Joyce McMillan: Only co-operation can fix humanity’s ills

British boots are back on the ground near Sangin in Helmand, just a year after UK's 'final' departure from Afghanistan, as Taleban forces are reported to have retaken the town. Picture: Getty
British boots are back on the ground near Sangin in Helmand, just a year after UK's 'final' departure from Afghanistan, as Taleban forces are reported to have retaken the town. Picture: Getty
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INTERNATIONAL co-operation may be weak and disjointed but that does not make it wrong argues Joyce McMillan

Two leading London newspapers are spread across my desk, on the day before Christmas Eve. On one front page, there’s an image of a British soldier sheltering his face from a dust-storm in Helmand province; it accompanies the news that, a year after our final departure from Afghanistan, British boots are back on the ground near Sangin, the Afghan town now once again in danger of falling to the Taleban.

And the other newspaper carries an image – the image of the year, many might say – of another boatload of refugees making landfall on the Greek island of Lesbos. They are blonde, dark, mostly youngish men, with a few young women and children; and soon, they will be making their way north and west, to Germany, Sweden, Britain. Some of these refugees – or their cousins from camps on the Syrian border – may eventually make their homes here in Scotland, or will join the steady flow into the south-east of England, changing UK domestic politics for both good and ill.

For this has been the year when – to paraphrase Trotsky – you many not have been interested in world affairs, but world affairs began to seem ever more interested in you. Even when we were not watching images of war in Afghanistan or Syria, or of refugees risking their lives to reach Europe, it was a year when we felt our global connections and responsibilities tug at us ever more keenly and painfully, from the twin Paris tragedies of the Charlie Hebdo shooting and the 13 November attacks, to the great climate change conference, also in Paris, that ended the year; ask a shop-owner in Cumbria, flooded out for the third time in a month, whether he or she has any interest in the climate talks, and you may get a very different answer from what you might have expected a decade ago.

Yet if the sheer scale of these crises is beginning to change our news agenda, it often still seems barely to impinge on our politics. Last month, when Britain made its decision to join in anti-IS bombing raids in Syria, Britain’s political class discussed the matter almost entirely in terms of what the debate revealed about the depth of the current split in the Labour Party.

And although our leading politicians now spend a huge proportion of their time in international meetings, it still seems that for many – both politicians and voters – the first reaction to any global trouble is to suggest that we can sling up a political and psychological drawbridge, “bring power back home”, “get control of our borders”, and keep a troubled world at arms’ length. Anti-immigrant parties do well in elections across Europe – although not so well as some eagerly predict; some countries in south-eastern Europe, notably Hungary, have even shamed themselves by rebuilding the kinds of physical walls and fences from which our continent, after 1989, was supposed to be free at last. And even in Scotland, despite a widespread understanding that nationalism is best combined with a robust internationalism, we still look inward in our daily politics; as if the austerity budget just delivered by John Swinney was some mere domestic problem to be solved by independence, or by a more robust use of devolved powers, rather than a symptom of a Europe-wide malaise.

It looks, in other words, as if patriotism – long recognised as the last refuge of a scoundrel – has now become something worse: the deliberately deceptive politics of those who offer the false prospect of a nation somehow protected from global change. Almost all mainstream parties, in all nations, are guilty of peddling this illusion to some extent. And because they are made up of representatives from these same parties and governments, our international institutions – the bodies which should be powerful enough to take on and solve the global problems we face – are both weaker than they should be, and perilously short of the kind of scrutiny that might be provided by a genuine international grassroots politics, with media to match.

None of these ideas is new, of course; my father and many of his generation returned from the Second World War convinced that “world government” was the only real answer to the huge issues of justice and freedom they had glimpsed in that global conflict. And although there have been so many bitter and catastrophic failures since then, it’s perhaps worth remembering two things, at Christmas, about the global institutions – still relatively new, in the long view of history – that were founded in the aftermath of that war, including the United Nations.

The first is that for all their flaws, these institutions do also have their successes; it’s simply that when they succeed, we hear nothing of the absence of war and catastrophe that is their greatest achievement. And although agreements like the COP21 climate deal reached in Paris are deeply flawed, they represent a level of international recognition of a shared problem, and an intention to deal with it, that surely signals progress, however dangerously slow.

And the second is that a global politics will only really emerge when there are millions upon millions of global citizens actively demanding it, rejecting the old lies about national power and self-sufficiency that still so distort our politics. The truth is that there is not a single problem mentioned in this column that can be solved entirely at national level.

And as we look, this Christmas, into the faces of those arriving refugees who could – but for the grace of God – be ourselves, or our loved ones, we should know this: that human kind is a family, however vast and fractious; and that sooner or later we must sit together around the same table to solve our problems, lighting our traditional candles of meeting, celebration and talk, against all the forces of the dark.