Euan McColm: Two tragedies herald start of a dark era

A woman burns an EU flag outside the Supreme Court during a hearing into whether parliament's consent is required before the Brexit process can begin. 'Picture: Leon Neal/Getty
A woman burns an EU flag outside the Supreme Court during a hearing into whether parliament's consent is required before the Brexit process can begin. 'Picture: Leon Neal/Getty
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Grief is still raw for a world where progress and enlightenment have been plunged into reverse by rabble-rousers and fanatics, writes Euan McColm

I was in a cab on the way to visit my friend Eddie Truman in hospital when I heard that Labour MP Jo Cox had been attacked. Details were sketchy: it was reported that she had been seriously injured, but we had yet to learn just how serious things were.

Ten minutes later, I was sitting by Eddie’s bedside in Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary, scanning Twitter for updates. We speculated grimly about what had happened, about why the politician might have been targeted.

We didn’t know Cox, but Eddie, a former spin doctor for the Scottish Socialist Party, and I, a former political editor, knew men and women like her. We knew, and admired, public servants from across the political spectrum and we spent some of our time together on the afternoon of Thursday, 16 June, talking about the sacrifices they made.

By the time I got home, Cox’s death had been confirmed. At just 41, she was the victim of a fascist coward who claimed to be acting in defence of Britain.

A few days later, Eddie was gone, too. At 53, he was the victim of youthful recklessness that caught up with him long before his time.

As I look back over the past 12 months, these two tragedies seem to sum up a year of which I’ll be glad to see the back. 2016 has been an annus horribilis and it can go to hell.

Not so very long ago, we could measure time by the breaking down of barriers. The fall of the Soviet Union, the demolition of the Berlin Wall, the end of Apartheid in South Africa, the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland… all of these events – and more – told a positive story of a world less conflicted, more open, where the reward for those with the courage to compromise was peace.

Those political leaders who believed in openness, in looking outwards, were dominant. Men and women with big ideas changed the world for the better.

But that momentum has fizzled and died. Now, we’re in the early days of an era of pettiness, where politicians who preach an ideology of isolationism have the whip hand.

No idea is too small, no claim too dirty for these new masters of the universe. The right-wingers who led the Leave campaign to victory in the EU referendum told a story of a truly great Britain, but their nostalgia was not for the United Kingdom that led the world in fighting for human rights or in intervening against despots but for a past where minorities knew their bloody place. These scaremongering racists and liars, these boors, stomped on decades of progress. Like bootboys on a post-match rampage, they singled out anyone who didn’t share their narrow worldview and attacked.

Yes, I know that many Brexiteers are outraged by the suggestion that they are small-minded bigots. This may be so, but the fact is that they were willing to stand alongside racists to achieve their objective. Their victory was won thanks to a campaign that would have made Enoch Powell think twice.

Across the Atlantic, fragile egomaniac Donald Trump used precisely the same tactics as the petty nationalists of the Leave campaign to secure victory in the US presidential election. Just eight years after America elected its first black president – something which, right up until it happened, seemed unthinkable – it has handed power to a huckster who “tells it like it is” as long as your idea of what it is comes down to blaming immigrants for any and all ills that might befall society.

Trump, a bully, an apologist for Russia’s thuggish president Vladimir Putin, has perfected the dark art of othering minorities. A month from now, he’ll be in the White House, just a tantrum away from starting Christ-knows-what.

Optimists continue to insist that once he’s in the Oval Office, Trump will change. Abusive men rarely change, though, do they?

The leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, may not share many beliefs with Trump, but his advisers believe they can ape the president-elect’s success by pushing their man’s anti-establishment credentials.

Corbyn’s spinners have briefed that, next year, they’ll be highlighting his outsider status. The theory runs that he can capitalise on the anti-politics sentiment that’s swept into our national discourse.

Fortunately, for those of us growing increasingly anxious about the rise of petty isolationism, Corbyn’s spectacular incompetence will prevent him achieving that objective.

Corbyn’s Labour is, in its own way, as small-minded as the Brexiteers and Trumpers. Under his leadership, the party has reverted to tribalist purity, where pragmatism is a sign of weakness.

Corbyn’s allies – a ragbag of unreconstructed hard-left activists and wide-eyed idealists – have helped him recreate the Labour Party as a sect rather than a serious prospect for government.

And, just like the Little Englanders who fought for Brexit, they look inwards rather than out.

Corbyn’s Labour can comfortably turn a blind eye to the atrocities of Aleppo because, well, intervention is the sort of thing “imperialists” do.

The last year has seen, at home and abroad, a change of political direction that can only foment tension. Leaders who prey on insecurity, who scapegoat the powerless, are building success on foundations of pure, white-hot anger.

The victorious politicians of the new right belittle and demean their critics as elitists. If you disagree with them then you are an enemy of the people. This has been the claim of fascists throughout history. And, throughout history, such surges in nationalist insularity have ended very badly, indeed.

Along with the human victims of this dark year, we have lost something else: optimism.

These are troubling times and I see no reason to believe that the course we are on will soon change.

A new generation of dangerous political populists made this a terrible year. I shudder to think where they will lead us in 2017.