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Your brain on pseudoscience: the rise of popular neurobollocks

The “neuroscience” shelves in bookshops are groaning. But are the works of authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer just self-help books dressed up in a lab coat?

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere.

In my book-strewn lodgings, one literally trips over volumes promising that “the deepest mysteries of what makes us who we are are gradually being unravelled” by neuroscience and cognitive psychology. (Even practising scientists sometimes make such grandiose claims for a general audience, perhaps urged on by their editors: that quotation is from the psychologist Elaine Fox’s interesting book on “the new science of optimism”, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, published this summer.) In general, the “neural” explanation has become a gold standard of non-fiction exegesis, adding its own brand of computer-assisted lab-coat bling to a whole new industry of intellectual quackery that affects to elucidate even complex sociocultural phenomena. Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: the Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality disavows “reductionism” yet encourages readers to treat people with whom they disagree more as pathological specimens of brain biology than as rational interlocutors.

The New Atheist polemicist Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, interprets brain and other research as showing that there are objective moral truths, enthusiastically inferring – almost as though this were the point all along – that science proves “conservative Islam” is bad.

Happily, a new branch of the neuroscienceexplains everything genre may be created at any time by the simple expedient of adding the prefix “neuro” to whatever you are talking about. Thus, “neuroeconomics” is the latest in a long line of rhetorical attempts to sell the dismal science as a hard one; “molecular gastronomy” has now been trumped in the scientised gluttony stakes by “neurogastronomy”; students of Republican and Democratic brains are doing “neuropolitics”; literature academics practise “neurocriticism”. There is “neurotheology”, “neuromagic” (according to Sleights of Mind, an amusing book about how conjurors exploit perceptual bias) and even “neuromarketing”. Hoping it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon, I have decided to announce that I, too, am skilled in the newly minted fields of neuroprocrastination and neuroflâneurship.

Illumination is promised on a personal as well as a political level by the junk enlightenment of the popular brain industry. How can I become more creative? How can I make better decisions? How can I be happier? Or thinner? Never fear: brain research has the answers. It is self-help armoured in hard science. Life advice is the hook for nearly all such books. (Some cram the hard sell right into the title – such as John B Arden’s Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life.) Quite consistently, heir recommendations boil down to a kind of neo- Stoicism, drizzled with brain-juice. In a selfcongratulatory egalitarian age, you can no longer tell people to improve themselves morally. So self-improvement is couched in instrumental, scientifically approved terms.

The idea that a neurological explanation could exhaust the meaning of experience was already being mocked as “medical materialism” by the psychologist William James a century ago. And today’s ubiquitous rhetorical confidence about how the brain works papers over a still-enormous scientific uncertainty. Paul Fletcher, professor of health neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, says that he gets “exasperated” by much popular coverage of neuroimaging research, which assumes that “activity in a brain region is the answer to some profound question about psychological processes. This is very hard to justify given how little we currently know about what different regions of the brain actually do.” Too often, he tells me in an email correspondence, a popular writer will “opt for some sort of neuro-flapdoodle in which a highly simplistic and questionable point is accompanied by a suitably grand-sounding neural term and thus acquires a weightiness that it really doesn’t deserve. In my view, this is no different to some mountebank selling quacksalve by talking about the physics of water molecules’ memories, or a beautician talking about action liposomes.”

Shades of grey

The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe. That a part of it “lights up” on an fMRI scan does not mean the rest is inactive; nor is it obvious what any such lighting-up indicates; nor is it straightforward to infer general lessons about life from experiments conducted under highly artificial conditions. Nor do we have the faintest clue about the biggest mystery of all – how does a lump of wet grey matter produce the conscious experience you are having right now, reading this paragraph? How come the brain gives rise to the mind? No one knows.

So, instead, here is a recipe for writing a hit popular brain book. You start each chapter with a pat anecdote about an individual’s professional or entrepreneurial success, or narrow escape from peril. You then mine the neuroscientific research for an apparently relevant specific result and narrate the experiment, perhaps interviewing the scientist involved and describing his hair. You then climax in a fit of premature extrapolation, inferring from the scientific result a calming bromide about what it is to function optimally as a modern human being. Voilà, a laboratory-sanctioned Big Idea in digestible narrative form. This is what the psychologist Christopher Chabris has named the “story-study-lesson” model, perhaps first perfected by one Malcolm Gladwell. A series of these threesomes may be packaged into a book, and then resold again and again as a stand-up act on the wonderfully lucrative corporate lecture circuit.

Such is the rigid formula of Imagine: How Creativity Works, published in March this year by the American writer Jonah Lehrer. The book is a shatteringly glib mishmash of magazine yarn, bizarrely incompetent literary criticism, inspiring business stories about mops and dolls and zany overinterpretation of research findings in neuroscience and psychology. Lehrer responded to my hostile review of the book by claiming that I thought the science he was writing about was “useless”, but such garbage needs to be denounced precisely in defence of the achievements of science. (In a sense, as Paul Fletcher points out, such books are “anti science, given that science is supposed to be  our protection against believing whatever we find most convenient, comforting or compelling”.) More recently, Lehrer admitted fabricating quotes by Bob Dylan in Imagine, which was hastily withdrawn from sale, and he resigned from his post at the New Yorker. To invent things supposedly said by the most obsessively studied popular artist of our age is a surprising gambit. Perhaps Lehrer misunderstood his own advice about creativity.

Mastering one’s own brain is also the key to survival in a dog-eat-dog corporate world, as promised by the cognitive scientist Art Markman’s Smart Thinking: How to Think Big, Innovate and Outperform Your Rivals. Meanwhile, the field (or cult) of “neurolinguistic programming” (NLP) sells techniques not only of self-overcoming but of domination over others. (According to a recent NLP handbook, you can “create virtually any and all states” in other people by using “embedded commands”.) The employee using such arcane neurowisdom will get promoted over the heads of his colleagues; the executive will discover expert-sanctioned ways to render his underlings more docile and productive, harnessing “creativity” for profit.

Waterstones now even has a display section labelled “Smart Thinking”, stocked with pop brain tracts. The true function of such books, of course, is to free readers from the responsibility of thinking for themselves. This is made eerily explicit in the psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, published last March, which claims to show that “moral knowledge” is best obtained through “intuition” (arising from unconscious brain processing) rather than by explicit reasoning. “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason,” Haidt enthuses, in a perverse manifesto for autolobotomy. I made an Olympian effort to take his advice seriously, and found myself rejecting the reasoning of his entire book.

Modern neuro-self-help pictures the brain as a kind of recalcitrant Windows PC. You know there is obscure stuff going on under the hood, so you tinker delicately with what you can see to try to coax it into working the way you want. In an earlier age, thinkers pictured the brain as a marvellously subtle clockwork mechanism, that being the cutting-edge high technology of the day. Our own brain-as-computer metaphor has been around for decades: there is the “hardware”, made up of different physical parts (the brain), and the “software”, processing routines that use different neuronal “circuits”. Updating things a bit for the kids, the evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban, in Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite, explains that the brain is like an iPhone running a bunch of different apps.

Such metaphors are apt to a degree, as long as you remember to get them the right way round. (Gladwell, in Blink – whose motivational selfhelp slogan is that “we can control rapid cognition” – burblingly describes the fusiform gyrus as “an incredibly sophisticated piece of brain software”, though the fusiform gyrus is a physical area of the brain, and so analogous to “hardware” not “software”.) But these writers tend to reach for just one functional story about a brain subsystem – the story that fits with their Big Idea – while ignoring other roles the same system might play. This can lead to a comical inconsistency across different books, and even within the oeuvre of a single author.

Is dopamine “the molecule of intuition”, as Jonah Lehrer risibly suggested in The Decisive Moment (2009), or is it the basis of “the neural highway that’s responsible for generating the pleasurable emotions”, as he wrote in Imagine? (Meanwhile, Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking calls dopamine the “reward chemical” and postulates that extroverts are more responsive to it.) Other recurring stars of the pop literature are the hormone oxytocin (the “love chemical”) and mirror neurons, which allegedly explain empathy. Jonathan Haidt tells the weirdly unexplanatory micro-story that, in one experiment, “The subjects used their mirror neurons, empathised, and felt the other’s pain.” If I tell you to use your mirror neurons, do you know what to do? Alternatively, can you do as Lehrer advises and “listen to” your prefrontal cortex? Self-help can be a tricky business.

Cherry-picking

Distortion of what and how much we know is bound to occur, Paul Fletcher points out, if the literature is cherry-picked.

“Having outlined your theory,” he says, “you can then cite a finding from a neuroimaging study identifying, for example, activity in a brain region such as the insula . . . You then select from among the many theories of insula function, choosing the one that best fits with your overall hypothesis, but neglecting to mention that nobody really knows what the insula does or that there are many ideas about its possible function.”

But the great movie-monster of nearly all the pop brain literature is another region: the amygdala. It is routinely described as the “ancient” or “primitive” brain, scarily atavistic. There is strong evidence for the amygdala’s role in fear, but then fear is one of the most heavily studied emotions; popularisers downplay or ignore the amygdala’s associations with the cuddlier emotions and memory. The implicit picture is of our uneasy coexistence with a beast inside the head, which needs to be controlled if we are to be happy, or at least liberal. (In The Republican Brain, Mooney suggests that “conservatives and authoritarians” might be the nasty way they are because they have a “more active amygdala”.) René Descartes located the soul in the pineal gland; the moral of modern pop neuroscience is that original sin is physical – a bestial, demonic proto-brain lurking at the heart of darkness within our own skulls. It’s an angry ghost in the machine.

Indeed, despite their technical paraphernalia of neurotransmitters and anterior temporal gyruses, modern pop brain books are offering a spiritual topography. Such is the seductive appeal of fMRI brain scans, their splashes of red, yellow and green lighting up what looks like a black intracranial vacuum. In mass culture, the fMRI scan (usually merged from several individuals) has become a secular icon, the converse of a Hubble Space Telescope image. The latter shows us awe-inspiring vistas of distant nebulae, as though painstakingly airbrushed by a sci-fi book-jacket artist; the former peers the other way, into psychedelic inner space. And the pictures, like religious icons, inspire uncritical devotion: a 2008 study, Fletcher notes, showed that “people – even neuroscience undergrads – are more likely to believe a brain scan than a bar graph”.

In The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and his collaborator Daniel Simons advise readers to be wary of such “brain porn”, but popular magazines, science websites and books are frenzied consumers and hypers of these scans. “This is your brain on music”, announces a caption to a set of fMRI images, and we are invited to conclude that we now understand more about the experience of listening to music. The “This is your brain on” meme, it seems, is indefinitely extensible: Google results offer “This is your brain on poker”, “This is your brain on metaphor”, “This is your brain on diet soda”, “This is your brain on God” and so on, ad nauseam. I hereby volunteer to submit to a functional magnetic-resonance imaging scan while reading a stack of pop neuroscience volumes, for an illuminating series of pictures entitled This Is Your Brain on Stupid Books About Your Brain.

None of the foregoing should be taken to imply that fMRI and other brain-investigation techniques are useless: there is beautiful and amazing science in how they work and what well-designed experiments can teach us. “One of my favourites,” Fletcher says, “is the observation that one can take measures of brain activity (either using fMRI or EEG) while someone is learning . . . a list of words, and that activity can actually predict whether particular words will be remembered when the person is tested later (even the next day). This to me demonstrates something important – that observing activity in the brain can tell us something about how somebody is processing stimuli in ways that the person themselves is unable to report. With measures like that, we can begin to see how valuable it is to measure brain activity – it is giving us information that would otherwise be hidden from us.”

In this light, one might humbly venture a preliminary diagnosis of the pop brain hacks’ chronic intellectual error. It is that they misleadingly assume we always know how to interpret such “hidden” information, and that it is always more reliably meaningful than what lies in plain view. The hucksters of neuroscientism are the conspiracy theorists of the human animal, the 9/11 Truthers of the life of the mind.

Steven Poole is the author of the forthcoming book “You Aren’t What You Eat”, which will be published by Union Books in October.

This article was updated on 18 September 2012.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

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Uncharted waters

Theresa May will cling on, but the election result changes everything. Brexit and the future of both great parties hang in the balance.

Let’s start with the headlines. We are going to get a different kind of Brexit, but we will leave. The Conservative hard right is now both isolated and dangerous. And although Labour failed to win the election, Jeremy Corbyn’s party has already had a big influence on the new government. Oh, yes, and Theresa May stays . . .

Those are immediate conclusions based on simple political logic. Yet we are not living in a period suited to confident predictions. Parliaments with such tiny majorities are at the mercy of random events, from heart attacks to obscure rows over completely unpredicted issues. As I write, the Tories haven’t even concluded successful negotiations with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and the Queen’s Speech may have to be postponed while May continues her impressive speed-running buffet, scoffing industrial quantities of humble pie.

In such a strange political landscape, the safest thing is to step back a few paces and begin with what we know for sure. First, the Conservative Party is still, just, in control of the country. Its authority is badly weakened and its grip is flimsy, but with the DUP it has the numbers to win the Westminster votes – which, in our system of extremist parliamentarianism, is almost all that matters.

Second: in that case, what now matters most to the Tories? They are, more than ever, a mixed bag. But there are two things most of them agree on – that to go up against Jeremy Corbyn in another general election any time soon would be an act of suicidal stupidity; and that, one way or another, they would quite like to deliver Brexit.

These banal observations imply that May will carry on as Prime Minister for months and possibly even for several years. A Tory leadership contest now – after all the party has said about the Article 50 clock ticking, and having lost two months already with a catastrophic (for Conservatives) general election – would be so grotesquely self-indulgent that the party wouldn’t recover. Whichever poor sod won the leadership would be under massive pressure to hold yet another election in which, you now have to assume, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party would triumph.

Boris Johnson, rampaging around in the undergrowth and breathing heavily, is, many of his colleagues think, constitutionally incapable of not plotting his next move to the top job. Yet I’ve talked in recent days to several senior Tories from different parts of the party who swear that, in one way or another, Boris will be stopped. Were there to be an election, Johnson would be a formidable hooverer-up of votes, perhaps the only Tory today who could match Corbyn’s charisma. Almost nobody wants Theresa May to lead the Light Brigade into another election. So there may be a time when “call for Boris” actually happens. But that’s for another year. Meanwhile, I have to ask: is the current Conservative position of keeping Johnson as their possible electoral saviour in due course, while at the same time ridiculing and diminishing him at every opportunity, completely wise?

Granted, there are other potential prime ministers around. Vigorously (and quite convincingly) denying that he wants the job, David Davis, robust at 68, is nevertheless the obvious successor to May. He is just about the only minister who understands the Brexit negotiations. He is enough of a right-wing toughie to persuade most of the Tory right of his Eurosceptic bona fides, while also being enough of an economic realist to do the deals necessary on immigration and the legal status of EU nationals.

His job is hugely complicated by the outcome of the election. Because of the mathematics of the new parliament – from Ruth Davidson’s group of Scottish Tories to the DUP and the residual Tory Remainers from England – the Brexit position has to change. May has already admitted as much to the 1922 Committee. Davidson is openly demanding talks with other parties. Labour, also committed to leaving the EU, is being lined up as a potential support for the Prime Minister against “no deal is better than a bad deal” Tory ultras.

Thus a great, glittering bubble of optimism has appeared around unreconciled Remainers. The possibility of a non-Brexit has been whipped into a lather by the interventions of former Tory leaders – Hague, Cameron, Major; by “the door is still open” comments from Emmanuel Macron in Paris and Wolfgang Schäuble in Berlin; and by a fresh initiative from the UK Treasury. But we have to remember that this still depends on the Tory party in parliament and what it thinks its own best interests are. Maybe, just maybe, this thing won’t have to happen, after all: let’s call the whole thing off. Michael Heseltine suggests that Macron, fresh from his victory in France, might team up with Chancellor Merkel to offer the British a deal on immigration sufficient to allow the UK to
stay inside the EU. In short: game on again.

***

The chances of a major British rethink about whether and, if so, how we leave the EU seemed to be boosted by the survival of Philip Hammond as Chancellor. May had planned to sack him (and, I’m told, Boris Johnson, too) if she won a big majority. But Hammond, speaking for a very nervous City, and Johnson, with his more liberal views on immigration, remain firmly in place. According to the Remainers’ bible, the Financial Times, British business leaders, who would rather stay inside both the single market and the customs union, now feel emboldened to speak out. They are dancing round the maypoles in besieged Remainer citadels from Cambridge to Primrose Hill.

So let me teeter forward, clutching a very large bucket of cold water. Remaining in the single market requires – unless there is a very large change of heart at Brussels – relinquishing the idea of controlling immigration. For most who voted Leave, that is betrayal. Tory right-wing Brexiteers would be enraged. John McDonnell, one of the clearest Labour voices on this, is utterly against such a move. If it went forward, I don’t see how half the cabinet could stay in their jobs.

So far, the wounded Prime Minister has tried to lean in both directions with her new cabinet appointments – the dripping-wet Europhile Damian Green on one side and the arch-Brexit merchant and Thatcherite Michael Gove on the other. But it’s a wobbly house of cards. Almost certainly, if she suddenly decided to stay in the single market, her government would collapse. Chaps, comrades, citizens of the People’s Republic of Primrose Hill, it’s unlikely to happen.

What about those interesting numbers in the House of Commons? The Scottish Tory MPs are still members of the Conservative family and Ruth Davidson must be aware of the risk of overplaying her hand. After their good results north of the border, they might be more willing to break ranks and provoke another election; but their English colleagues would (perhaps literally) strangle them. In a minority government, the pull of tribal discipline is unusually strong. The DUP, meanwhile, can be bought off and is philosophically in favour of leaving the EU anyway. And then there are Labour MPs who are against staying in the single market. The more I look at this, the more I feel that, despite everything, May has the numbers for a subtly modified Brexit.

These changes matter. In terms of tone, we will have to stop treating the rest of the EU as opponents, rather than our friends and allies. Meanwhile, we are already seeing the ditching of the “tens of thousands” immigration policy. And that’s probably just the beginning.

This is a shift, not an overhaul: despite some of the rhetoric, ministers were not planning the most brutal of Brexits. They have no intention of slamming the door on talented and hard-working European migrants, nor of having an unnecessary bust-up about the rights of EU citizens living here already. They know full well that some kind of financial price is going to be paid as part of our exit.

The much-debated “no deal” option is a proposal for failure and catastrophic failure only – a negotiating gimmick, not any kind of serious plan. Indeed, I’m pretty sure that the real reason the election was called in the first place was that the Prime Minister realised that the European chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, would require her to make unpopular compromises that she couldn’t have got through the old Commons. Now she will have to get them through in even harder circumstances.

I wouldn’t be surprised if we opted to stay inside the customs union for quite a long time as a transitional agreement; and I would be amazed if even looser and more generous migration deals were not being considered for side agreements. May and her cabinet, however, remain tied to a deal that involves leaving the single market, leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court, regaining full control of British borders and ending large regular payments to Brussels.

Even Philip Hammond and Damian Green, the pro-Europe Tory moderate now installed as First Secretary of State (in effect, deputy prime minister), broadly accept this. I see no sign of that changing. What about the Heseltine suggestion of a new migration deal sufficient to allow the UK to stay inside the EU? A senior minister close to the action retorts briskly: “Too late.”

I suspect that many New Statesman readers will regard the above as the vapourings of a Brexit appeaser. Surely the humiliation of the Prime Minister, who called the general election on the issues of Brexit and her authority, must result in a change of direction – and a big one to boot?

But May, who we have already established is likely to survive in No 10, doesn’t want her political career to end on the disaster of the June 2017 election. She wants to do what she has said she wanted to do since becoming Prime Minister, which is to deliver what she calls “a good Brexit”. So long as she is there, with this cabinet and with this Conservative Party, the ship of state – leaking and battered – sails slowly but steadily in the same direction. Is that horizon line a watery cliff marking the end of the world, or is it the New World? Nobody knows, but forward we go. Only another election could change this.

In these circumstances, what role does Labour play? The government makes much of the reality that there is no huge difference between what May and Davis say about the Brexit deal and what Corbyn and Keir Starmer say. That’s true – Labour is as committed to leaving the EU as the Tories are. Labour also accepts that it isn’t possible to remain a full member of the single market while taking back control of immigration; and Corbyn’s party, holding so many seats with pro-Brexit majorities, has no wish to appear to be trying to overturn the referendum result.

That said, there are significant differences. Most important, Labour has not committed itself to getting immigration down to “tens of thousands” and would accept deeper judicial oversight on the rules in order to get better access to the single market.

Senior Labour people I talk to are sceptical about an alliance or commission on the Brexit talks of the kind that Yvette Cooper has suggested. Brexit, they point out, sprawls across so much of the political landscape that this would amount to a grand, Continental-style agreement on the future of Britain on everything from workers’ rights to farming and industrial policy: how could Mayite Tories and Corbynite socialists agree so widely?

And yet the Labour Party’s influence is greater than at any time since Gordon Brown went into the fatal election of 2010. I don’t see how May can get most of the austerity agenda, or grammar schools, or root-and-branch NHS reforms, or fox hunting, or the withdrawal of winter fuel payments through this House of Commons. I’m beginning to wonder whether the Conservatives can even get a majority for a continued freeze on public-sector pay and welfare. Again, stand back a bit and you’ll find that, without winning a parliamentary majority, the Labour Party might get quite a lot of what was in its manifesto anyway. That’s what a hung parliament means.

It will enjoy all of that, but it would be lethal for Labour now to relax. To prepare itself for the next election, it needs to be in the right policy position to win an overall majority. John McDonnell and his team worked hard with outside experts to produce a costed manifesto, but their numbers still depend on optimistic assumptions about economic growth, and there is more to do. “The language of priorities is the religion of socialism,” said Aneurin Bevan in 1949 to an angry party conference in Blackpool during the greatest Labour government. It remains true. If Team Labour flinches from making some hard choices in private now, it will come to regret it when the next election is called.

And, yes, one way or another, the grumpy rebel talent that turned its back on Jeremy Corbyn must be allowed to shuffle back. Corbyn is a forgiving and relaxed man; that is not entirely true of everybody around him. The Tories want more time before the next election but Labour needs to use that time busily, too.

In all this, over the next few years, Brexit will loom over everything. In the cod-medieval corridors of Westminster, in coffee rooms and ministerial offices, in bars and on the paths of St James’s Park, Tory-Labour, Tory-SNP, Tory-Tory (and so on) conversations will now shape our future.

One clear example is judicial oversight. The Prime Minister is determined that Britain will completely free itself from the European Court of Justice. Michel Barnier has been equally clear, in a speech he made in Florence, that EU citizens living in Britain must have their rights protected in the long term by European judicial oversight. David Davis’s response to that, which is that they will have their rights guaranteed by British law under our Supreme Court, tied to an international treaty, may not wash. So there’s a crash coming. (By the way, I would expect a theatrical walkout and angry words quite soon, as the negotiations start. And when that happens, my strong advice is not to take it too seriously. There is going to be a bit of gorilla before everybody settles down.)

***

Going beyond the rights of European citizens, there is the question of how trade disputes will be handled after Britain has left the EU – lawnmower noise levels, the packaging and description of smoked salmon, you name it. The Tories are determined to get us out of the ECJ and if May can’t manage that, her MPs may then move against her. Labour’s view is that there must be an independent court, which companies and individuals can approach, not just governments.

For both trade disputes and individual citizen rights, the obvious solution is a new court structure comprising both ECJ judges and members of Britain’s Supreme Court – call it the “Guernsey Court” option. This won’t please the Tory right or those with the hardline independence view represented outside parliament, still, by Ukip. It is exactly the kind of issue on which the opposition parties might have to come to the government’s aid in the weeks and months ahead. The same may go for agreements on future work quotas and on the appropriate payment for leaving.

If this is right, the obvious conclusion is that Britain is now heading for a softer exit than it was before the election. It will fall far short of retaining membership of the single market, as demanded by unreconciled Remainers. It is possible, particularly because of the DUP, that we may stay in the customs union – but note that, if we do, the Department for International Trade would become almost immediately redundant and we might then see the resignation of Liam Fox. At the least, we will see more compromises over judicial authority and migration and money in return for better market access.

This is probably the best deal now available. Yet even this ignores two huge potential problems. The first is that the rest of the EU, with its own agenda, may not be interested and may want to use the weakness of the May administration to grind British noses in the dust – or, in blunter terms, make us pay more money. Our wild and at times chaotic politics encourages us to see the negotiations as if they were almost one-sided. This is very, very stupid. On the other side, there are plans, and priorities, and worries, and some very big egos. As we leave, they won’t all wish us well.

That takes me to the second big problem. The worse the EU side behaves, the more the popular press and the Tory right will portray this as a nationalistic fight against Continental enemies. Despite the election result, don’t write all those people off yet. There is still a considerable Tory group that would like to see us exiting with no deal at all and that, angry at the compromises being made in our complex new parliament, may yet decide to revolt against May-Green-Davis-Hammond and bring the House down. There is a Götterdämmerung option.

Let’s take another step back. By and large, parties of the centre right get into trouble when they find themselves divorced from the interests of big money and big business. But we now live in a political environment, since the 2008 crash, in which popular revolt against big money is expressed on the right as well as on the left. To some extent, the Tories represent both the problem and the revolt against the problem. That’s part of the reason why May’s simple appeal for leadership and stability failed.

And it makes the May cabinet a buzzing electric switch box of tangled pressures, full of heat and crackle, in which the interests of the City, hi-tech business and universities on one hand and the demands of poorer voters across England on the other are played out day after day. If May, Hammond, Davis and Green manage to pull off an acceptable compromise and deal, it would be a heroic achievement to put against the appalling Conservative election campaign. However, they can’t do it any more without immersing themselves in old-fashioned parliamentary politics and deal-making.

My advice to all newspapers, media groups and websites is to tool up – get out there and hire more political and parliamentary correspondents, right now. This is going to be the most exciting parliament of my lifetime.

The tenth-anniversary revised edition of Andrew Marr's book “A History of Modern Britain” is published by Pan

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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