What’s the antedote to “know nothing” populism’s rejection of complexity?

Although it makes me a little nervous when people draw from Yeats’ Second Coming this is an interesting take from Bobby McDonagh, who was Irish Ambassador in London during the referendum that ended up in a narrow but telling victory for exiting the EU…

Complexity has been crucial in building the structures which enable peaceful co-operation between nations, including in Europe. The more simple ways of European history involved legionaries and siege engines, tanks and bombs. The complexity of today’s Europe should be celebrated, especially by small countries which know well who gets trampled on when elephants fight.

However, the EU has always been too intricate for most UK politicians to want to understand it, too complicated for the bulk of the British media to try to explain it. The deal former British prime minister David Cameron negotiated with EU partners in 2016 was rejected out of hand not because of its contents but because its necessary complexity could not be boiled down to a tabloid headline.

Worse, at times, and Irish domestic politicians are guilty of this too, the EU has been an easy target to blame for unpopular policies that MPs and others find difficult to communicate to local voters. It was a well practised reflex before ‘call me Dave’ had it shot down in pieces.

I’m also not 100% comfortable with Bobby’s definition of populism, in the limited sense that they don’t all conform to a single type, or a single strategy. It is a category is broad enough in its terms to that it has included most mainstream political parties at one time or another.  But I cannot disagree with him here…

Human beings and the institutions we create are necessarily imperfect. All governments, parliaments and, indeed, businesses fall well short of perfection. If we are intelligent and fortunate enough, as we have been in Europe over the last half-century, we can build institutions which channel our imperfect natures into a respectful and creative way of doing business together, into something that appeals to “the better angels of our nature”.

It is this nexus between politics and the media which dictates what and/or how much signal can be carried back and forth between the governors and the governed. One of the affordances of the internet age which has brought such “know nothing” populism to the fore (across Europe, not just the UK and the US) is for our institutions to confess that they themselves ‘don’t know’ everything and reach out for the help of ordinary people.

In a time when multilateral cooperation on the management of scarce resources and climate change has never been more pressing, perhaps a little confession would be good for the institutional soul too? And then let citizens in to fill a few useful gaps…

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty