Christina Patterson: Believe it or not, this might be the shape of politics to come

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Stick a bowl of cashew nuts in front of your dinner guests and they might eat so many that they spoil their dinner.

Take the bowl away and they'll thank you. This is one of the devastating insights offered in a book called Nudge, which is, apparently, the biggest idea to hit Cameron and his cronies since the Big Society.

While the Big Society was dreamt up (perhaps on the back of an envelope) by Cameron's dressed-down director of strategy, Steve Hilton, "nudge" was developed by a couple of American academics who have also found favour at the White House. Richard Thaler is a professor of "behavioural science and economics" and director of a centre "for decision research". Cass Sunstein is a professor of jurisprudence. Together, the pair are, according to the cover of their book, "hot stuff".

Nudge first caught Cameron's attention when it was published two years ago, and was swiftly placed on a recommended (but not, one assumes, compulsory) reading list for Tory MPs. Now that he's safely ensconced in Downing Street, he can give the idea its due: a whole "behavioural insight team", which includes that new political must-have, a smart young academic. The academic (who, like all political advisers these days, looks very much like a Miliboy) is a man called David Halpern who's written papers on "Personal Responsibility and Behaviour Change". Because that, of course, is what it's all about.

It wouldn't be quite fair to describe the cashew nuts as the Newton's apple of nudge theory (that honour should probably go to the houseflies etched on the urinals at Schiphol airport, which apparently "nudged" men into pointing Percy a bit more precisely, and are now almost more famous than the book), but the cashew nuts are certainly key. When Thaler plonked the bowl in front of his guests at a dinner party, watched them stuff their face and then, worrying that his haute cuisine would be wasted, whisked it away, he appears to have undergone a eureka moment. His guests thanked him for his intervention and then (being economists) mused on how it was possible to be happier now that their choices had been reduced.

Some of us (particularly those of us who, if faced with a barrel of kettle chips, would probably eat them until we literally dropped dead) have no problem at all understanding why his guests would be happier once released from the prison of their dinner-wrecking greed, but these, we must remember, were Americans. This was the land of the free (and the freedom fry), the land where it's more important to be able to carry a gun than to have fewer people murdered, and it's more important to be free not to pay for healthcare insurance than to help keep millions of your low-income neighbours alive.

This, presumably, is why the rather obvious point that people don't always make brilliant choices, and it's possible to give them a little "nudge" in the right direction, without resorting to anything as Stalinist as state intervention, is presented as if it were the Lost Symbol that humanity has, since Eve wolfed down that lovely braeburn, been awaiting. We are all, say the hot duo, "choice architects", making choices for ourselves, and making choices that will affect other people's choices. Er, yes. The other word, of course, is human beings.

Nudge is a very lively read, and you can certainly see that sitting around discussing its ideas would be a whole lot more fun than ejecting people from their council houses or snatching away their jobs (although, to be fair, Cameron and Clegg manage to make that look like great fun, too). Anyone who has the pleasure of travelling on that Peruvian rubbish tip known as the London Underground might well be interested to see how the "Don't Mess with Texas" cowboy-fronted anti-litter campaign might be helpfully replicated here. And who couldn't be impressed by the peer-pressure anti-drinking campaign in Montana of posters saying "Most (81 per cent) of Montana college students have four or fewer alcoholic drinks each week"? Especially since the British equivalent would have to say "Most Brits like nothing more than getting bladdered".

These are certainly tricky issues. But when 24-hour licensing was introduced, in an attempt to nudge us into more continental drinking habits, the Brits only took it as a challenge. And now even Cameron, perhaps perturbed by his compatriots' plebeian lack of self-control, has said that he will "look sympathetically" at local initiatives to tackle "deep discounting" on alcohol, a measure (make that a double) which is clearly more than a nudge. In relation to most issues, however, Cameron and his pals seem to think that changing behaviour is something that has to be tackled by stealth, a bit like getting pandas to mate, or bankers to pay taxes.

David Cameron hasn't suggested suspending laws about seat belts, drink-driving, or smoking in public buildings – horrible infringements of liberty though these all are. He hasn't suggested the abolition of the congestion charge. He has, however, endorsed his Transport Secretary's end to "the war on motorists". In Oxfordshire, the speed cameras have already been switched off. Speed cameras, according to the Department of Transport's own statistics, reduced fatal accidents by 42 per cent.

But freedom, as Donald Rumsfeld once said in another context, is messy. The context, of course, was the Iraq war, a war which our new Prime Minister supported, but which his deputy thinks was a war crime. But let's not talk about that. Let's talk instead about etching houseflies on urinals.

Technology and the new diplomacy

When David Cameron announced last month that he was keen to make the Foreign Office into an international chamber of commerce, he made it abundantly clear that he thought all those Pimm's parties at embassies across the world were a gargantuan waste of time, energy and taxpayers' cash. (My mother, who was a diplomat's wife in the Sixties, might well agree. When she asked my father precisely how it served Britain's interests to be forced to rustle up her beef stroganoff and almond cake for the same group of dreary expats at unbelievably frequent intervals, his answer was, she felt, unsatisfactorily vague.)

But some diplomats, it's clear, deserve all the accolades (or almond cake) they can get. One of these is the British ambassador in Tehran, Simon Gass. If his name is a little unfortunate in a country whose regime is a product of British and American greed for oil, that's nothing compared to the diplomatic challenges he faces. It must be tricky enough tucking into chelo kabab with Iranian officials happily honing the details of the next public stoning. But to sit meekly by while a vice-president calls the British "a bunch of thick people ruled by a mafia" must take superhuman strength. Perhaps not surprisingly, Gass has cracked. In a message on the embassy website, he said that the remarks reflected "badly only on the person who made them". God only knows how he felt when he heard Cameron's slip on nuclear weapons.

Prayers – and a few choice words

Christopher Hitchens' current output would be the envy of most journalists, but for someone who's undergoing chemotherapy for cancer of the oesophagus, it's pretty much – but one must whisper the word in his vicinity – miraculous. He does, however, look bloody awful. In a feisty interview on the Atlantic's website, he muses on the weirdness of cancer being the only illness that's always described as "a battle". Frankly, if it did respond to metaphorical left hooks, you feel he'd have a lot more chance than most.

He also talked about God, or rather the non-existence of God, which is clearly a much hotter topic in his adopted country than it is here. Asked by the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg whether he found it "insulting" that people were praying for him, Hitchens replied that, if the prayers were "intended kindly", he didn't. For those whose prayers were not intended kindly, Goldberg had a few choice words. "I can say," he wrote on his blog, "that he does not care one way or another what you do or think or pray. But," he added, in a message that some of us might be tempted to extend to much of the anonymous nuttersphere, "on behalf of myself and the entire team here at the Atlantic, let me just say, go fuck yourselves."

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

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