The end of the Cold War 25 years ago is something worth celebrating, but it has in fact fuelled tougher times for many in the West, writes John McTernan
Many books and articles are being published to mark this anniversary. One thing stands out in all the analysis – that it could so easily have ended in violence, just as Tiananmen Square did. The fact it didn’t was due to the brave decision of one man in Leipzig. Faced with a peaceful demonstration of over 100,000, a mid-ranking Communist Party bureaucrat called Helmut Hackenberg decided not to use force to end the demo. From that moment on the East German authorities were compromising with their own people. The rest is history.
There will be much to learn in all the quarter-century celebrations of this huge, historic moment. But what does it mean to us now? Well, it is now clear that this was the pivotal event in the creation of the world we live in today.
On the one hand, there is the politics of austerity. Around the western world we are seeing a fundamental retrenchment of the welfare state. The riots in Belgium against changes to the pension system are just the latest public protests. But they are also the latest changes to what were felt – during the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies and Eighties to be settled fixtures of society.
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The post-war, social democratic welfare state was the compromise that capitalism had to accept to survive. While the West was in a stand-off with so-called “workers’ states” they could not afford to risk losing their own public. The fact that there was an alternative system – both of government and of economics – to choose made it sensible, indeed necessary, to have a generous offer for workers. Even with that Italy nearly fell to Communism. That pressure started to disappear in 1989 but vanished completely after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
But old habits die hard and it took a younger, post-Cold War generation of right-wing politicians to exploit the new opportunities. Under the guise of austerity, George Osborne has done things to the welfare state that Margaret Thatcher would never have dreamed of doing, let alone dared to do. Slavoj Žižek, the Marxist thinker, has put it bluntly – only decades later have we seen the true cost of the fall of the Berlin Wall in the appearance of a right-wing politics committed to rolling back the gains everyone thought were secured in the last century.
This leads directly to the other huge impact on our lives – the completion of the current phase of globalisation. The change originated in 1979 when Deng Xiao Ping opened China to the market. His famous phrase was: “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice.” But he cannot have possibly imagined what the consequence would be. Now we can see that the world economy has been permanently changed by the entry of nearly two billion new workers to the global labour market in just two decades.
This has hit home hard in Britain in two major ways. First, the collapse of Communism was rapidly followed by the entry of central and eastern European countries into the European Union. That’s what brought the Polish plumbers and Romanian roofers to the United Kingdom. In turn, that has led to the recent panics about immigration. Not the numbers of Africans, Asians or Muslims but an influx of white people – church-going Catholics at that. Second, the opening of global markets has exposed more and more industries to competition. Trade generates wealth, it doesn’t destroy it. As a French socialist politician put it to me once – the Chinese have to sell us a lot of T-shirts to pay for a single Airbus. But the wealth generated is unevenly distributed. When your company goes to the wall and factories close the impact is very localised – communities and families are hit hard. And the benefits of the growing economy arise elsewhere. The new black-collar jobs (the work you do in a black T-shirt) of the creative industries appear far from the old industrial towns. The consequence is a polarised economy and a polarising society. Not just individual winners and losers, but whole towns – even regions. From this derives the disruptive dynamic of modern British politics. A country split not on traditional class lines but basically on whether you are a winner or a loser from globalisation. And all this in a context where the traditional projections of the welfare state are, as I have said already, being eroded.
So, in a funny kind of way, the fall of Communism sowed the seeds for the rise of Ukip. And the strange mixture of nihilism and optimism that characterises their insurgency politics – and that of the SNP. That phenomenally popular claim that if we only leave something (the EU, the UK) then everything (jobs, NHS, the economy, pensions) will be so much better. With its accompanying undertow – well, let’s face it nothing could be worse than what we have now.
This is not to argue that there is an insoluble inevitability to the state we are in, or to the choices we can make. It is simply to say that a clear-sighted understanding of history, and how we got here, is the essential basis for any lasting reforms. So what are the lessons?
Straightforward really. We should not just mark 1989 but celebrate it. The liberation was real and continuing. If proof is needed, just look at Ukraine and compare it to Poland. They had the same living standards at the end of the Cold War, now Poland is markedly richer. And we have to share the proceeds of globalisation more fairly within the UK. Despite it all, our new world was one worth fighting for. We should make it fair for all.
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