A FEW years back, a senior politician let me into his trade’s dirty little secret. “When I started out as an activist I really had no idea what I was doing, but I presumed the people above me did,” he said. “Then I started working full-time for the party. I still didn’t know what I was doing, but I was sure those running the place had a handle on things.” Then he was put in charge of the party. “Still no. I thought the MPs, at least, must know what was going on.” He became an MP. “Nope.” Then a Cabinet minister. “Not even around that table.” He watched the PM in action. ‘Oh dear…’

This was his tongue-in-cheek confession: nobody knows anything; everyone is making it up as they go along. If they pretend otherwise – and most of them do, at least in public – they’re bluffing. They have principles, beliefs, ambitions for the country and for themselves, but really they’re just hoping to get lucky. We know from our own jobs and colleagues that this is almost always true. We know that those who lack the self-awareness to understand as much – those who are full of passionate intensity – can be the most dangerous and destructive. It’s just that in politics the stakes are abnormally high.

It could be argued that today, for all our instant access to information, we know less than we ever have. The world is a tangled, confusing place. The financial crash of 2008 introduced us to credit default swaps and collateralised debt obligations and unblinking physicist quants who devised trading systems of dazzling speed and complexity that even they barely understood. We watched aghast as everyone from finance ministers to central bankers to economists, all of whom had previously touted a mystical wisdom about how things worked, displayed the unmistakable signs of bamboozlement. Yet again, it turned out nobody knew anything.

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Voters are many things, but they aren’t stupid. They have come to see the architecture of the modern public realm for what it is: jerry-built, patched up, fly-by-night – in other words, a cowboy job. And they have looked at those who shape and inhabit that architecture and they see one thing: cowboys.

This, to a significant degree, is why we have Brexit, President Trump, and populists of the lowest character weighing votes across the West. All ostensibly offer simplicity and disentanglement – less immigration, less globalisation, less compromise, power brought closer to home and wielded by people who speak the same language. You can call this unwinding a dubious attempt to turn back the clock or you can see it as a rational response to a global experiment that got out of control. It’s probably a bit of both.

Even if the electorate only meant to blow the bloody doors off, they have very nearly taken down the entire building. Politics is in a wretched state. The Government at Westminster is a joke, a depleted and diminished force with no capacity for anything but stumbling through our departure from the EU. The opposition is a grave threat to the nation’s wellbeing, but is able to lurk largely unnoticed behind the Brexit singularity. The Scottish Government looks on impotently. Lord knows what’s going to happen in Ireland. Meanwhile, the destruction being wreaked by Mr Trump and the Republican establishment will take decades to unpick.

We desperately need some heroes, but it’s hard to know where to find them. The political class continues to use the old language of half-truths and obfuscation, of winks and hints. It adopts an air of omniscience completely at odds with its performance. It still puts party and personal advancement before country. Those who might have provided unifying, moderate leadership have either been blocked by the extremists who have seized power in both main UK parties or, in the case of Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson, are 500 miles from the centre of action. And even then, it’s not clear any of them have grasped the need for a complete rethink in the relationship between the governing and the governed.

The most impressive person I’ve come across this year, and the one who most gave me hope that a potential new template for public service exists, is Preet Bharara. Until March, Mr Bharara served as the spectacularly successful US Attorney for the Southern District of New York. The post includes Wall Street in its jurisdiction, and is therefore one of the most important prosecutorial roles in America. Mr Bharara won 85 straight insider-trading convictions, a record.

Last November, at a meeting in Trump Tower with the then president-elect, Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner, Mr Bharara was asked to stay on in his post when the new administration took over. He agreed to do so, on the understanding he could continue to work with the necessary independence. He explained to Mr Trump that his loyalty was to the US constitution and the law, not to any given president. He was dismissed not long afterwards.

The talk I saw Mr Bharara give was notable for many reasons, but what really shone through was his personal integrity and moral courage. He had spent years going after the bankers and financiers who had destroyed the global economy. He had protected his staff – underpaid, under pressure, and working long hours on thankless tasks – from political pressure. He was never going to fit into the Trump regime, but he made them fire him rather than quit. “Words matter, signals matter, values matter,” he told us.

For all the awfulness of what’s happening Stateside, we can also see America at its best. The heroes we’re looking for are the members of the country’s justice system who are dispassionately hunting down wrongdoing by the Trump administration and its hangers-on. Robert Mueller, the former head of the FBI who is leading the inquiry, has accumulated a 40-strong team that will probably bring this sorry excuse for a President to his knees and begin to restore some dignity to a great nation. These guys don’t bum and boast – they talk a language of humility, of reasonable doubt, of the rule of law, of the public good, of doing the right thing. What will happen, will happen, they say – they can only do their best with the facts.

At our lowest point, these humble, determined seekers of truth shine out like a beacon. There’s a lesson there.