Faith in politics is vital if ordinary people are to regain power to build the world they need and if humanity is to save itself, writes Joyce McMillan.
Christmas time; a time to step back, to breathe a little, to count our blessings, and to practice the art of gratitude. That most of us in western Europe have much to be grateful for goes without saying. Some – in the UK an increasing and disgraceful number – live in the kind of poverty that means constant stress, poor diet, badly heated homes, or no decent home at all. Yet most of us live in relative comfort; and also take for granted a level of physical and social security of which our great-grandparents could only have dreamed.
What seems a little harder to recall, though – at this Christmas of 2019 – is that none of this world we inhabit happened by itself. First of all, the relative wealth of west European societies was gained partly – or even mainly – through colonial conquest and exploitation, in ways that bind us to the rest of the world in a continuing web of privilege, injustice and responsibility. And secondly, the redistribution of that wealth in ways that benefited the majority of people in our societies – and not just a minority of wealthy proprietors and investors – was a matter of pure politics; of determined trade unionism, of tireless campaigning by social and constitutional reformers, and – in the UK – of the formation of the Labour Party, to represent trade unions in parliament, and to formulate the vision that resulted, particularly after 1945, in the creation of the welfare state as we know it.
In that sense, there is simply no excuse for any citizen living in these societies, and living above the poverty line, to indulge in cynicism about politics and what it can achieve; and certainly no excuse for cynicism from any member of the “boomer” generation born between 1945 and 1965, the ones who have benefited most, in their lifetimes, from political action and decision-making at its most effective and benign.
Tory lies and half-truths
So how is it, then, that we have just undergone a British general election marked not only by a decline in turnout, particularly in constituencies lost by Labour to the Tories, but also by a quite savage cynicism about politics and politicians expressed by many voters when asked for their views? If this cynicism had been partisan, and focussed on the Conservative Party which has just subjected the UK to a decade of painful, damaging and unnecessary austerity, followed by the debacle of Brexit, there might have been a case for it; independent assessors estimate that 88 per cent of Facebook advertisements published by the Conservatives over a key four days of the election campaign contained untruths, whereas the equivalent figure for Labour was seven per cent.
Yet both the result of the election, and opinion surveys published during and after it, suggest that the effect was the exact opposite. Not only did voters tend to feel that both parties were equally untrustworthy; but a crucial section of them apparently therefore warmed to the party that was promising little beyond a supposed end to the Brexit agony and a vaguely amusing Prime Minister, and turned with some bitterness against the party that was actually promising not only to repair some of the damage of the last decade, but also to tackle the looming climate crisis with a huge and imaginative Green New Deal, offering a new generation of sustainable jobs, and a possible credible future for our children and grandchildren.
To judge by the recorded views of those who deserted Labour in this election, most people simply saw this programme as wildly unrealistic “pie in the sky”, somehow worse and more dishonest than the usual familiar round of Tory lies and half-truths. Some ranted about how Labour were too elitist and middle-class, before going on to vote for one of the most privileged Prime Ministers of the past century; others said that Boris Johnson’s known record as a liar and opportunist made him seem more “likeable” and “human”, as if lying and cheating had become the defining characteristic of our species. The obvious truth that what Labour was proposing would only return our public expenditure to levels that are common – and visibly beneficial – in countries just a few dozen miles from our shores, barely surfaced during the campaign; and the continued effort of the mainstream media to provide “balance”, implying that both manifestoes were equally vacuous and misleading, effectively made them propagandists against the idealism of the Labour position, and for the cynicism of the Tory one.
Believe in politics
Yet this much is clear: that unless we can speedily recover our capacity for imagining a better and more sustainable future, for believing in it, and steering a path towards it, then within a couple of decades our societies – and the depleting base of natural resources on which they rest – will effectively be gone, and with them every shred of our current comfort and security. Nationalism is obviously not the answer, in this situation; but it remains true that if the Scottish Government were to start, right now, to co-operate with the widest possible range of Scottish society to create a new, far-sighted and credible manifesto for Scotland’s Future – as an outward-looking independent country seeking to play a positive role in this world in crisis – then that would offer citizens here a useful and hopeful way of thinking about, and planning for, a possible sustainable future, rather than embracing the near-suicidal cynicism expressed by some UK voters of late.
And everywhere, those who want to take a longer view, and not to succumb to despair, need to find ways of working towards that change, and becoming campaigners for it. We need, in other words, to continue to believe in politics – perhaps a transformed politics, but politics nonetheless. For in the end, it’s the deeply political debate about who currently holds power in our world, and how ordinary people can regain enough power to build the world they need, that will decide, over the next few decades, whether our global civilisation lives on, or fades into a history that may never be told; unless we, the storytelling species, begin to recover our belief in ourselves, and in our unique power – acting together – to save both our world, and our own lives.