Since over the past several days my glass hasn’t been allowed to remain either half-full or half-empty for more than a few seconds, I defy the stock definitions of optimist and pessimist.
Nor can I claim the possession of a crystal ball, much as I’d like to own such an appliance. However, using the modest logical faculties I do possess, I find it hard to think of 2019 with anything other than a sense of foreboding.
Everywhere one looks, the options we seem to face span the range from barely acceptable to downright catastrophic. However, since a short piece doesn’t afford the luxury of looking everywhere, let’s just cast a quick glance at a few things off the top.
Such as Brexit, to start with.
All options to the positive side of barely acceptable are off the table, having been removed by a staggeringly weak and inept government. That’s why even discussing them is a sign of infantile idealism divorced from any conceivable reality.
However, just to keep the record straight, a decisive, resolute, intelligent government, of the kind no Western country is currently blessed with, could have shifted the realistic range of options far towards the plus end.
That could have been done by leaving the EU directly Article 50 was invoked and without paying any exit fees, at least not straight away.
The EU could have been told that any divorce settlement involves not only a restitution of liabilities but also a division of assets. Once Britain left the EU, the two parties could have begun a dispassionate, fact-based analysis of both the assets and the liabilities, aiming at achieving an equitable arrangement.
Meanwhile, Britain could have invited the EU to enter into a free-trade agreement, of the kind two civilised sovereign nations can both profit from. Yet civilised sovereign nations can also compete with one another.
In that spirit, Britain could have created the most favourable conditions possible to attract foreign trade, businesses and capital – and stimulate the domestic variety. Red tape could have been rolled up and tossed away, tariffs relegated to the past, taxes on income, business and capital drastically reduced – well, any economic primer will teach how that’s done.
(It gives me a petty, hubristic pleasure to see the word ‘Singapore’, which I’ve been using in this context for years, beginning to crop into the economic narrative of our respected columnists.)
That way Britain would have gained a competitive advantage over the EU, nullifying whatever punitive measures that pernicious contrivance could devise.
Such measures would definitely have been imposed – as an organisation pursuing political aims only, the EU would happily cut off not only its economic nose but indeed its every economic limb to spite any dissident state undermining its desiderata.
However, a bold move along the lines of the one I’ve mentioned would have taken the sting out of any spiteful actions, making the EU think twice before destroying, say, 10 per cent of German car exports.
Alas, that will remain an unfulfilled fantasy firmly lodged in the subjunctive mood.
The barely acceptable end of the Future Very Indefinite range includes limping out of the EU somehow, either without a ‘deal’ (but with many unilateral concessions, as I hope everyone realises) or with Mrs May’s ‘deal’, which is one contiguous unilateral concession tantamount to leaving one foot stuck in the EU morass.
After that the vector plunges towards the catastrophic end. This could take the shape of holding a second referendum or simply crawling back to the EU tail between our legs and submitting to eternal vassalage on terms inferior to those we had before.
The range of political options available internally follows the same path. The very realistic thought that a year from now we may well be missing Mrs May is enough to give me sleepless nights, or would be if that glass remained half-empty or half-full.
Any way you cut it, a well-meaning and generally benign nonentity at the helm is preferable to an evil nonentity bent on revenge and destruction. Yet Corbyn’s premiership, which started as a remote possibility, first graduated to a probability and is now almost a certainty.
People everywhere, and perhaps especially in Britain, vote not so much for as against. They look at Mrs May’s craven, incompetent, divided government and don’t weigh it against the available alternative. They want it out.
The root of the problem was identified by the American comedian George Carlin, who once quipped: “You know how dumb the average person is? Well, I’ve got news for you: half the people are even dumber than that.”
Applied to politics and couched in more scholarly vocabulary, this observation points at the systemic drawback of universal franchise. Yet things are what they are, and universal franchise is getting more and more universal.
The voting age is bound to be reduced to 16 and, if we follow the (serious!) recommendation of Cambridge’s head of political science, possibly to six. One way or another, for as long as the ability to vote responsibly and intelligently isn’t seen as a necessary qualification, our dumbed-down electorate will make evil ghouls like Corbyn inevitable.
The very possibility of a Corbyn government has already made many wise investors seek greener pastures elsewhere. When he does take over, an economic catastrophe will follow within weeks – as the same economic primer will tell you.
But even in the unlikely event Mrs May hangs on, our economic prospects are bleak, and not because of Brexit qua Brexit.
Leaving the EU properly could have spelled an economic boom, along the lines I drew in the subjunctive mood. But leaving it chaotically and without a clear picture of the future, or, even worse, staying in is bound to have dire economic consequences – with dire becoming catastrophic if followed, as seems likely, by the arrival of a Trotskyist government.
Skipping over the continuing degradation of our education, medical care, defence and law enforcement, let’s look at something lighter, or not, as the case may be.
The Times chess columnist Raymond Keene enthuses about the self-teaching artificial intelligence programme AlphaZero. It’s currently thrashing every other chess software that in its turn can thrash any human player, which Mr Keene sees as having far-reaching implications.
Favourably comparing the programme’s creator Demis Hassabis with Sir Isaac Newton, Mr Keene enthuses: “If the lucubrations [sic] of AlphaZero can be adapted to medicine, or even politics, and the same level of excellence attained, then it may be seen to have exerted a transformative influence over modern life in many varying areas.”
I’m afraid Mr Keene’s enthusiasm is as ill-advised as his misuse of the archaic word ‘lucubrations’. He clearly sees nothing but positives in an area alive with the sounds of dystopia.
Artificial intelligence can indeed exert a transformative influence over modern life, but it takes an inveterate optimist not to see a concomitant potential for disaster. Call me a luddite, but I have nightmares thinking of machines deciding what’s good for us in politics.
Grandmaster Keene’s experience has taught him to see life’s little challenges strictly in intellectual terms. That works admirably in chess, which is free of moral connotations. (Yet many of his colleagues bemoan the dominance of computers, which they believe is killing the game.)
Politics, however, is largely a moral exercise, and in this life morality can never be off-limits to human fallibilities. Perfection in politics is not only unachievable but indeed undesirable simply because it’s not objectively definable. Checkmating the opponent is the perfect end to a chess game, but what passes for it in the game of politics?
One side’s meat is the other side’s Novichok, and no one will ever accept a computer’s mediation, nor especially diktat. Sooner or later people will throw their clogs into the works, bringing the machine to a sputtering halt and sinking our world into a blood-soaked chaos.
A statesman of only average intelligence can still achieve greatness if he’s blessed with integrity and strong moral character. Yet in the absence of those no machine throwing up a perfectly intelligent solution will help.
However, even as it’s pointless trying to explain to the electorate that not any alternative to a bad government will be better, and many can be worse, it’s no use suggesting that advances in science and technology are replete not only with positives but also with negatives.
The same chemical that boosted agricultural yields also murdered millions of people; the same energy that can heat your house can also incinerate it; the same poison that kills toothache can also kill the whole body.
The difference boils down to moral choice, and the ability to make it freely is God’s greatest gift to man. An attempt to override this ability by computerised perfection can only guarantee that most choices will be bad and some evil.
All in all, I’m looking forward to 2019 with trepidation. Which, however, in no way diminishes my heartfelt hope that your personal new year be happy, successful and healthy.