At the heart of power, there used to be a distinction that allowed onlookers to make at least some sense of what was going on. For the most part, a government’s day-to-day business revolved around outwardly serious plans and policies – presented, however cynically, as being of benefit to the public – and responding to events. But, politics being politics, this solid core was inevitably accompanied by much more superficial stuff: distraction, spin, the kind of things Tony Blair once termed “eye-catching initiatives”.
Now that division seems to have crumbled. In the US, Donald Trump is standing for a second term as president without a meaningful policy platform, after a four-year riot of performance and provocation. Here in Britain, there are signs of something comparable: a new politics largely untethered by coherence and practicality, and a sense that we too have no real idea where we might be heading.
Obviously, what decisively tipped the UK in this direction was the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum. The victory of the leave side meant dreams, prejudice and vague instincts had to somehow be turned into reality – an impossibility that first paralysed politics, and was eventually manifested in plans for a huge lorry park in Kent and the hiring of 50,000 customs agents, not to mention the idea of a border in the sea. And from there, the sense of policy becoming the servant of emotional and ephemeral factors has only grown.
Planning to break international law is, I suppose, meant to give voters an impression of “Britain-first” obstinacy, but it will also have disastrous real-world consequences. Abolishing Public Health England seemed to be a quickfire act of blame-shifting, but will now lead to a huge administrative change. Announcing a £100bn “moonshot” aimed at mass Covid-19 testing might momentarily grab headlines, but what then?
As if to create further confusion, there are the stunts and decoys that often seem to arrive without warning: statements from on high about statues, or what will or will not be performed at Last Night of the Proms; the inexplicable appointment as a UK trade envoy of the infamous Australian politician Tony Abbott.
In theory at least, the Boris Johnson government still has a straightforward(ish) agenda based around leaving the EU, and somehow “levelling up” an unequal country. But the fact that it makes so much noise while gleefully planning to bulldoze this or that institution or convention surely highlights a set of reckless, chaotic intentions. Its motto may as well be the old Facebook dictum “move fast and break things”. It is not just profoundly un-conservative, but perhaps the first government we’ve had that truly understands the 21st century and the boundless power it offers to those who have no scruples.
Contrary to the orthodoxies of political analysis, the sense that Johnson and his allies can follow their instincts and act with impunity is not fundamentally down to their 80-seat majority. It is really about how the world now works, and reflective of ideas that first gained ground in the 1980s and 90s. Back then, the French theorist Jean Baudrillard contended that the difference between actuality and mere simulation had long since broken down, a notion encapsulated in the postmodern concept of “hyperreality”.
The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, in his book Intimations of Postmodernity, summarised Baudrillard’s portrayal of a culture in which “images represent nothing but themselves, information does not inform, [and] desires turn into their own objectives”. This shines a penetrating light on the politics of today. If a policy provokes, that may be its only point; when anything triggers anger and upset, the outrage will quickly drift away from what caused it, and itself become the focus of the argument. There is little point looking for anything more solid or certain.
“We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning,” wrote Baudrillard in 1981. The social media age surely proves him right: as the online US magazine Vox recently put it, the “sheer volume of content, the dizzying number of narratives and counter-narratives, and the pace of the news cycle are too much for anyone to process.”
This is why, amid endless crises, the people at the heart of the UK government are unbowed. Old conventions about probity can now safely be ignored, so Dominic Cummings and Gavin Williamson did not have to resign over lockdown trips or A-level chaos. Brexit grows more terrifying by the day, but if it all goes wrong, the government may be able to raise the flag and frame dire consequences as a moment of national destiny. Even if the UK itself might be breaking apart, there is no sign of a foot anywhere near the brake.
Meanwhile, local government is set to be revolutionised, and it’s said that plans are being put together to once again disrupt and reorganise the NHS. One thing above all allows the government to attempt all this: the sense that, as and when disasters ensue, the muddying of cause and effect means that it stands a good chance of evading blame.
It may, in fact, be even worse than that: as Trump and his people seem to have concluded, maybe chaos is something to be encouraged rather than avoided.
No 10 strategy chief Cummings, it seems, is newly ensconced in a “Nasa-style control centre” with “real-time data screens” that will apparently provide a constant stream of numbers relating to the success or failure of what the government is doing. This brings to mind a Margaret Thatcher quote: “Some socialists seem to believe that people should be numbers in a state computer.” But it also takes us back to Baudrillard: his evocation of a “reality” that could be “produced from miniaturised units, from matrices, memory banks and command models”, and the insistence that “the territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory.”
Whatever information Cummings is tuned into will surely not reflect the messy, unpredictable stuff of actual human lives. But it may not matter.
Is there any way to put things the right way up? From the possible arrival of Joe Biden in the White House to the idea that the realities of a no-deal Brexit might finally convince leave voters of their folly, the hope of some kind of restoration of rationality haunts 2020. But I would not count on it: those feel like thoughts from the last century, long since buried under a landslide it may now be impossible to dig our way out of.
• John Harris is a Guardian columnist