Like many ideas invented as a joke, the “Nerd/Jock” theory of British politics works remarkably well. Based on the well worn tropes of the American High School movie, it argues that British Prime Ministers fall into one of the two camps and they alternate power.
Flashy Tony Blair who was, in real life, a member of a band, gave way to Gordon Brown, more naturally suited to running the chess club. Chillaxing Bullingdon boy David Cameron then took over before ceding power to Theresa May whom even the other nerds regarded as being a bit straight-laced. As predicted, her successor was the British politician most likely to star in a remake of Animal House.
By rights, therefore, the next Prime Minister should be of the nerdish persuasion, a sober public servant in contrast to the Johnsonian bacchanal. Already we are seeing calls for a return to “sensible” government, serious people doing serious things in a serious way. But, in truth, the nerds were always unreconciled to Johnson’s government. Such support as he was given was always done through pursed lips as a useful vehicle to win elections, but to be disposed of as soon as reasonably practicable. As far back as January, nerdish Tory grandees such as Bruce Anderson and Rory Stewart were calling for an end to the “frivolity”.
But the jock (in partnership with his nerdish side-kick Dominic Cummings) had spotted something the nerds had missed – the world they had built no longer worked. For Brexit was, at one level, a vote against the technocratic world which had developed after the Cold War, where power rested with a global elite of “policy experts” convinced that they knew best and that all that was necessary for prosperity was for them to be in charge.
That their efforts had, in Europe, resulted in sclerotic economies and, in the South, mass unemployment eluded them, sheltered as they were, from public opinion. If the rules did not produce the expected outcomes, that was a sign that there were not enough of them, not that they were wrong. Convinced, like the arch-nerd herself, in “the good government can do”, they were too caught up in the weeds to consider the impact of what government actually did do.
It took a lazy jock, disinterested in the details of policy, to point out how the nerds had failed, and use the force of his personality to rally those who had suffered from the nerds’ ministrations to undo their efforts, despite a concerted fight-back.
That he leaves office with his revolution incomplete reflects on his personal failings, and the inability of his party’s nerds to admit that a different type of politics is necessary. But that just makes the coming leadership election more important.
For the jock’s essential insight remains correct. The world has become too complex for any small group of people to manage. Attempting to micro-manage an interconnected economy merely leads to unforeseen consequence upon unforeseen consequence as reality reveals the limits of the nerds’ knowledge. Rather than delving into the intricacies of every policy area, leaders can do best by focussing on broad brush strategy, leaving the details to the people at large.
There will be no shortage in coming days of leadership candidates touting their policy expertise and love of detail in their pitch for power, like a temperance campaigner drawing a contrast with a dissolute aristocrat. But the question is not “Who is the better nerd?”, it is “Do we want a nerd at all?” There is a natural temptation to correct from the past, but we should aim to make the right correction. If society is now too complex for the gains from nerdish micro-management to outweigh the costs, why would we want one? Like an American High School, we live in a jock’s world.