cambridge and Bath Universities, and from INSEAD in France.