A Journal of The Plague Year, And Other Tales

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Tomorrow's Republic

Tomorrow’s Republic

So, I was traipsing back down from the Aeropagus after casting my ballot pebble with a view to popping round the Athens agora to put a quick bet on the 2.30 at Pireaus, when who should I meet but old Socrates – my fellow saloon bar philosopher - puffing up the slope and lugging that bleeding barrel of his behind him.

SOCRATES

No easy task, Plato, this voting lark. They don’t make it easy for the wise man to fulfil his civic duty, putting the polling station way up here. Especially when you’re a wise man what’s feeling a bit wossname … delicate … after last night’s feast of reason and what-have-you.

PLATO

In a perfect republic, Socrates, they would put the polling stations in convenient spots like taverns, would they not? That way, the electorate could sit and discourse on the sacred values of democracy over beer and sarnies, and they could lob a few pebbles into the ballot pot whenever the chatter ran a bit dry.

SOCRATES

Sod the polling. In a perfect republic, Plato, the taverns would be open all day instead of always being shut when you’re thirsty. Tell you what, grab that pebble and chuck it up onto the Acropolis. Let’s see if they’ll count that as a vote for me.

PLATO

That’s what’s known in the psephology trade as an absentee ballot, Socrates.

At the end of polling day, you’ll see vote counters wandering all over the Acropolis picking up stray stones and saying: ‘ho hum, this looks like an absentee ballot someone’s cast for Pericles and so does that one next to it. Sod it. Let’s say they’re all for Pericles and leg it into town before the bars have closed.’

That might explain why no one except Pericles has ruled Athens for the past thirty years. Did you ever notice that?

SOCRATES

The true value of democracy, Plato, is not to burden the busy drinking man with having to answer for who he voted into power, as subtly evinced in my Dialogue With Demosthenes On The Top Deck Of The 190, Coming Home From The Bleeding Delphi Derby.

“Don’t come it with me, son,” I said to him. “I ain’t responsible for what some democratically-elected pillock has gone and done.”

I told him that, didn’t I? You heard me. You were bloody there.

PLATO

I heard you, Socrates. The whole bloody bus heard you. But how does the electorate absolve itself of wossname … blame … regarding the sins of the government they went and elected?

SOCRATES

In a perfect republic, Plato, one would do what one always does when one hasn’t a bloody clue what the answer is. One would give it to the lawyers to sort out - the sober ones, at least.

PLATO

Let’s duck in here, my dear Socrates. I feel a flow of soul coming on. Two large Scotches, landlord, and chuck them on the slate.

LANDLORD

I will when you’ve paid off your last one. You’ve been owing me for six months now, you dodgy git.

PLATO

OK. OK. Keep yer Alans on. In a perfect republic, Socrates, landlords would have to give free drinks to us philosophers when we needed to lubricate our wossnames … larynxes … for carrying on enlightened discourse. Let’s try our luck in the tavern over the road while you expand on your hypothesis … or, alternatively, keep nattering away.

SOCRATES

Our current system is deeply flawed on account of how whenever an election is called, the candidates bore us rigid for months on end, running off at the mouth about rises in the Retail Price Index and fiscal drag and similar.

Not to mention how pollsters ring you up in the middle of the night asking you damn-fool questions like whether you think Pericles has got a grip on national security vis-à-vis when it comes to the bleeding Persians.

I call my new system sue-ocracy, whereby we electors get spared all the yap. In a sue-ocracy, we’d cast our votes randomly, or not at all. Then the candidates would get down to suing each other the minute the polls have closed. They wouldn’t even bother waiting for the votes to be counted. They’d cut straight to the litigation.

After that, they could squabble for as long as they liked in the courts and leave the rest of us in peace. One day, a judge would just bang his gavel and tell us that the bloke with the most lawyers still on their feet and jabbering on is the bloke who’ll be running things in Athens for the next few years.

PLATO

But what sort of bloke would we end up with as boss?

SOCRATES

Anyone with sixty million drachmas to piss up the wall on an army of lawyers, Plato. Anyone who’s got the patience to drag his case through the courts for months on end. If the stupid sod still wants to be ruler at the end of all that, he’s welcome.

PLATO

But I fear your logical juices are not flowing as freely as usual, Socrates, on account of this barman demanding cash up front for our drinks - meaning you have not been able to tie on your first one of the day.

What do you think it would be like, being a juryman in these hearings? Sitting for endless hours in a courtroom with lawyers bending your ear about some absent count-watchers in Corinth? Or making you examine the hanging chads on twenty thousand pebbles from Ithaca, one by one, for the next three months?

And all the while, mind you, there being nothing stronger to drink around the gaffe than water?

SOCRATES

I hadn’t thought about that bit.

PLATO

Let’s keep schtum about this particular dialogue, Socrates. In a perfect republic, wise men would know better than to run about giving politicians silly bloody ideas.

Speaking of which: you ain’t mentioned this notion of yours to anyone else, have you? Not been trying to enlighten the powers-that-be again? Tell me you haven’t.

SECOND LANDLORD

Oi, you lot! It’s the Supreme Court on the phone. Any of you drunken bastards free to serve on the jury in an election case? They’re sending the clerks round the bars to collar some volunteers.

PLATO

Quick! Leg it, Socrates!

SOCRATES

The bastards nearly had us, there.

PLATO

So this sue-ocracy of yours, Socrates. All going according to plan, is it?

SOCRATES

Epistemologically-speaking, Plato, we may conclude that it’s a bleeding violation of the wise man’s right to have a pint or two in peace, calling us to sort out endless election disputes in the courts. In a perfect republic, we would string up the first sod who tried it.

PLATO

It’s kicking off already, though, Socrates. You mark my words. Some dark day, your sue-ocracy will become the … wossname … norm. Nemesis, we call that in the trade. Dystopia is another word that springs to mind.

And forgive me for asking, but aren’t you the dozy git who thought of it? How proud do you feel about that right now?

SOCRATES

I tell you what Plato, my son, the next time that you get the drinks in at the bar …

PLATO

Yeah?

SOCRATES

Make mine a hemlock.

The Institute Of Things That Stand to Reason

I cannot tell you how relieved I feel, now that I’ve swapped my old job for my post here at the Institute Of Things That Stand To Reason.

I used to work on the economics desk of a broadcasting company. Our brief was to report economic news in the simplest possible terms so that the viewers and listeners wouldn’t feel they were being blinded with science.

Occasionally, however, I would be forced to say to people: “it’s not quite that simple”. This is because a large part of my job was responding to members of the public who had written in suggesting their own economic panaceas.

Take, for example, an email I got from one Rishi Sunak of London, SW1. He asked: “if I printed huge piles of money and handed them out to people, would that make Britain a richer country?”

To which I could only reply: “it’s not quite that simple.”

In a similar vein, a Ms Priti Patel from Witham in Essex wrote: “give me one good reason why locking up all the jobless people wouldn’t solve our unemployment problem overnight.”

To which I again had to reply: “it’s not quite that simple.”

All of this made me feel like an obstructive old pedant; the sand in the gears of creative thinking. I longed for a job in which I could instead tell these people: “your blunt and simple measures promise to be very effective. In the absence of any better ideas, let’s give them a try and then just see what happens.”

After all, there has to be some solution to the mess that Britain’s in. Am I right?

A few days ago, I saw in the Mail on Sunday an advertisement for a job which almost exactly matched the one I was after. It was with an organisation called the Institute of Things That Stand to Reason.

The ad explained that the Institute had been set up to counter the growing influence of so-called experts, with all their footling statistics and research. Instead, it championed the no-nonsense, common-sense approach of ordinary folk who have masses of strong opinions and who don’t want extraneous facts getting in their way.

“Job applicants welcome seven days a week during opening hours only,” the advertisement said. “First come, first served.”

It gave an address on Dalston Lane.

I went as fast as I could to the Institute’s headquarters and, arriving there, pushed through the doors into what seemed to be a pub. It was packed with thick-set, middle-aged men in leather car coats and camel-hair jackets who were clutching pint glasses. They were pontificating loudly on a dazzling variety of public policy issues.

I squeezed through the crowd to the bar to see if someone there could help me get my bearings.

“Yes, mate!” said a barman, wiping his forehead with a cloth. He was having a busy session.

“I don’t know if I’m in the right place,” I said. “I’m here about a job at an institute. I think I need to speak to the director.”

“That’d be me,” the man said. “Just a moment.”

He rang a bell behind the bar.

“Right, you idle bastards,” he yelled across the room. “Back to work. Start putting the bloody world to rights.”

To a man, the Institute’s staff drained their glasses. Then they re-started their discussions at twice their previous speed and volume. I couldn’t help noticing how every new topic for debate was broached with the words: ‘what I can’t understand is…” or: “why couldn’t we just ...’

“I’ll show you around,” shouted the director over the din. He lifted a flap at the end of the bar and let himself through.

“I have to say,” I yelled into the director’s ear, “I didn’t know that much about your institute before coming here.”

“We started in 2016, mate, under the patronage of that diamond geezer over there.”

The director pointed to a large portrait on the wall of Michael Gove, MP. Underneath it, spelt out in gold letters – like the motto on a medieval coat of arms – were the famous words he had uttered during the Brexit debates: ‘I think the people of this country have had enough of experts.’

“He said what the rest of us were thinking,” said the director. “We’re sick of so-called experts telling us mere mortals that we’re always wrong. I mean, how do we all manage to earn our livings, if we’re that dense? How do we manage to get dressed in the morning, or tell our wossnames from our elbows? Sometimes, it’s the experts who are the muddle-headed pillocks and it’s us laymen who have to put them straight.”

“Mao Tse-Tung said in the Little Red Book,” I ventured, “that in a revolution, the leaders should trust the common sense of the masses.”

“Did she now?” replied the director. “Well then, your Little Red Riding Hood might be impressed with what’s going on over there.”

He pointed to a table near the lavatories where a small, dapper man in a suit and bowtie was sitting, surrounded by a research team from the Institute dressed in Milwall scarves.

“You’re trying to tell me, professor,” bellowed one of them, leaning across the table, “that when I see the sun come up on one side of the sky and go down on the other, that I’ve got it all wrong? Are you telling me the sun doesn’t go around the earth when it’s bleeding obvious that it does? Is that what you teach at bleeding Oxford?”

“It’s a question of relative motion …” stammered the professor, nervously fingering his bowtie.

“So answer me this,” bawled the researcher, jabbing a pudgy finger into the professor’s shoulder blade to drive home his logic. “If the earth is going around the sun and it’s spinning at thousands of miles an hour in the process, how come we’re not all running like the clappers to catch up with the ground underneath us? How come birds ain’t flying backwards through the sky? Or fish, for that matter?”

“Fish flying through the sky?” asked the professor.

“Through the sodding water. Backwards.”

“I hardly know where to begin,” groaned the professor, rubbing his temples.

“Take it from me, mate, because you’re obviously confused. The sun goes around the earth, and so do all the planets and stars and the rest of the galactic rubbish.”

The Institute’s researcher leant back in his chair, crossed his arms and cast a triumphant look around the table.

“Stands to reason,” he declared.

“Stands to reason,” intoned the rest of his team.

The professor, ashen-faced and trembling, picked up a slim briefcase and tottered to the door.

“A promising one, that Milwall lad,” the director murmured to me. “We’re sending him to the World Astrophysics Conference in Vienna next month. He’ll do Britain proud.”

“So what else do you do, apart from sit in this pub and talk about things?” I asked the director.

“Well, we get a lot of dosh from local Conservative Associations. In return, we give them all their policy initiatives to feed up to central government. The London Taxi Drivers Association pays us to come up with fresh loads of opinion for its members to share with their passengers. We virtually write the words of The Sun Says every day, and we make up most of the callers to Talk Radio.”

The director pulled some sheets of paper from inside his Astrakhan coat.

“The only problem we have,” he said, “is the namby-pamby, left-wing fact-checkers from The Guardian and the BBC with their piddling corrections to what we’ve been putting out. A diabolical intrusion into the freedom of thought.”

I glanced down the list.

‘Santa Claus is not Jesus’ father,’ read the first entry.

‘Bruno Mars is not a planet,’ read the next.

‘Floating voters walk on the ground like everyone else,’ read the one after that.

A phone rang behind the bar.

“Keith!” called a barmaid with peroxided hair, cupping her hand over the receiver. “It’s some bloke from Mar A Lardo or summ’at.”

“Be back in a sec,” said the director and he made a dash for the phone. He returned two minutes later looking as pleased as Punch.

“If you want this job, my son,” he said to me, “slam out a press release saying we’ve just been appointed as the policy research team for the Trump 2024 campaign.”

“I’d be happy to,” I replied. “Were we up against stiff competition?”

“Nah, mate,” replied Keith the director. “We were the obvious choice, right from the start.”

He cast a proud eye around his noisy and opinionated staff sitting at their tables strewn with empties. He turned back to me with a contented smile.

“It was a no-brainer, really.”

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