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Opinion

Alastair Campbell: The 23-year-old book that explains Brexit

Tuesday 15 December 2020

‘The Sovereign Individual’ was co-authored by William Rees-Mogg, father of Jacob. Its politics are those of the modern libertarian right


It was early in August 2018, as I stepped from a train at Marylebone station, that I experienced something of an Ancient Mariner moment – and was introduced to what he called “the most important book nobody has ever heard of”.

Britain was in the middle of a heatwave, I had spent the day at a football coaches’ seminar in the Midlands, and was keen to get home. But my 2018 Mariner was not a man to be ignored. He chased me down the platform, calling my name – “Mr Campbell! Mr Campbell!” – but as I turned, I couldn’t see where the voice was coming from, so carried on towards the ticket barrier.

The shouting became louder, came closer, and, eventually, there he was, out of breath, his face creased with the look of a man who was definitely on a mission. He did not have the Ancient Mariner’s long grey beard, but he did have a glistening eye.

“I am friend, not foe,” he began. He apologised for shouting, apologised for stopping me, and thanked me for campaigning against Brexit.

“I know you’re busy,” he said. “But,” – now he was rummaging into a backpack that he had slung forward from his shoulders, and produced a dog-eared book – “if I give you this book, do you promise me you will read it?”

I was still working out whether to switch into the polite-fob-off mode that anyone with a public profile has to deploy from time to time.

“I promise you won’t regret it,” he said. “But, more importantly, if you don’t read this book, you won’t fully understand why Brexit is happening.”

“Okay,” I said, taking the book, and looking at the cover. “I will definitely look at it. Promise.”

At the back of my mind was the pile of unread books by my bed. He sensed I was hedging.

“Even the first chapter,” he said. “Even if you just read the first chapter, please, I promise, you will see straight away why it matters.”

A few days later, I did read the first chapter. And I did see straight away why it matters. I wrote about it the next week in The New European, but even among that passionately anti-Brexit audience, fighting at the time for a second referendum on whatever deal was finally delivered, it was hard to get people excited about a book from the last millennium. Yet, as the fantastical promises for Brexit come up against the harsh realities of leaving by the end of this month, the book’s relevance feels all the greater now.

It is called The Sovereign Individual and if I was unaware of its publication, it might have been because it happened in early 1997, when I was busy working on New Labour’s campaign for the election in May. But my Mariner was correct: it really does help you understand why elements of the political right fought so hard for Brexit, and why they are relishing the chaos it has unleashed.

The subtitle is “Mastering the Transition to the Information Age”. The use of the word “mastering” is instructive. It is a book written by Masters of the Universe, for Masters of the Universe – aka, Sovereign Individuals. One of the two co-authors, James Dale Davidson, is American; the other is British, very British… Lord William Rees-Mogg, former editor of The Times and father of Jacob, that leading light of the Brexit revolution.

I did not have to agree with its essential philosophy to recognise that the book is the product of large brainpower, sweeping far and wide in historical research and analysis. Its strength, however, especially reading it today, lies in the force of its predictions about the new millennium that was to dawn three years later.

It is prefaced by a quote by Tom Stoppard, from Arcadia: “The future is disorder. A door like this has cracked open five or six times since we got up on our hind legs. It is the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.” To most people, disorder is threatening, scary. To Rees-Mogg and the radical right it is a source of opportunity, the chance for the Sovereign Individual to rise above tedious constraints lesser mortals take for granted – tax, regulation, government, even politics and democracy itself.

The driving theme of this book is the information revolution, “the most sweeping in history”, with which we were all wrestling at the time. I remember a tortured afternoon ahead of then Opposition leader Tony Blair’s Labour Conference speech in 1995, trying to make sense of a passage about “the information superhighway,” which we knew was important, but didn’t fully understand. Davidson and Rees-Mogg were definitely ahead of us in foreseeing just how revolutionary the information revolution might turn out to be.

Their forecast was that it would “subvert and destroy the nation state, creating new forms of social organisation in the process. It will be faster than any previous revolution, and not without pain.”

The Sovereign Individuals who would gain most from this “liberation” are “the brightest, most successful and ambitious” among us, they said, “those who can educate and motivate themselves…. Genius will be unleashed, freed from both the oppression of government and the drags of racial and ethnic prejudice.”

In their view, government is but a drag on ambition and success; welfare something that the rich are forced to fund for the less bright, successful and ambitious. Real success, they argue, will be measured not just by how many zeroes you can add to your net worth, but whether you can structure your affairs in a way that enables you to realise your full autonomy and independence – autonomous of government, independent of communal responsibility.

There will be no cyberwelfare, no cybertaxes and no cybergovernment. “The good news,” this vision of wonder goes on, “is that politicians will no more be able to dominate, suppress and regulate the greater part of commerce in this new realm than the legislators of the ancient Greek city-states could have trimmed the beard of Zeus.”

Tax evasion, they joyfully predict, will become the norm for the wealthy: “Transactions on the Internet or the World Wide Web can be encrypted and will soon be almost impossible for tax collectors to capture…. After the turn of the millennium, much of the world’s commerce will migrate into the new realm of cyberspace, a region where governments will have no more dominion than they exercise over the bottom of the sea or the outer planets…. Cyberspace is the ultimate offshore jurisdiction. An economy with no taxes. Bermuda in the sky with diamonds.”

Politicians are crooks. Welfare is awful. Tax is at all costs to be avoided. The new cyberworld allows all three to be sidelined. Move wealth offshore. Force the privatisation of, well, everything, including “the ultimate form of privatisation – the sweeping denationalisation of the individual”. Starve the nation state to death, and the rich individual becomes sovereign. “Only the poor,” they say “will be victims of inflation”.

As the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer, what they call the “left-behinds,” will become “increasingly jingoistic and unpleasant,” as the impact of information technology grows. There will be a backlash, and it could well turn violent. Social peace will be in jeopardy, especially in America and Europe, they warn. “The more psychopathic of these unhappy souls” will strike out against anyone with more prosperity. The rich and immigrants will be most at risk.

“A furious nationalist reaction will sweep the world,” we are told. “It is difficult to guess at precisely what point the reaction will turn ugly. Our guess is that the recriminations will intensify when Western nations begin to unambiguously crack apart in the manner of the former Soviet Union.” Was I alone in reading that and seeing the growth in support for Scottish independence, and the increased likelihood of a united Ireland, thanks to Brexit?

Again, though, Sovereign Individuals must fear none of this, because “every time a nation-state cracks up, it will facilitate further devolution and encourage the autonomy of Sovereign Individuals…. We expect to see a significant multiplication of sovereign entities, as scores of enclaves and jurisdictions more akin to city-states emerge from the rubble of nations.”

Today, the libertarian right sees Enterprise Cities, Charter Cities and Freeports – able to set their own rules on everything from labour law to codes on corruption – as central to its vision, aggressively pursued by well-funded and well-connected think tanks, like-minded politicians, academics, media and business tycoons. It helps to explain their passion for Brexit. They have never given up on the vision. Just look at what the Conservative MP John Redwood wrote on Twitter yesterday, egging Boris Johnson to no deal: “Time for the government to set out how we will use all the freedoms we win if we just leave the EU without a new legal lock up. Bring on the VAT cuts, the Freeports, the ways to grow more of our own food.”

The libertarian right always saw Brexit as part of their journey to a low-tax, low-regulation and low-transparency UK. They had to win a referendum and an election on one basis then to deliver their eventual goals on another: a global network of Enterprise Cities competing on the basis of freedom from restraint.

They would appear to have the support of the current chancellor, Rishi Sunak, a long-term enthusiast for Freeports. His recently announced plan for ten new ones followed seamlessly from the work he once did for the Centre for Policy Studies, which drew criticism at the time for its support for low standards of regulation. His father-in-law, N.R. Narayana Murthy, one of the richest men in the world, laid the first brick of his own Special Economic Zone in India in 2014.

As a father of three, I know that it is wrong to assume children adopt all the views and manners of their parents. Rees-Mogg Jr may not share every part of the Rees-Mogg Sr worldview. But we know from his own mouth that he shares much of it. Lord Rees-ogg would be very proud of his son’s campaigning role in reversing the UK’s commitment on overseas aid, and even prouder of how he helped get Britain to the hardest Brexit of all, whatever the impact on the “left-behinds” whose votes were just a necessary step on the journey, first in the EU referendum, then in the 2019 general election.

Two of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s more controversial moves in recent times are more clearly understood on the back of reading this book. First, the shift of millions in his hedge fund from the UK to Ireland. The normal rules of politics say that you shouldn’t do such a thing just as you are heralding a great patriotic future for the UK after Brexit. But the Sovereign Individual puts his wealth where he can best maximise his capital. 

Second, his observation, that it may be fifty years before the country as a whole sees what he calls “the full benefits” of Brexit. Sovereign Individuals are exempt from that long wait because, as Rees-Mogg Sr makes clear, there are huge opportunities from upheaval, and in particular from the weakening of nation-states, the decline of welfare, the death (as he wills it) of social democracy, which is in any event “an illusion… an anachronism, as much an artefact of industrialisation as a rusting smokestack”.

But what rewards lie ahead for this gilded few if only its members – “a relatively small, elite group of rich represent a more coherent and effective body than a large mass of citizens” – seize the opportunities? “The new Sovereign Individual will operate like the gods of myth in the same physical environment as the ordinary, subject citizen, but in a separate realm politically. Commanding vastly greater resources and beyond the reach of many forms of compulsion, the Sovereign Individual will redesign governments and reconfigure economies in the new millennium. The full implications of this change are all but unimaginable.” Indeed.

In two earlier books, Blood in the Streets and The Great Reckoning, Davidson and Rees-Mogg forecast the end of Communism and the rise of Gorbachev, the war in Yugoslavia, the Japanese economic bust and the late 80s Wall Street crash, the decline of Marxism and the rise of extreme Islam as chief security concern for the West. So though there are some things they get wrong, they got a lot right.

And, bearing in mind that the third of this trilogy was written in 1997, when I was part of the Blair team meant to be in touch with the modern world, I certainly was not in touch enough to make this observation: “We believe the Information Age will bring the dawn of cybersoldiers, who will be heralds of devolution. Cybersoldiers could be deployed not merely by nation-states but by very small organisations, and even by individuals. Wars of the next millennium will include some almost bloodless battles fought with computers.”

Vladimir Putin was two years off becoming president of Russia, Mark Zuckerberg was just 13, Dominic Cummings was still in his 20s, his Vote Leave colleague Matthew Elliot still at college, when Rees-Mogg Sr wrote this: “The result will be a massive problem of data corruption that will provide an accidental illustration of a new potential for information warfare. In the Information Age, potential adversaries will be able to wreak havoc by detonating ‘logic bombs’ that sabotage the functions of essential systems by corrupting the data upon which their functioning depends.” Fake news, echo chambers, the weaponisation of information, the turning against elites – they foretell it all.

I took another look at the book this week in an attempt to find a logic to the position to which Johnson’s government has led us. Set in the context of the Rees-Mogg Sr worldview, a desire for no deal is that logic. Had Johnson campaigned openly for it, he would never have won the referendum in the first place. It had to be the destination on a journey fuelled by “the will of the people,” and in which others – the EU, or “Remoaners” – could be blamed when the journey ended in a very different place to that which had been promised.

There are some European leaders and diplomats who view Johnson as hopelessly out of his depth; someone who, in terms of his understanding of the realities of EU politics, has never really moved on from his days inventing anti-European stories for two Sovereign Individuals from the Channel Islands, the Brexit-fanatical Barclay Brothers. The recent “car crash” dinner with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has done little to dispel that view.

Others, however, believe that Johnson negotiated in bad faith throughout. In other words – given that the bulk of those who have supported him throughout his career, and ultimately helped him to become prime minister, were insistent on the purest form of Brexit – he was always going to go to wherever the Sovereign Individuals wanted him to.

Whether it’s uselessness or strategy, EU leaders now view the UK and its prime minister as untrustworthy. That has consequences that will outlive whatever happens on 1 January. Meanwhile, whether it’s no deal or a thin deal, Sunak, Dominic Raab, Priti Patel, Jacob Rees-Mogg and the true Brexit believers are better placed than ever to turn Britain into the kind of country that Rees-Mogg’s father wished it could be.