I love the word ‘bedlam’, meaning insane or totally out of control. It comes from the Royal St Mary Bethlehem Hospital in Bishopsgate, London. The Royal Bethlehem was an asylum dating back to the 15th century where poor creatures suffering from seizures and other afflictions were remanded to end their days roaring and screaming, packed away out of sight. Bethlehem was abbreviated to Bedlam and the word bedlam fell into common usage.
In the old days, the descent from normality to lunacy might be rapid or unpredictable, largely because our understanding of medicine and psychiatry was limited.
One person who moved from being a pillar of society to becoming an inmate of Bedlam was Augustin Pugin, architect of London’s Big Ben. I’m thinking about Pugin and Bedlam because I am walking down Albert Embankment. It’s cold, crisp and sunny in London and the turrets of the House of Commons across the river from me are twinkling in the sunlight.
The building looks beautiful. The architect who designed the British Houses of Parliament as well as Big Ben, the brilliant Mr Pugin died young and screaming.
He was a genius who also, incidentally, designed St Aidan’s Cathedral in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford. He was the most celebrated architect of his day but he died in the Royal Bethlehem lunatic asylum at the age of just 40 in 1852. It is thought that he contracted mercury poisoning, as mercury was used extensively in building work during the early Victorian period. Pugin’s legacy lives on in his architecture.
I’m in London at the Houses of Parliament to interview Nigel Farage and Alex Salmond for ‘Agenda’, which will be aired on TV3 at noon on Sunday. These two men intrigue me because they have probably done more than any other two politicians working in the UK to change the political landscape of Britain. Farage took an extreme — frankly marginal — movement, the movement for Britain to leave the EU, and he brought it centre stage and succeeded in making it a constitutional reality. Whether you agree with him or not, this is an extraordinary political achievement.
Consider this. In 1994, the multimillionaire Jimmy Goldsmith set up and funded the Referendum Party on a Brexit platform. In 1997, Goldsmith, with all his millions, stood for parliament in Putney. He stood on exactly the same platform as Farage would later do in 2016, yet Goldsmith got only 1,500 votes campaigning for the UK to leave the EU.
Politics can make for some strange associations, but who would have seen Gerry Adams as a source of inspiration for Nigel Farage? After a few pleasantries, Mr Farage volunteers the following:
“I remember the Nice Treaty which Ireland rejected, and I remember the Lisbon Treaty which Ireland rejected just over 10 years ago. And I remember Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin saying in both of those referendums, ‘we didn’t fight the British for 500 years to have Ireland governed by the EU’.
“And I thought, I’m not a Gerry Adams supporter, but actually what he’s saying is completely and utterly logical. Irish nationalism actually made some sense. They wanted Ireland to be an independent, self- governing, democratic nation.
“And Sinn Féin have completely sold out to the EU. Now, whether it’s to do with money, or what the reasoning is, I don’t know.”
He has evidently given Ireland a lot of thought and he predicts that change is on the wind:
“I don’t buy the fact that Ireland is now a pro-European country. You are the only member state of the EU that has rejected two treaties in referendums. I think Irish public opinion is now very similar to British public opinion. I suspect if there was a referendum on Ireland’s future, it would be a close-run thing.”
He is also pretty sure that Brussels has not quite done with us yet:
“I worked in Brussels for 17 years. They do not like your level of corporation tax, which is why they will move towards what they call a CCCTB [Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base]. You will, over the next few years, lose your big competitive advantage. And when that happens, the debate in Ireland about EU membership will change.”
According to Farage, we had better brace ourselves because there is no stopping the momentum.
“As Trump goes in that direction, as the UK undoubtedly goes in that direction, of lower tax rates, Ireland is about to go for higher corporation tax rates. Not because the Government wants it, not because the Dáil wants it, not because the people want it, but because that’s what Brussels wants.”
Whether you agree with Farage or not, only a fool would dismiss him. Consider that only 19 years ago, Brexit was regarded as eccentric, off-the-wall and not particularly serious. This year, the same movement — largely driven by Farage — garnered close to 18 million votes in the referendum and, as a result, Britain is on its way out of the EU.
So how does this happen? How does an idea which is regarded as extreme and inconsequential become mainstream?
Scottish nationalism under Alex Salmond experienced a somewhat similar transformation. In 1983, the SNP had 10pc of the Scottish vote. Last year, it garnered 46pc and the Scots are on course for another referendum, which the SNP may well win. This would take Scotland out of the UK and begin the process of British disintegration. Although there are many factors driving Scottish independence, the energy and vision of Alex Salmond was and still is a huge driving force. His vision and his tireless campaigning have pulled the SNP from the margins to being by far the biggest party in Scotland.
Again, not unlike Farage, Salmond has taken a minority idea and made it mainstream.
In political science, this notion of an unusual idea becoming mainstream very quickly is called an ‘Overton window’ after Joseph Overton, an American political theorist. Overton was interested in how odd ideas move from the sidelines to the mainstream quickly. The window he referred to was what he called the “window of acceptability”. He noticed, particularly in the US, how ideas that start far outside the political mainstream, like building a wall on the Mexican border, go from being unthinkable to being thinkable.
When there is a crisis, ideas that were marginal become mainstream and ideas that were mainstream become redundant, and quickly.
So once an idea is stated boldly, talked about and digested, it can become palatable. Once it becomes palatable, it begins to encroach on acceptability and gradually moves towards the mainstream.
It then crosses over from the academic fringe into electoral discourse and very quickly ideas that were once regarded as wacky become policy platforms or at least possible policy platforms.
Typically, an economic crisis will accelerate the transition from the fringe to the centre.
In 2016, we had a number of these crossovers where the obscure became the mainstream. Trump and Brexit are two classic examples where the window of acceptability moves dramatically and political reality is turned on its head.
David McWilliams hosts ‘Agenda’ on TV3 on Sunday at noon