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Trumps war on science and Johnsons civil service purge may be on hold but their politics of polarisation lives on, says Guardian columnist John Harris

In most crises we tend to see the story we want to see. And in this one, those of us who cling on to collectivist, egalitarian ideas can discern things that speak to our sense of how the world ought to be organised. To find crumbs of political comfort in a dire public health emergency might seem inappropriate. But unforeseen events always have consequences beyond their immediate impact: just because they fit some of our existing beliefs that does not make them any less real.

Even if the new imperative of social distancing sounds like the ultimate example of individualism and frantic panic-buying does not exactly look like an expression of altruism, our shared humanity has also been brought to the surface, or soon will be. As the rapid appearance online of community help initiatives proves, we are already getting used to doing some of what the common good requires.

Quick guide

What to do if you have coronavirus symptoms in the UK

Stay at home for 7 days if you have either:

  • a high temperature
  • a new continuous cough

This will help to protect others in your community while you are infectious.

Do not go to a GP surgery, pharmacy or hospital.

You do not need to contact NHS 111 to tell them youre staying at home.

People who are self-isolating with mild symptoms will not be tested.

Source: NHS England

And as usually happens with sudden adverse events, the arrival of the Covid-19 virus has pushed the state and public sector into the foreground. The government machine suddenly looks less like the sclerotic inconvenience that annoys people like Dominic Cummings than the most basic means of help we have. Only weeks ago, people close to Boris Johnson were declaring war on the civil service and the BBC; now, both institutions are surely at the heart of however we collectively proceed. Ministers are suddenly back on the Radio 4 Today programme. Mindful that people have actually not had enough of experts, Johnson is now at pains to be seen deferring to the chief medical officer and the governments chief scientific adviser. If the big-spending budget suggested that Cummings and his allies quest to pull Conservatism somewhere different was in full roar, the arrival of Covid-19 surely means their revolutionary plans for the state have been postponed.

Something comparable may be afoot in the US. Last week, the New York Times ran a piece of political analysis headlined Trump meets an enemy that cant be tweeted away. Covid-19, said the writer, does not respond to Mr Trumps favourite instruments of power: it cannot be cowed by Twitter posts, it cannot be shot down by drones, it cannot be overcome by party solidarity, it cannot be overpowered by campaign rally chants. Reality, it seemed, had suddenly intruded on a presidency built on performance and manipulation, and Trump had instantly been found wanting.

Again, whatever ones politics, there is an undeniable truth to all this. As we know, the US is way behind other countries on testing, and cuts made by the Trump administration to crucial branches of government now look supremely reckless. The kind of denial the president was still pushing only a week or so ago forms part of the same picture: with accidental echoes of the occasion in 2006 when Johnson paid humorous tribute to laissez-faire government by praising the fictional mayor from Jaws and his decision to keep his beaches open, Trump has recently been lampooned as the real thing, downplaying a mounting emergency, lest it threaten the economic success on which his re-election might depend.

Johnson is now at pains to be seen deferring to the chief medical officer and the governments chief scientific adviser. Boris Johnson at his 13 March press conference on coronavirus. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Woven through this take on the presidents position is a progressive article of faith: the idea that although populists might be capable rabble-rousers, they always fall down when it comes to basic competence. This, clearly, is the Democratic partys collective rationale for the anointing of Joe Biden, the walking embodiment of the idea that the best alternative to Trumps misrule is the reassuringly dull, conventional statesmanship of yesteryear.

Might such a sea-change be a realistic prospect? For a long time now, all over the world, politics and government and their surrounding discourse have increasingly amounted to a spectacle of anger, rhetoric and a supposed battle of values in which the political right particularly its latter-day, populist incarnation has usually been on the winning side. The story perhaps began with George W Bushs consigliere Karl Rove, and his characterisation of his bosss detractors as the reality-based community: its subsequent milestones include both the arrival in office of a president whose metier is outrage and provocation rather than anything material, and Brexits triumph of prejudice and romance over facts and figures.

As reality bites, something about coronavirus feels like it might at least have loosened the grip of these ideas. Whatever his outbursts, every day brings unflattering footage of Trump among scientists, officials and the representatives of big US companies and the image of an awkward, impatient man, arms folded, seemingly determined to shut out whatever wisdom might be on offer. Here, the BBCs Newsnight recently saw fit to broadcast a characteristically nuanced view of the governments response to the virus from Nigel Farage, to a loud chorus of groans. His inclusion seemed not just incongruous, but silly. And therein lay a tantalising prospect: of a political discourse that might sooner or later reconnect to the basics of government, and the real world.

And yet, and yet. Europe is still haunted by populist ghouls, predictably claiming that the virus validates everything they stand for: Matteo Salvini, Marine Le Pen and Hungarys Viktor Orbn, whose national security adviser recently claimed to see a certain link between coronavirus and illegal migrants.

Ten days ago, I was on a reporting job in Worksop, the former Nottinghamshire mining town in a local government district whose vote-share for Brexit was nearly 70%. The huge TV in the breakfast room was blaring out some or other piece about Covid-19, which soon caught the attention of the staff member in charge. I think this is all bollocks, he said. Youre not going to tell me it was a coincidence it started in an overpopulated country. Two fiftysomething men had just ordered their food, and instantly joined in. The first thing they can do is stop all these refugees coming in, said one. Their apparent default setting was stubborn disbelief, mixed with the conviction that this latest emergency would not have arrived had it not been for foreigners.

Reality, it seemed, had suddenly intruded on a presidency built on performance and manipulation, and Trump had instantly been found wanting. Donald Trump and his adviser at a press briefing on 14 March. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

As if clumsily leading his kindred spirits across the world to the correct position, Trump has moved through these two phases in a matter of days. Only a week or so ago, he favoured denial. Now, as evidenced by the televised address he delivered last Wednesday and his ban on flights from Europe, his embrace of drastic measures is framed by the kind of themes that won him the presidency.

His spiel contained the giveaway words America first; inside 40 seconds, he used the phrase foreign virus. By way of mood music, senior Republicans talk about the pandemic as the Chinese coronavirus or Wuhan coronavirus, and everything blurs into the ocean of conspiracy theory now swirling around online, which Trump is inevitably happy to stoke.

Whatever the controversies over its approach to the virus, and the prime ministers long record of playing to base prejudice, our own government has chosen a higher path. But hateful, ugly things are out there in the culture, and may yet rise to the surface. In stories of public service in the most awful circumstances and a rising sense that the only useful responses to this crisis are necessarily empathetic and humane, you see people and governments at their best. But whatever the impacts of the most serious health emergency in a generation, perhaps a model of politics based on division and polarisation is now so embedded that it will inevitably condition some of the worlds response. History suggests as much: steps forward always accompanied by lurches back, as humanity does what it usually does, and simply muddles through.

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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The long read: He is now the countrys de facto project manager, but what does he actually believe? In a bid to find out, I read (almost) everything Cummings has written in the last decade

When the prime minister of the day describes you as a career psychopath, your chances of preferment in the political world may not seem rosy. When associates of a leading minister refer to you as that jumped-up oik, you may sense youre not winning friends in high places. When a senior official in the department where you are employed calls you a mutant virus, you may feel less than wholly accepted. And when a prominent MP in the party you work for denounces you as an unelected foul-mouthed oaf, it may seem that the game is up. Furnished with these testimonials, some downsizing of career ambitions may appear to be in order.

But Dominic Cummings has never played by the rules, and now, as Boris Johnsons de facto chief-of-staff, he has become perhaps the most powerful unelected political figure in the country. He thus has an exceptional opportunity to put his ideas into practice. But what are his ideas? Commentators seem vaguely aware that, although he studied history at university, he has dabbled in more than one scientific discipline over the years, but no one, it appears, has really tried to take the measure of Cummings as a serious thinker.

There has, of course, been no shortage of comment on the various roles he has played in British political life in the last couple of decades. He came to the fore as a special adviser to the Tory politician Michael Gove between 2007 and 2013 (ie both before and during Goves tumultuous years as secretary of state for education); he attracted further attention as the chief administrative mastermind behind the successful leave campaign in the 2016 referendum on Britains membership of the EU; and when Boris Johnson became prime minister in July 2019, Cummings was installed as his chief aide, directing operations from within Downing Street.

What may be less well known is that for much of this period Cummings has maintained an unusual blog, where he has posted extensive ruminations on his reading, enthusiastic reports about breakthroughs in science and pungent contributions to debates about education, spicing the mix with some notably unbuttoned ad hominem side-swipes for example, describing David Davis, then the Brexit minister, as thick as mince. Several of these posts have an intrinsic intellectual interest, but, given his current role at the heart of power, they may also yield insights into the thinking of someone whose ideas could soon have consequences for all of us.

I cant honestly claim to do much by way of community service but, as some twisted equivalent of a new year resolution, I decided I would sacrifice myself for the common good in January by spending the greater part of the month reading The Complete Blogs of Dominic Cummings. Well, perhaps not quite complete, as I have only gone back to 2013 and I have skipped several of the more functional or repetitive pieces, but I have more than compensated for any light-footed skimming by reading all 133,000 words of his magnum opus, posted in 2014 and titled Some thoughts on education and political priorities, in which he described his ideal of an Odyssean education. What follows is my report on this unusual body of work.

Dominic Cummings is the best-known unknown historian of ideas in the country. Learned contributions to this scholarly field are, of course, not what he is celebrated for, but a surprising amount of what he writes falls under this label. He is fascinated by ideas partly fascinated by their beauty and power, partly fascinated in the same way as a small boy is fascinated by firecrackers that can be let off behind unsuspecting old ladies. In Cummingss view, the world seems to be largely populated by old ladies, metaphorically speaking timid, easily spooked people whom he delights in unsettling.

But his firecrackers are assembled from genuine scientific components. Cummings is knowledgeable about an impressive variety of disciplines, and from this formidable if eclectic reading he has attempted to synthesise ideas he believes would transform the way the world is run (lack of ambition is not a defect of his thinking). The sense in which I am, tongue only slightly in cheek, calling him a historian of ideas is that he traces in some detail the evolution of the ideas that interest him, and gives us, especially in his remarkable book-length essay on the elements of a university curriculum that comprise his Odyssean education, a crash course in the history of mathematics, physics, genetics, psychology, economics and much more.

Dominic Cummings at the Nato leaders summit in Watford, Hertfordshire, December 2019. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

He takes the term Odyssean education from the Nobel-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann, referring to an education that starts with the biggest questions and problems and teaches people to understand connections between them. The aim would be to train synthesisers. He appears contemptuous of most politicians, almost all media commentators, and all civil servants: none of these people really understand statistical modelling, quantum computation, synthetic biology, and so on. (Too many of them studied PPE (philosophy, politics and economics) at Oxford University which, in his view, just turns duffers into bluffers.) As a result, they make or encourage poor decisions. Better project management in complex organisations is what we need, and his essay sketches a wide-ranging syllabus that would educate the effective decision-makers of the future.

More broadly, Cummings repeatedly argues that the processes of government need to include 1) a number of outstanding scientists capable of bringing fundamental science to bear on policy formation, and 2) a general level of scientific and numerical literacy such that MPs, officials, journalists and others can understand basic scientific discoveries and their significance. The overall aim should be to make the UK the leading country for education and science.

At times, he can make this seem like the merest common sense; at other times he sounds like CP Snow on speed (Snows Two Cultures lecture of 1959 is mainly remembered for its ardent advocacy of the need for scientific literacy among policymakers). He has attained an impressive level of scientific understanding himself, but with it has come more than a touch of the boffins bee-filled bonnet. A good example of this unsteady combination is provided by his attempt to imagine the effect that genome-sequencing may have on the NHS in terms of identifying risk factors for certain diseases, eliminating congenital defects, and so on. The potential benefits and efficiencies are certainly striking. But he cannot resist going further, a little too quickly: We will soon be able to re-make human nature itself, he writes. No point in pussy-footing around just doing hip replacements lets do a complete makeover while were in there.

As all this suggests, Cummings is undeniably clever, even if not always notably judicious. Intellectual restlessness is one of his hallmarks: his capacity to stretch his mind, to absorb new ideas, to see parallels and analogies that jump across the tracks, is constantly on display. He is an Oxford history graduate who has turned himself into a numbers guy, or at least into the frontman for the numbers people someone who understands enough of what they do to make the case for its importance to the rest of us. He says hes happy to be told where hes wrong, though you cant help feeling that he doesnt expect there will be much call for such frankness.

And there are any number of things he is right about, or anyway right-ish. One is the foolishness of diverting funding away from basic blue skies scientific research in order to promote more applied work. Governments are prone to think that doing this will lead to more immediately useful outcomes, and hence it will be easier to justify the public expenditure involved, but the historical record is against them. Over and over again, theoretical enquiries that looked at the time to have no useful application turn out to be what enabled various later practical advances and inventions, from code-breaking to computers. Cummings understands this: he not only prioritises basic science, but he gets the need to give people the autonomy and security to explore not obviously useful-looking avenues of enquiry.

At times, he can seem to flirt with a kind of anarchic libertarianism, attracted by a vision of unconstrained individual creativity, but against this is his recognition of the need for central state funding of basic science. He rightly stresses the role of federal funding in providing the research base for the Silicon Valley phenomenon in the US, for example, and he looks favourably on institutions such as the CNRS in France that are designed to sustain research on a long-term basis. (He also says, rather gnomically, that he is not a libertarian because its not consistent with evolutionary biology.) Overall he is surely right that public debate desperately needs more statistical literacy, as well as a better appreciation of the long-term benefits of basic research.

Cummingss call for a curriculum that might combine, say, maths, science and history is driven by his focus on project management in politics. Such an education would, he contends, provide a training in the calculation of probabilities when weighing competing proposals. But there is a recurring difficulty with schemes that attempt to build in interdisciplinarity from the start. Yes, it sounds great to scorn those who are stuck in their disciplinary silos and to laud imaginative thinkers who address the really big problems, and so on, but the fact is that you cant educate someone to be interdisciplinary. You have to educate them in particular disciplines (possibly more than one), and then set up more specific or temporary or opportunistic arrangements for bringing them together and cross-pollinating. If we are to stay on Cummingss preferred ground of intellectual history, we would have to point out that, in modern times, nearly all the influential ideas and great discoveries have come from people working within a particular discipline. Specialisation is the precondition of intellectual advance, even if subsequent interdisciplinary thinking can then sometimes be an effective way to address complex practical problems.

In his ambitious intellectual and educational synthesis there are some obvious, and rather predictable, lacunae. He is dismissive of most of the social sciences, especially sociology and anthropology, precisely because they purport to explore the distinctive power of the social: their practitioners are mostly charlatans. Here he sounds like a souped-up version of Margaret Thatcher: there is no such thing as society, just the patterned interaction of evolutionarily moulded individuals. There are frequent irritable swipes at something called French literary theory and the damage it has allegedly done to the humanities; here we seem to be encountering nothing more than a lazy journalistic stereotype, a headline-happy approach that contrasts so strikingly with the care with which he expounds ideas from, say, evolutionary psychology.

His voluminous writings suggest no cultivated interest in the study of art or music, nor, a few allusions to Dostoevsky and Tolstoy aside, in literature, or anyway not in literary criticism, though one wonders whether he might not have a taste for certain forms of science fiction. A few philosophers get walk-on parts (he quotes Nietzsche fairly often, but then who doesnt?), but on the whole he seems to treat modern philosophy, certainly the discipline of academic philosophy, as an irrelevance or an obstruction. Although he expresses a general commitment to including the humanities in his synthesis, in practice they (with the exception of history) seem marginal to his main interests.

However, there is another omission that is less predictable, yet, in its way, more revealing. Cummings is practically silent about jurisprudence and the law. (In his diatribes against the always obstructive civil service, legal arguments are occasionally mentioned, but only to be swatted aside as another typical ruse by these masters of delay.) This is significant because legal systems and legal reasoning involve attempts to draw up general rules and procedures to govern human interaction. The law, especially in a common-law system, is a historical enterprise in a way that Cummings should, in principle, approve of. That is to say, it seeks constantly to modify the agreed rules in the light of new circumstances; in this respect, it is one large feedback loop. And it attempts to take into account not just the purposes informing any given individuals actions, but the likely effect of such actions on the interests of others, now and in the future. Accumulated legal reasoning becomes, therefore, the great repository of wisdom about the social consequences of allowing this action or preventing that action, and it is, in an important sense, no respecter of persons: no one, as the phrase has it, is above the law.

Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson leaving 10 Downing Street, October 2019. Photograph: Pete Summers/Getty Images

Great leaders, revolutionaries, men of action and over-confident mavericks of all types always want to sweep the law aside, seeing only its negative character as a slow-moving body of outdated constraints on freedom of action but that, of course, suggests why it is so precious. Theres a fine exchange in Robert Bolts play A Man for All Seasons between Sir Thomas More, the lord chancellor who was to be executed for his opposition to Henry VIIIs break with Rome, and his earnest son-in-law, William Roper, in which Roper says he would cut down every law in England to get after the Devil, and More replies: Oh? And, when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?

Mores point, of course, is that if, when we have the power, we impatiently strike down all the laws that stand in our way, we shall have no protections to turn to when power is in the hands of others. Cummings writes from the perspective of someone whos in a hurry to get the thing done, never from the perspective of the judge who has been schooled to reflect on the potentially damaging consequences in the future of licensing this particular action in the present.

To balance Cummingss imagined course of maths, science and history, I could, teasingly, suggest that a no less valuable preparation for public life might be a combination of philosophy, jurisprudence and literature. Philosophy would introduce habits of analysis and undermine certainty or dogmatism; jurisprudence would teach an appreciation of rules, procedures and the judgment of consequences; and the study of literature would weaken the hold of cliche and all exaggerated beliefs in the fixity of meaning. It might be said, not altogether unfairly, that Cummingss course would produce doers and mine would produce critics (though the disciplines I suggest constantly generate new ideas rather than merely criticising old ones), but I would say that a healthy politics needs both, and that the more we emphasise the first category and try to give its occupants their head, the more we need the virtues of the second category to hold them in check.

Cummings, of course, believes that this is just what we dont need. We dont want more Oxbridge English graduates who chat about Lacan at dinner parties with TV producers and spread fake news about fake news, he wrote last month. This is an economical bit of target practice everyone knows, dont they, that one can hardly move in north London these days without falling over chat about Lacan at dinner parties but there may be deeper cultural antagonisms at work here. The datedness of the jibe about Lacan may suggest a long-nurtured touchiness. At one point Cummings says of himself, rather engagingly, I am not articulate, but you sense that he doesnt particularly rate articulateness in the first place. So much of what others think of as culture he regards as noise. Perhaps his recent call for super-talented weirdos to apply for staff jobs in Downing Street should be seen as something of a dating pitch.

In Cummingss ontology, the world appears to be made up of an extremely small number of outstandingly clever individuals and a mass of mediocrities. Human progress depends on giving those with the highest IQ (hes very keen on the notion of IQ) the education that will allow them fully to develop their talents and then the freedom to apply them. His culture heroes are those few outstanding mathematicians and scientists who fundamentally changed a whole intellectual field, such as Kurt Gdel, John von Neumann and Richard Feynman. He has an abiding interest not just in what kinds of conditions have favoured scientific breakthroughs in the past and how we might replicate those today, but even more in the organisational or management processes that enabled complex, long-term, science-based projects to translate brilliant new ideas into successful practical outcomes, such as Nasa (putting the first man on the moon) or Parc (the Palo Alto Research Center, which was the foundation of Silicon Valleys triumphs), and he gives illuminating accounts of their modus operandi. Just how far such procedures could be transferred to the muddy, shifting, contested world of politics is an open question, but Cummings insists they would be a big improvement on what we have now.

Politics is, by definition, the terrain of conflicting convictions, and although in principle Cummings lauds the idea of feedback and the correction of error, in practice he seems to struggle with the idea of genuine intellectual disagreement. There are traces of that kind of absolute certainty that is more often shown by fellow-travellers of science rather than by first-rate scientists themselves. And he is a bit quick to write off opposition to his ideas as yet another example of the self-protective vested interests of the establishment (as the mavericks maverick, he, of course, is not part of the establishment). The political-media system actively suppresses thinking about, and focus on, whats important, he writes. One of the things that irks him about politics is that it involves so much damn talk. For example, he speaks contemptuously of the debate about the EU referendum in 2016, the outcome of which he played such a signal part in influencing: Most of the debate was moronic as political debate always is. At least he cannot be accused of seeking cheap popularity.

In a curious way, there is very little politics in Cummingss political thinking: its largely about the operational process, not about the substantive aims, and there does not seem to be much feel for the irresolvable conflicts over fundamental values that are at the heart of political life. He extols the speed at which the denizens of Parc got things done: meetings in the political world, by contrast, tend to be just jibber-jabber. He has a natural antipathy to entities that seem to him to do little but block innovation professional associations, the civil service, trade unions, big organisations generally. His ideal form of government is one that operates like a small start-up: a few bright guys (they mostly seem to be guys), some unconventional thinking, no red tape and hey presto, something actually gets done. If Cummings has some claims to be regarded as an intellectual among technocrats, there is also a sense in which he is a technocrat among intellectuals. He is far more interested in abstract ideas than most technocrats, but he is far more interested in results than most intellectuals.

A striking further aspect of Cummingss worldview is a lively conviction that total disaster for humanity may be right around the corner: as he says darkly, its just a matter of when. Think about the possibility of pathogens escaping from high-security bio-labs and causing a global pandemic: we urgently need to be testing these labs security by setting up a new team that should include specialist criminals (well, yes, I suppose they are the experts in testing security). Or again, if you can understand probability few can, in his view then you will know that the Earth will be destroyed by an asteroid before long unless we do something about it: We know this for sure. One major reason for exploring outer space is to find somewhere habitable in which humans can sit out the destruction of the Earth (no, really), thus avoiding the difficult problems of keeping humans alive for thousands of years on spaceships (just when you thought you had enough to worry about). Existential paranoia on a galactic scale is, it seems, the new normal.

But no summary does justice to the fizz and energy of his forays into the world of ideas. Heres a representative example of Cummings wearing his historian-of-ideas hat:

What we have learned about our world vindicates the evolutionary perspective of the pre-Socratics (Anaximander, Heraclitus), Thucydides, Hume, Smith, Darwin, and Hayek over the anthropocentric perspective of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hobbes, Rousseau (the general will), Bentham, Mill (who introduced the concept of the natural monopoly) and Marx. Evolutionary biology, neuroscience, cognitive science, and behavioural genetics have undermined the basis for Descartes Ghost in the Machine, Lockes Blank Slate, and Rousseaus Noble Savage and have established a scientific basis for exploring a universal human nature. Economic theory, practice, and experiment have undermined the basis for Cartesian central planning: decentralised coordination via market prices is generally a better method for dealing with vast numbers of possibilities than Cartesian or Soviet planning, though obviously markets have problems particularly with monetary policy and financial regulation.

There is a grandeur and sweep here that it is hard not be impressed by. Just think: all those big names in the second list they all got it wrong. It turns out that evolution and neuroscience and all that neat stuff explain everything. Descartes and Soviet planning can be put in the same box because theyre both about people deciding things, and thats so last millennium.

But wait arent some people playing for the wrong team? If the first group are all about impersonal evolutionary systems and the second about individual human reasoners, shouldnt Marx be in (perhaps even captain of) the first team? Come to that, is Thucydides such an evolutionary thinker, or doesnt he emphasise the power of unchanging basic human motives in a way that has some affinities with, lets say, Hobbes? (Certainly that was Hobbess own view.)

The point is not to juggle the team selections so much as to wonder whether any useful historical purpose can be served by operating at such a high, and high-handed, level of generality. The differences among the names on the first list alone are far more interesting than any putative common characteristic. But also, is there really a logical connection between the diverse ideas of the first group and a commitment to markets, or is that list of big names a cross between window-dressing and bullying? Arent we moving a tad quickly to the conclusion that prices do better than planning? (Its hard to know what Cartesian planning would look like: I think, therefore I plan?)

Dominic Cummings at the Conservative party conference in Manchester, September 2019. Photograph: James Veysey/Rex/Shutterstock

In so far as there is a consistent politics here, it looks Hayekian that is, akin to the anti-statist thinking of the Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek, whose 1944 book The Road to Serfdom influentially argued that central planning was inimical to liberty as well as being ultimately self-defeating. He quotes with approval Hayeks dictum that order generated without design can far outstrip plans men consciously contrive. Cummings scorns traditional political labels, but his admiration for single-minded entrepreneurs, his obsession with the role of off-the-scale IQ and his belief in self-regulating economic systems scarcely make him a promising recruit for the left.

More generally, its hard to know how one could decide whether his Odyssean education essay, which his subsequent blogs draw upon extensively, is a) an astonishing intellectual tour de force knowledgably knitting together material from a wide range of disciplines, or b) a load of cod-science based on cobbling together hasty conclusions from random reading. Rather to my surprise, I now think its more of the first than the second. A lot of the time I found myself struggling to keep up, while admiring the sheer intellectual courage involved in trespassing so daringly. At other times, I felt I had been backed into a corner at a party by a wild-eyed obsessive jabbing his finger into my chest and saying, Not many people know this, but

Cummings clearly has a talent as well as an enthusiasm for expounding really quite technical scientific ideas. Even I had moments, reading his account, where I thought I half-understood something of what is involved in, say, sequencing the genome. But at other times, the jump from the science to the policy seemed altogether too confident to be persuasive. For example:

Most of our politics is still conducted with the morality and the language of the simple primitive hunter-gatherer tribe Our chimp politics has an evolutionary logic: our powerful evolved instinct to conform to a group view is a flip-side of our evolved in-group solidarity and hostility to out-groups This partly explains the persistent popularity of collectivist policies and why groupthink is a recurring disaster.

Whoa, hold on! There is a good reason why all attempts to draw a straightforward inference for current social life from something referred to as evolution always end up with a lot of egg on face: the supposed evolutionary logic explains everything and nothing. No amount of Attenborough-like attention to the gambolling of chimps in trees (a gaze already vitiated by its anthropomorphising tendencies) can yield an explanation for the persistent popularity of collectivist policies. After all, quite a few chimps, it turns out, prefer to vote Tory. And anyway, why is the popularity of collectivist policies any more in need of deep (and in some sense discrediting) explanation than that of, say, individualist policies? Somewhere along the journey from the science to the politics, an awful lot of non-scientific baggage seems to have got stacked on the wagon.

Dominic Cummings is now, in effect, the countrys project manager. Hes the Downing Street version of the Deliveroo guy who doesnt care whether youve ordered pepperoni or four-cheese: his job is to make it happen, and if that involves cycling the wrong way up one-way streets then thats probably a plus. His writing displays an alarming ability to focus on a goal to the exclusion of noticing, or caring about, any amount of collateral damage. Emotions mostly figure as forms of irrational distraction. Toes, after all, were put in the world largely to be trodden on. People around him dont have to take umbrage: he gives it to them, makes a present of it, with a liberality that would put a drunk in a bar to shame. He knows he has the intellectual firepower to be able to say: Get your thinktanks off my lawn.

Cummings himself quotes William Jamess pronouncement: When superior intellect and a psychopathic temperament coalesce we have the best possible conditions for the kind of effective genius that gets into the biographical dictionaries. It may be that thats how we should think of Cummings as an effective genius, or, rather, a genius of effectiveness. He is admirably committed to learning from science and to basing policies on evidence in a more than cursory way, but in the end, delivery is the point. Get x done, where (we might pseudo-mathematically say) the value of x equals a multiple of results from focus groups plus the square root of whatever appears to favour breakout thinking.

I would hesitate to treat Cummings as representative of anything: hes made being a one-off into an art form. But in so far as his writing chimes with certain contemporary cultural traits, perhaps one common element is a kind of dismissive impatience. The widely remarked decline of deference over the past couple of generations has been welcome on several counts, but in many quarters it has gone along with an unwillingness to find much of value or interest in anything that doesnt speak directly to ones own wishes in the present. When expressed in political terms, this kind of impatience is obviously not a monopoly of the left or the right; if anything, it can tend towards a rejection of the traditional forms of politics and political debate altogether. When combined with a fascination with the potential of science and technology, this urge translates into a form of technocracy; when laced with a hostility to traditional elites, this generates that distinctive modern hybrid, populist technocracy. Screw all those convoluted arguments: this is what we want, lets get it done.

It may be that the left has more to fear than the right from this irritable dismissal of political argument, since any progressive politics is reliant on reasoned discourse in making the case against the injustices of the status quo, and such discourse is inevitably a laborious, uneven business, much indebted to the thinking of earlier generations. Cummings is clearly not a conventional Tory, but perhaps his impatient individualism does express one of the most fundamental structures of feeling informing contemporary attitudes towards politics one that the left needs to challenge rather than simply to accommodate.

There is a long tradition of advisers to princes sharing their political understanding with the rest of us. To take just the best-known example, Machiavellis reflections after working in Renaissance Florences equivalent of Whitehall became a classic. Nothing Cummings has written up till now is in this league, but it will be interesting to see what he produces once he has laid down his carrier bag. Thus far, if theres timeless political wisdom here, its more Warren Buffett than Walter Bagehot (Buffett is another of Cummingss heroes, a model of focus). But I suspect his place in future biographical dictionaries will depend more on what he does than what he writes, despite all the indisputable power of mind exhibited in his forays into recent quantitative and biological research. And from that perspective, I only hope that, rather than figuring as an amalgam of Thucydides and Stephen Hawking, he doesnt end up looking more like an unnerving cross between Robespierre and Dr Strangelove.

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PM said EU leaders would be blamed for their obduracy and that UK could keep much of 39bn settlement

Britain could easily cope with a no-deal Brexit, which would be the fault of EU leaders obduracy, Boris Johnson claimed at the summit of G7 countries in France, as he continued to resist mounting pressure to spell out his own plans for breaking the deadlock.

I think we can get through this, this is a great, great country, the UK, we can easily cope with a no-deal scenario, Johnson insisted in Biarritz, as he made his debut on the international stage as prime minister with a series of bilateral meetings with world leaders including Donald Trump, the EU council president, Donald Tusk, and the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi.

Johnson said preparations for no deal were being ramped up to help secure an agreement, but also so that if and when we are forced by the obduracy by our European friends to come out on 31 October without a deal that things are as smooth as they can possibly be.

Johnson claimed food shortages one of the risks outlined in the leaked Operation Yellowhammer documents on no-deal planning were highly unlikely, and offered a guarantee that patients would be able to access medicines unhindered.

The prime minister said that in the event of no deal the UK would withhold much of the 39bn financial settlement agreed by Theresa May and insisted it was up to the EU27 to avert that eventuality.

If we come out without an agreement it is certainly true that the 39bn is no longer, strictly speaking, owed, he said. There will be very substantial sums available to our country to spend on our priorities. Its not a threat. Its a simple fact of reality.

Back: David Lipton (IMF), Moussa Faki (AUC), David Malpass (World Bank), Scott Morrison (Australia), Antonio Guterres (UN), Narendra Modi (India), Guy Ryder (ILO), Pedro Sanchez (Spain), Angel Gurria (OECD), Akinwumi Adesina (African Development Bank). Front: Boris Johnson (UK), Cyril Ramaphosa (South Africa), Paul Kagame (Rwanda), Abdel Sisi (Egypt), Shinzo Abe (Japan), Justin Trudeau (Canada), Donald Trump (US), Emmanuel Macron (France), Angela Merkel (Germany), Macky Sall (Senegal), Roch Marc Christian Kabor (Burkina Faso), Sebastin Piera (Chile), Guiseppe Conte (Italy), Donald Tusk (EC) Photograph: Getty Images

During the Conservative leadership campaign, Johnson suggested the entire 39bn would be retained in the hope of using it as leverage to win a better future trading relationship from the EU27. But Downing Street appears to have conceded that legal obligations for past liabilities may mean up to a quarter of it may still have to be paid.

Johnson is battling to keep alive the prospect of striking a reworked exit deal with the EU27 in time for Britain to leave by the Halloween deadline, which he has made it a mission of his government to meet.

But with just a week until MPs return to Westminster, preparing to seize any opportunity to bind his hands, Johnson has so far presented no detailed plan.

After Johnson met Tusk on the sidelines of the G7 summit on Sunday, an EU official said, nothing really happened. It was essentially just a reconfirmation of of the views of both sides. There were no new substantive elements from any side, and obviously not from the UK side, the official said.

What we ideally would have been hoping for and looking for are new ideas that unblock this situation, the European official said. So we are waiting We need input from their side.

Meanwhile, it emerged this weekend that Downing Street has sought legal advice from the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, about the possibility of shutting down parliament from September.

Asked about the issue on Sunday, a senior government official said, No 10 commissions legal advice on a whole range of issues, but the PM is clear that he is not going to stop MPs debating Brexit.

Johnsons parliamentary opponents appear unable to present a united front, however. The shadow trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, accused the Liberal Democrat leader, Jo Swinson, of being extremely petulant on Sunday, after she raised doubts about whether Jeremy Corbyn was the right person to lead a caretaker government to prevent a no-deal Brexit.

Gardiner told Sky News that the Labour leader was offering a failsafe way of achieving the Lib Dems Brexit aims, but he said Swinson had concluded, oh well, we are not going to cooperate if Jeremy Corbyn is going to be the person who does it.

Labour has suggested it could table a vote of no confidence in Johnsons government but is unlikely to do so immediately after MPs return from summer recess unless it is convinced Tory rebels are ready to back it.

Swinson has written to Corbyn, suggesting an agenda for the meeting and warning that if he insists on leading the charge it could prevent the plan succeeding.

In the last week, many MPs who stand opposed to no deal, in particular key Conservative MPs, have rejected your proposal to lead an emergency government. Insisting you lead that emergency government will therefore jeopardise the chances of a no confidence vote gaining enough support to pass in the first place, she wrote.

The former chancellor Philip Hammond revealed the extent of the bad blood between Downing Street and Conservative moderates on Sunday, as he wrote to the PM demanding an apology for briefings that suggested the Yellowhammer leak came from former ministers.

Hammond said it had since emerged the document was dated to August, and thus could not have been leaked by one of the moderates dispatched to the backbenches in Johnsons summer reshuffle.

A government official said Johnson would respond, in due course.

On Sunday, Johnson claimed the Brexit mood music had improved significantly over recent days; but it remained touch and go whether a deal was achievable.

Throughout the summit in Biarritz, Johnson has sought to stress the UKs determination to remain internationalist and to distance itself from Trumps White House on some questions.

At a dinner of G7 leaders on Saturday night, which sources said was occasionally testy, Johnson sided with Germany, France and others against the US presidents argument that Russia should be readmitted to the group.

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No-deal Brexit is British PMs central scenario, chief Brussels envoy reportedly says

Boris Johnson has no intention of renegotiating the withdrawal agreement and a no-deal Brexit is his central scenario, European diplomats have been told, amid hardening evidence in Westminster that the government is expecting to crash out of the EU.

Brussels diplomats briefed after a meeting between the prime ministers chief envoy and senior EU figures in Brussels said that Britains refusal to compromise was understood to have been clear to those attending.

Instead David Frost, the governments new chief Europe adviser, is said to have sought discussions on how negotiations could be reset after the UK crashes out on 31 October.

It was clear UK does not have another plan, a senior EU diplomat said of the meetings with Frost. No intention to negotiate, which would require a plan. A no deal now appears to be the UK governments central scenario.

The disclosure came as No 10 insisted the government was ready to negotiate in good faith but made clear that Johnson would only agree to a deal without what he refers to as the undemocratic backstop the mechanism to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland that could keep the UK in a customs union. The EU has repeatedly said the backstop is not up for negotiation.

The UKs failure to provide any proposals on how to deal with the controversial Irish backstop was felt to be significant by EU officials who spoke to the Guardian.

Frost was said to have told the officials that a technological solution to the Irish border was the UKs preferred option before admitting that it would not be ready now for Brexit.

Even if EU gave up the backstop there is no alternative, a diplomat concluded of the discussion.

That message has now gone loud and clear to capitals, it was useful to hear it from horses mouth, the EU source said. Reality is sinking in.

With no new UK-EU talks scheduled, there were meanwhile signs in Westminster that Johnsons government was readying itself for a no-deal Brexit and preparing to do battle with Tory MPs who have said they will join with opposition parties to prevent that outcome.

The prime ministers senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, instructed special advisers across the government to keep on top of preparations for a no deal Brexit early on Monday morning and attacked Philip Hammond, the former chancellor, for failing to get the country ready.

Over the weekend, it became clear he believes that Johnson could simply refuse to resign in the event of losing a no-confidence motion and schedule an general election for November after leaving the EU at the end of October.

Johnson said on Monday that an election was the last thing he wanted. But his official spokesman stressed at his regular briefing for journalists that Brexit would take place on 31 October whatever the circumstances, even if parliament has voted against a no-deal departure or passed a confidence motion against the prime minister necessitating an election.

Conservative rebels plotting against a no-deal Brexit are already considering how to thwart No 10, believing an alternative government could potentially be created with a majority to challenge Johnson if he loses a confidence vote.

Corbyn indicated on Monday that he may be prepared to bring a no-confidence vote in the government very soon after parliament returns from its summer break in September.

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‘No deal will be really serious’; Corbyn responds to Boris Johnson’s no-deal Brexit video

We will do everything to stop no deal, including a no-confidence vote at the appropriate very early time to do it, he said on a visit to flood-stricken Whaley Bridge in Derbyshire. The prime minister seems to be trying to slip no deal through, slip past parliament and slip past the British people.

Sorry, no deal will be really serious. Serious for food prices, for medical supplies, for trade, for investment, and drive us straight into the hands of the sort of trade deal that Donald Trump wants to do with Boris Johnson.

Im sorry, its not on, its not acceptable. We will do everything we can to block it.

Several Conservative MPs, including Hammond, have indicated they could vote with Labour to bring Johnson down if he is set on a no-deal Brexit. Friends of Hammond also hit back at Cummings on Monday, saying it was simply untrue that the Treasury had failed to prepare.

The bigger question is why is Dominic Cummings, the de facto deputy PM, so keen to spend yet more taxpayers money on something that his boss insists has only a one in a million chance of happening? one Hammond ally said.

EU officials increasingly believe the UK is heading for a no-deal exit after their meetings with Frost, who replaced Theresa Mays chief negotiator, Olly Robbins. Last week, Frost met Clara Martnez Alberola, the head of cabinet for the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker; Stphanie Riso, a senior official in Michel Barniers negotiations taskforce, who was a key player in drafting the terms of the backstop, and Ilze Juhansone, the deputy secretary general at the commission.

The demand over the weekend by the Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, that Barnier seek a new negotiating mandate from the EUs leaders to allow fresh talks was seen as mere noise.

Diplomats said the message was seen as confrontational unhelpful but that more in that vein was expected at a meeting of the G7 in Biarritz, when Johnson will meet Juncker.

A spokeswoman for the European commission said the impact of the UK crashing out would be proportionally heavier on the British side of the Channel.

The spokeswoman added: For a negotiation to be successful it takes two to tango. If the music and the rhythm is not right then you have no dance.

But that doesnt mean that it was a failure. I think both sides negotiated with the very best intentions and very best efforts. The outcome on the table is the best deal possible and I dont think there is any fault or blame to be looked for in this.

A UK government spokesman said: We are ready to negotiate in good faith an alternative to the anti-democratic backstop.

There is abundant scope to find the technological solutions necessary and these solutions can and will be found, in the context of the free trade agreement that we will negotiate with the EU after 31 October.

The spokesman added: The prime minister wants to meet EU leaders and negotiate a new deal one that abolishes the anti-democratic backstop.

We will throw ourselves into the negotiations with the greatest energy and the spirit of friendship. The fact is the withdrawal agreement has been rejected by parliament three times and will not pass in its current form so if the EU wants a deal it needs to change its stance. Until then, we will continue to prepare to leave the EU on 31 October.

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Among the would-be PMs backers are the authors of Britannia Unchained, and their vision of deregulated Britain is terrifying, says Guardian columnist John Harris

Seven years ago, a group of Conservative MPs who had taken their parliamentary seats in 2010 brought out a slim manifesto for the future of Britain titled Britannia Unchained. Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Liz Truss appeared to speak with one voice: that of unabashed Thatcherites, convinced that hacking back tax and regulation and fixating on the demands of business was as appropriate for the 21st-century UK as it supposedly had been for the crisis-plagued Britain of the 1970s.

Some of the text was so provocative that it read like trolling. The British are among the worst idlers in the world, read one passage. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music. To even start to compete with the rising economies of India, China and Brazil, said the authors, we need to avenge the dependency culture and stop indulging in irrelevant debates about sharing the pie between manufacturing and services, the north and the south, women and men. They advised fellow Conservatives to double down on austerity, and maintain their faith in old-fashioned laissez-faire economics.

All five of the Britannia Unchained gang are now supporters of Boris Johnson. They may be wincing at his scattergun spending pledges, but they are presumably thrilled by his embrace of cutting corporation tax; what one report called a Trump-styled moratorium on all new regulations; and the surreal idea of turning at least six UK places including Belfast into free ports that would charge no taxes or tariffs. Of a piece, of course, was his brilliantly timed move last week, when news that obesity was now rivalling smoking as a cause of cancer coincided with his hostile manoeuvrings on the so-called sugar tax.

Among the most high-profile Tories at the forefront of Johnsons leadership campaign is Truss, the current chief secretary to the Treasury. In response to the sugar tax story, she tweeted: Taxes on treats hits those on lowest incomes. We should be #freetochoose. The apparent suggestion was that if the rich were to pay less tax, it was only right that the poor should get a few pence off their next soft drink, with the consequence incidental, of course that big corporations (such as Coca-Cola, linked to Johnson via one Will Walden, an adviser who works for a lobbying firm that represents it) would be able to once again load their output with as much bad stuff as before.

None of this was terribly surprising. In the recent past, Truss has bemoaned the tendency of people in positions of power to sound off about people drinking too much and eating too many doughnuts. If that holds out the prospect of a growing burden on the NHS, she appears to have that covered: calls for increased spending, it seems, may yet be offset by the wonders of technology, a subject that this self-styled disruptor-in-chief has attempted to make her own. In health, disruptive new entrepreneurs are revolutionising hospital treatment, she offered, back in January last year. Everyday goods like smart watches have the potential to transform public health. With real-time peer-to-peer information, like TripAdvisor, surely we can remove some of our bureaucracy?

Which brings us to something very interesting. If you want a sense of how the looming Johnson administration might deal with the ever-increasing questions hanging over Big Tech, Truss is a good person to watch. For the best part of two years, she has been making speeches warning any would-be interveners that such companies should be left alone. When Labour talked about digital monopolies profiting from everyones searches and shares, and said it might impose a windfall tax on them to fund public interest journalism, she jumped to the conclusion that it wanted to nationalise the internet. As she sees it, Uber is simply a company that is bringing choice and value to huge numbers of people, while Airbnb is making it easier for people to rent out rooms or to find a cheaper place to stay. This sounds less like intelligent politics than someone reading out adverts while sitting on the tube, but it reflects a belief that people who want to change the nature of the internet, and thereby imperil lifestyle freedom, are the enemies of liberty.

What Truss and her ilk dont seem to understand is that lots of trailblazing, decidedly libertarian tech people dont like these companies either, rightly seeing them as malignant concentrations of power antithetical to the internets original ethos (witness the droves of people working on blockchain technology, and aiming to foster decentralised alternatives to the established platforms). As with the corporations now at the heart of the modern food economy, the internets big players have been through their unregulated, disruptive phase, much as traditional industries went through their equivalent in the 19th century. And just as we now have to talk about diet and public health, so we are now in a period marked by these platforms obvious downsides: an array of damaging effects on society; and the fact that, true to capitalist form, the most powerful firms have hardened into monopolies, which tend to eat up any startups that pose a threat.

In the Britannia Unchained view of things, the only way to deal with these problems is to encourage a kind of competition that Big Techs power has long since squashed and to suggest that these imbalances demand action by governments is to embrace the thinking of the bureaucrat, a belief that neatly chimes with Brexit. The EU has been in the forefront of conversations about what to do about Uber, Amazon, Facebook, Google and all the rest. So have politicians and institutions in the US, as well as many Silicon Valley insiders who believe in the profit motive and the wonders of free trade as a matter of instinct. But some 21st-century Tories are so lost in the woods that their instinctive position is to scoff at any claim that all this activity is about protecting consumers and innovators, insisting instead that it is time to rush to the aid of the free market, even where the free market has long since ceased to exist.

Truss says she believes in a nation of Airbnb-ing, Deliveroo-eating, Uber-riding freedom fighters, but what she and many other Johnson supporters seem to be advocating is much less flash: leaving monopolies and oligopolies untroubled, in the service of our old friend, disaster capitalism. We all know what they have in mind. Come the autumn, Britain may well get a huge shock, and penury will beckon. The only way to avoid it, we will be told, will be to bin regulation, drastically lower taxes, and become tech, finance and the corporate food industrys offshore playground.

Then a terrifying future will open up: a few people creaming it in, while millions of ill, poor, eternally insecure people remain glued to their smartphones to either await their next casual shift in a fulfilment centre or spend whatever crumbs they are paid on the latest useless innovation. Such are the uplands of freedom offered by a party that seems to have lost what was left of its moral bearings, and resolved not to unchain us, but to imprison Britain in true-blue stupidity.

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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Fortifying the Mexican border has become central to Donald Trumps election campaign, while Brexit has led to plans for a great wall of Calais. Why have walls taken on such symbolic power and at what cost?

In August, Donald Trump went to Mexico to meet with President Pea Nieto. The question of why the Mexican leader set up this meeting baffled his few supporters and his many foes, but immediately after a supposedly cordial encounter at which Pea Nieto supposedly voiced Mexicos concerns about Trumps racism, the Republican candidate crossed the border to Arizona, where, within hours, he was repeating his tagline. To great applause, he declared: We will build a great wall along the southern border, and Mexico will pay for the wall. One hundred percent. Asked in another interview about other foreign visits he might make to inform his policies, he proudly said: Ive got no time to travel America needs my attention now. But can you pay attention to America while ignoring everywhere else? Except in the most literal sense, no country is an island.

Such provincialism is not exclusive to America. In May, two months before he was announced as the UKs new foreign secretary, Boris Johnson won a prize for the best rude limerick written about Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoan. He had previously referred to Barack Obama as a part-Kenyan president. This smug, ungenerous rudeness might play well to some audiences at home, but it bespeaks a frightening disregard for the psychic intimacy that statecraft ordinarily requires.

The Brexit campaign drew on such jingoism to trivialise Europes hard-won peace. Given that most people dislike anyone who dislikes them, one major cost of Brexit is the sacrifice of good will it has occasioned. The unknown and its terrors are the topic of virtually every sci-fi movie and thriller. Brexit makes those countries that were once enemies into the unknown again; its belligerent reclusion invites enmity back into the equation. Trumps egotism reflects a US egotism; the presumption or at least the pretence that the nation holds all the cards. Brexit reflects the same tendency in the UK. Both Trump and the Brexit campaign have exploited the real and urgent vulnerability of the traditional working class, but neither stands to help that demographic.

It can feel disorienting to contemplate borders as negotiable rather than fixed. History demonstrates that there are always people who wish to expand their borders to include additional territory, and those who wish to close them to preclude immigration. Old maps reflect constantly evolving political divisions; those territories that coincide with geological formations can have a reassuring aura of permanence, but even these can be breached. Walls seem to take over from geography, and DonaldTrump isnt the only one to contemplate their fortressing singularity. Britain is planning to build the great wall of Calais, as it has been named in some areas of the press, in the hope of reducing illegal immigration into the UK, though it seems likely the wall will simply make refugees adopt a more circuitous route. Franois Guennoc of Auberge des Migrants, a French aid group working in Calais, has said, When you put walls up anywhere in the world, people find ways to go round them. Its a waste of money. It could make it more dangerous for people, it will push up tariffs for people smugglers and people will end up taking more risks. There has likewise been talk of a wall between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. And many citizens, post-Brexit, want to build a trade wall (a metaphoric rather than concrete structure) to protect local manufacturing.

West Berliners break down a section of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989. Photograph: Sipa Press / Rex Features

More than a quarter-century after the destruction of the Berlin Wall which seemed such an imprisoning symbol walls are back in the headlines. How have they come to be so popular in a time when globalism would seem to be knocking down walls? Perhaps it is as a direct rebuttal to that liberalism. The American poet Robert Frost proposed in his poem Mending Wall that nature abhors these barricades: Before I built a wall Id ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out, / And to whom I was like to give offence. / Something there is that doesnt love a wall, / That wants it down. To which the man next door in the poem can only say: Good fences make good neighbors. But history shows that in many instances, good fences make real enemies. Walls are concrete symbols of exclusion, and exclusion is seldom a diplomatic move.

When George W Bush was elected to the presidency of the United States, his only travels abroad had been a few beach trips to Mexico, two journeys to Israel, three days in Rome to see one of his daughters in 1998, and a visit to China with his parents in 1975. There are people who are constrained from travel by their circumstances, but Bush had grown up with remarkable privilege and had simply chosen to ignore the world beyond him. His lack of curiosity was stunning, and his failure to consider travel a prerequisite to negotiating his countrys place in a larger world smacked of arrogance and incompetence: the very characteristics that led him to launch a thankless conflict in Iraq that in turn created a Middle East tragedy without surcease. Alexander von Humboldt, the great 19th-century naturalist, said: There is no worldview so dangerous as the worldview of those who have not viewed the world. Too often, policy is determined by just such people.

I write this as a dual citizen of the US and the UK. Even translating between these two countries takes a good deal of savvy. Before I moved to the UK in my early 20s, I was enthusiastic about Britain, had British friends in America, and had visited often. I now see that I had no idea what anyone in England thought or felt. I subsequently came to love Britain for reasons other than those that had made me a juvenile Anglophile. But that primary experience taught me how easy it is to suppose you know a place into which you have only superficial insight. The maxim know thyself is a good starting point, but if you dont know anyone else, you arent qualified to opine on the world. You can read about a place and meet its representatives, but that is no substitute for going there.

Yet cultural and linguistic translation have received short shrift in both the US and the UK. Post-9/11, under Bush, more than 50 Arabic-language translators were fired from the US military on the grounds that they were gay leaving the government unable to process the vast quantity of information it was collecting from sources. This was a stunning assertion of the primacy of social conservatism over terribly real security challenges. It grew out of a pervasive paranoia about the other a propensity to wall out difference rather than engage with it. When I visited the CIA a few years ago, a senior official said that the agency policy was never to keep an agent in any given country for too long, lest he develop mixed loyalties. That potential danger was more urgent, apparently, than having someone stay long enough to understand fully the country where he was working.

Under the present systems in the US and the UK, diplomats do not stay in any country long enough to know it well; most people in the foreign services move every two to four years. In a gesture of false economy, Gordon Brown closed the Foreign Office language school in 2007, though it was reopened four years later. In April, the Telegraph revealed that: Just one in 40 British diplomats is fluent in the language of the country where they work, with the majority lacking even [the] basic grasp sufficient for day-to-day exchanges. Diplomats were quoted as saying that they moved so often that learning the new languages needed to engage with the societies in which they worked seemed pointless. But there is no question that governance and business objectives are realised best by people speaking a common language.

Donald Trumps egotism reflects a US egotism; the presumption or at least the pretence that the nation hold all the cards. Photograph: Brian Snyder/Reuters

Of course, travel is expensive, and many people have neither the time nor the capital to visit far-flung lands. They must experience foreign places through art, literature, music, food and film; through the books and journalism of those reporters who receive the dwindling funding to travel and report impartially; through talking to emigrants who have arrived in their societies.

Travel is not merely a pleasant diversion for the well-to-do but a responsibility; the necessary remedy to our perilously frightened times. At a moment when many politicians are stoking anxiety, there is new urgency to the arguments for going out and recognising that we are all in the game together. International relations are the province not of governments alone but of entire populations. Travel is both a window and a mirror. You cannot know abroad except by going there, and you cannot know home except by going abroad. How you view your country from inside another one is very different from how you see it from within.

The British and American streetscapes have become multicultural, and so have the media. People are far more likely to eat cuisines of far-flung ethnicities; citizens of enemy countries play online games together. Images of people who are different are pervasive and ubiquitous. Yet, echoing their governments, many citizens have descended into rank mistrust of what is foreign. If one does not understand a person, Carl Jung wrote in his Mysterium Coniunctionis, one tends to regard him as a fool. Both parties lose in that scenario. In national as in personal relationships, it is easier to resolve tensions when you can figure out what the other is thinking.

I came to know the former US secretary of defense Robert McNamara when he was in his 80s. The architect of the Vietnam war had destroyed a country, occasioned a million needless deaths and accomplished nothing for it all. He turned out to be a congenial senior citizen, regretful of the gruesome crossroads of history that he had traversed. He described returning to Vietnam and meeting some of his military counterparts there. The conversation, as he recalled it, consisted of the Vietnamese asking Why did you do X?, to which McNamara would say, Well, because you did Y, which meant such-and-such. Then the Vietnamese would counter: No, no, no, it meant the exact opposite of that! But then you did this thing that was clearly an attempt to escalate! To which McNamara would comment, No, we did that to try to quiet things down, because we thought you …. And so on and on and on.

McNamaras errors proceeded from his ignorance of his opponents a problem much exacerbated by the dismissal of Asia experts from the US government and universities during the purges of McCarthyism. McNamara was applying off-base assumptions to a place he had completely misunderstood. To learn a place is like getting to know a person; it is an exercise in depth psychology. You must understand those with whom you communicate in order to understand the content of their communication. It takes modesty to recognise that your coherence is someone elses incoherence, and vice versa. We argued in the language of war, McNamara said to me, which I wrongly thought was a universal language.

Visiting the place from which someone speaks often inflects your understanding of what he says. I interviewed Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, when I was writing about Libya. Beautifully dressed in a Savile Row suit, eloquent in English, socially well connected and gracious in his grand fashion, Saif was in many ways persuasive. He was also ominously self-absorbed and a patent liar. His buoyant narrative of Libyan life was so much at odds with what I saw and heard first-hand that it almost seemed like performance art. A few years after my visit, I was invited to a breakfast for Saif Gaddafi by a prestigious foreign policy association. After his 20-minute oration, each of us was invited to ask a question. I was astonished by the deferential posture of the interlocutors, many of them seasoned diplomats. When my turn came, I said: Everything you have promised will happen is the same as you were promising five years ago, and none of it has so far come to pass. On what basis are we to presume that those promises now have merit? I was admonished afterwards for having been rude to a gifted statesman who represented our best hopes for North Africa. Saif Gaddafi is now wanted for prosecution by the international criminal court for crimes against humanity, after his disastrous behaviour in the Libyan revolution, during which he announced that rivers of blood would flow if the populist uprising continued. A witness can be of more value than a policy analyst. An amateur witness, free of conceptual bias, sometimes sees the plainest truth. One should never be blinded by tailoring.

A French anti-riot police officer in Calais trying to prevent illegal migrants from hiding in trucks heading for England in June 2015. Photograph: Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images

I started traveling out of curiosity, but I have come to believe in travels political importance; that encouraging a nations citizenry to travel may be as important as encouraging school attendance, environmental conservation or national thrift. If every young adult were required to spend two weeks in a foreign country, two thirds of the worlds diplomatic problems might be solved. It wouldnt matter what countries they visited or what they did during their stays. They would simply need to come to terms with the fact that there are other places, and that people live differently there; that some phenomena are universal, and others culturally particular. The craven language of scarcity that seeks to guide our aggression and constrict our immigration policies can be defused only when we understand that there are different priorities here and there. Travel, then, is not merely a luxury or an educational strategy, but a moral imperative for those who have the means for it. It is a corrective lens that helps focus the earths blurred reality.

When I was in Afghanistan in February 2002, a friend arranged for me to speak to a group of three educated, liberal women. They arrived wearing burqas, which they promptly removed, but I wondered why they were wearing them at all. The Taliban had fallen, and the law no longer required it. The first woman said: I always assumed I would be rid of this thing if times changed. But now I am afraid that the change is not stable. If I go out without a burqa and the Taliban returns to power, perhaps I will be labelled an enemy and stoned to death. The second said: I would like to give it up, but the standards of our society have not yet shifted, and if I go out without wearing this and I am raped, they will tell me it is my own fault. The third said: I hate this garment and I always assumed that I would give it up as soon as the Taliban was out. But over time, you get used to being invisible. It defines you. And the prospect of being visible again then seems extremely stressful. So much needs to change within individuals, before a change in society ensues. How can one understand those processes of change except by witnessing them?

Building walls, keeping foreigners out, trivialising the delicate peace that has settled on Europe after the horrors of the two world wars, and expressing overt prejudice toward immigrant populations, are all increasingly presented as viable foreign policies and security procedures. This month, the New York Times reported from Copenhagen about Johnny Christensen, a stout and silver-whiskered retired bank employee, [who] always thought of himself as sympathetic to people fleeing war, and welcoming to immigrants. But after more than 36,000 mostly Muslim asylum seekers poured into Denmark over the past two years, Mr Christensen, 65, said, Ive become a racist. Then he added Just kick them out, and aimed a kick at an imaginary target. Julie Jeeg, a law student who fights against racism in Denmark, said: Denmark is closing in on itself. People are retreating inward. In Britain, there was a 46% rise in hate crimes in the week following the Brexit vote, and the rate of such attacks has continued to escalate since.

If we wish to understand what brings immigrants to our shores, we would do well to make the experience more reciprocal by visiting theirs. If we try fitting in elsewhere, even temporarily, we will be positioned to help people from elsewhere fit in here. Until we are all free, the American poet Emma Lazarus wrote, we are none of us free. Every voice that is muzzled, every voyage towards understanding that falls prey to jingoistic alarmism, detracts from the collective intelligence on which all of us draw. Peace is achieved through intimacy, and discord through alienation. In 1997, the Burmese Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi asked her friends in the west: Please use your liberty to promote ours. Our liberty is contingent on everyone elses. When nations fail at kindness, they cheat themselves.

Fortifying national identity through exclusion is not just bigoted and benighted but also dangerous. When I reported from Gaddafis Libya, all of the people I met in government who had an essentially pro-western stance had studied in the US or the UK, while those who were vehemently anti-western had not. In Afghanistan, the people who had talked extensively to foreign nationals were much more open to thinking broadly about their countrys relationship with the west than were those who lacked such exposure. Its hard to love a place you have never visited. Nations fear one another less wisely when their fear arises from ignorance. Excluding immigrants from suspect countries will actually damage our security, by preventing those who would have spoken best of us from finding out what there is to admire here. In the end, xenophobia is a vulnerability masquerading as a fortification.

Far and Away by Andrew Solomon is published by Chatto & Windus on 29 September.

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