The Wiki Man

Let’s appoint a Ministry of Scandalous Ideas

Plus: Miliband could solve all his problems by appointing Ed Balls to be his grilled tomato

3 January 2015

9:00 AM

3 January 2015

9:00 AM

My children have a phrase called ‘fomo’ — which stands for ‘fear of missing out’. It is a constant, mildly paranoid anxiety, exacerbated by social media, that all your friends are having a much better time than you are.

There is a related problem in government, I suspect, called FODM — or ‘fear of Daily Mail’. The effect of FODM is to limit the range of political discussion and opinion to a narrow range of predictable, non–controversial possibilities for fear anything more interesting might allow the media to manufacture a scandal.

This is where, unexpectedly, I sympathise with Russell Brand. In fact it was from a Brand podcast that I first heard the phrase ‘Overton window’. This defines the narrow scope of political ideas which can be entertained at any one time without career-threatening consequences. One reason for the rise of Ukip is the disappearance from mainstream politics of a caste of oddballs and nut-jobs (Benn, Rhodes Boyson, Willie Hamilton, Nicholas Fairbairn, etc); these people were extraordinarily valuable, not because you would want anyone to enact their ideas, but because their views gave everyone else the licence to entertain mildly odd ideas which seemed sane in comparison. They enlarged the Overton window. Today, when you can lose your job with a tweet, the window has practically become a peephole.

Yet almost all interesting ideas arouse hostility for a long period before they become adopted (google the ‘Semmelweis Reflex’, for example, or read Thomas Kuhn). I’d go further: no idea can be considered worthwhile unless it creates horrified comment in at least three national papers and is denounced by leading economists.

So my solution is to create a Ministry of Scandalous Ideas (perhaps under Michael Fabricant), its aim being to increase the level of bravery elsewhere in Whitehall through the power of comparison, and to deflect media attention from all other government activities.

Its first proposal would be to save £50 billion on HS2 by legalising cannabis, since with cannabis freely available nobody would care how long it took to get to Manchester or indeed bother to make the trip in the first place. The two problems of speed and capacity would be solved at a stroke. The idea would also promote social cohesion by uniting two disparate campaign groups under the single slogan ‘Save the Chilterns. Legalise Pot.’

I shouldn’t say this, but the power of comparative judgment also offers a very simple strategy for a Labour victory. Since it is known that perception of human attractiveness is highly relative, all Ed Miliband needs do to improve his image is to spend the duration of the election campaign in the company of Ed Balls. Other than Steve Buscemi or the late Max Schreck, it is hard to think of anyone better for this role. Such is the power of relative perception that by election day Ed M wouldn’t just look electable — he’d look like Cary Grant.

Girls going to night clubs have known about this effect for years, which is why four moderately attractive women always ensure they are accompanied by a fifth, less alluring companion, to create added appeal for the majority through the power of contrast.

According to Viz magazine, the practice is so common in the Bigg Market region of Newcastle that a Geordie slang term has arisen for the fifth girl: she is known as ‘the grilled tomato’. This is by analogy with the full English breakfast, where the grilled tomato’s role is in some sense sacrificial: it is there to bring the comparative appeal of the sausage, bacon, eggs and beans into even sharper relief.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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Show comments
  • Dodgy Geezer

    …So my solution is to create a Ministry of Scandalous Ideas (perhaps under Michael Fabricant), its aim being to increase the level of bravery elsewhere in Whitehall…

    We already have the Monster Raving Loony Party.

    I note that many of its policies – initially derided, have, in fact, been taken up by major parties and enacted. So not only do we have such a system, but it has been working well…

  • global city

    The much vaunted ‘centre-ground’ (a concept only simpletons believe has any merit, so why it is hung on to so tenaciously by the chatterati and Westminster bubble) is comparable to a plate of grilled tomatoes. If only the politicians understood this?

    They may think that constantly highlighting ‘the centre-ground’ helps to limit the narrative adn debate to the fields they wish to confine it to, but that just means that they miss vital and huge areas of concern amongst the people.

    because they constantly do this, they are becoming irrelevant….but then they have all the power!

    What is to be done?

  • Gerschwin

    ‘Grilled tomato’, love it. Proof that no matter the rise of the thought police and their odious officiousness deep down no one’s changed a damned bit.

    There’s hope yet.

  • rtj1211

    I am standing as a candidate to become your MP:

    1. I believe in sex inside and outside marriage, provided all parties consent, are capable of consenting, are of sufficient age to consent.
    2. I believe in eating three healthy meals a day.
    3. I believe in education for children.
    4. Err……that’s it.
    5. Well, it’s not, but point one is far too controversial for many right wing fundamentalist christian fruitcakes, number two is highly controversial if we want McDonalds to bung the party some election funds and number three is pretty controversial if you want to recreate factories with 14 yr olds working 12 hr days, which is pretty close to mainstream industrial policy requests from potentially major anonymous donors from overseas too.

  • davidshort10

    Haven’t been to the Bigg Market for a long time. And I mean a long time. When it housed the Newcastle Journal’s watering hole, but I have an idea that all the ladies that frequent the Bigg Market are grilled tomatoes, if my experience of the daytime lades up the road is anything to go by.

  • Den Simone

    An entry for the Minister of Scandalous Ideas: Make London a National Park