Peter Jones: Social turmoil may spark revolution

The fact that a quarter of Italians voted for comedian Beppe Grillo is no laughing matter. Picture: Reuters
The fact that a quarter of Italians voted for comedian Beppe Grillo is no laughing matter. Picture: Reuters
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Peter Jones writes that the current spiritual and political void may just play into the hands of pro-independence camp

Human nature is to have goals and ambitions. For most people, targets of personal achievement are combined with aims for the society we live in. But, right now, the mechanisms for achieving both look decidedly broken. It means, I think, that we live in a time that is both dangerous and opportune, with potential outcomes that can be good or bad. Which way will we go?

Readers don’t need me to tell them that current economic times are as bad as they have ever been in living memory. Good jobs are hard to find and the normal routes to getting them, mainly a good education, don’t seem to work as reports of graduates doing menial jobs for which they are manifestly over-qualified indicate. And for those with a job, uncertainty about the future of that work is a constantly depressing cloud.

At times of secular doubt, people often look to the spiritual. But that world is in turmoil as well. The tribulations of the Roman Catholic Church dominate headlines and chat in the pub, but let’s not forget that other churches, Anglican and Protestant, are wrestling with big moral problems that are dividing their adherents as well.

These concerns are gripping people right across western Europe. The continent looks leaderless and visionless. Political leaders seem incapable of restoring economic life, while spiritual leaders are gripped by problems of their own making.

This conjunction of secular and spiritual crises may be coincidental, but it nevertheless makes this point in history exceptionally risky and dangerous. History tells us that loss of belief in existing systems and institutions always leads to change. Where leaders and their institutions are unbending, it can end up in bruising revolution, as we have seen in Tunisia and Egypt, or bloody war, as is also evident in Libya and Syria.

Democracy is supposed to be the safety valve that allows for peaceful transition. But I don’t think that we in Europe can be complacent about that – 1930s Germany was democratic and managed to produce Nazism. The roots of that also lay in economic depression.

Current democratic developments say quite clearly that similar, although apparently less threatening, trends are occurring. Last week, a quarter of Italian voters voted for a political party that has sprung up from nowhere, had next to no money, stayed out of the TV studios, and is led by Beppe Grillo, a comedian.

Reading the English language version of his blog (internet and social media campaigning was his route to electoral success), 90 per cent of it comprises railing against establishment politicians and bankers, a demand that they should go away, and an end to austerity. A coherent replacement political programme is hard to detect.

In Britain, the Eastleigh by-election produced a massive vote for Ukip, which mainly stands for a severe reduction of immigration and for Britain to get out of the European Union. Neither immigrants nor eurocrats are Britain’s main problems and doing either or both of what Ukip seeks won’t lead to a better Britain. But Nigel Farage, its leader, is clearly speaking for an awful lot of people who do not believe that the established political parties are listening to them.

In the spiritual arena, the Catholic Church is paralysed by an irreconcilable conflict between what its priests preach and what they do in private. In my early encounters with Keith O’Brien, before he became a cardinal, I thought he was an amiable and interesting man with some progressive views about how the Church should adapt its anachronistic teachings to modern society.

When he became cardinal, I was astonished by how hard line he became in his views on contraception, abortion and homosexuality. The revelations of the past couple of weeks of homosexual behaviour towards other priests are forgivable in a man, but much less so in a preacher of such high rank.

The travails of Cardinal O’Brien are replicated in one form or another across the world. The faith’s Vatican citadel looks about to be rocked by more scandal in a report – said to detail financial and moral corruption among its senior people – which was handed to Pope Benedict shortly before he resigned.

Of a lesser order, but still just as divisive, are questions about the position of women in the Anglican church. The Church of Scotland, while more progressive about women, still bars openly gay people from being ordained as ministers, while all of these churches are, to some degree or other, hostile to gay marriage.

To some, perhaps many, all this economic and religious failure may well look like evidence that western European society is in terminal decay. Such analyses will lead a few to imagine that a push or two will cause the edifice to either collapse, or force authoritarian restrictions that will also lead to rebellion and collapse, which, I fear, is all-too-fertile breeding ground for terrorism and would-be revolutionaries.

Political and religious leaders need to ask themselves two questions: is our present course of action working, and are the people with us? The answer, on both counts, appears to be no. So, change is an imperative if serious trouble is to be avoided.

There are some signs of course alterations. Across Europe, there are indications that political leaders recognise that austerity is not working, at least in the peripheral, very weak Mediterranean countries, and there should be more emphasis on growth if the euro is not to be pushed again to breaking point.

In Britain, Chancellor George Osborne is under pressure to shift course and come up with some growth-producing policies in his Budget this month, even from the right-wing of the Conservative Party and even if that entails more government borrowing.

In the religious sphere, things look less hopeful. The Catholic Church needs a strong reforming pope ready to realign its teachings with modern society, but its ranks of cardinals look to be full of men anxious, if only for self-preservation, to maintain the status quo.

Finally, I can’t help noting that all this turmoil is opportune for the SNP. Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was pretty quick off the blocks to proclaim Eastleigh as evidence that Scottish and English politics were on a divergent course. She might be right.

Despite what the opinion polls now say about independence heading for defeat, such is the nature of current social turmoil that enough Scots might well see independence as a handy escape lifeboat. Independence, after all, would be a democratic revolution.