Joyce McMillan: Nostalgia no basis for decisions

ONLY a move towards a modern form of social democracy can find the answers we need, writes Joyce McMillan

John Lewis, centre, and other members of Congress stage a sit-in on the floor of the US House of Representatives. Picture: Getty
John Lewis, centre, and other members of Congress stage a sit-in on the floor of the US House of Representatives. Picture: Getty

Referendum day: and as Britain’s broadcast media pause their frenzied coverage of the European Union debate, our eyes turn briefly across the Atlantic, towards the strange events taking place on Capitol Hill. In fuzzy live-stream pictures from mobile phones (since all other cameras have been banned from the chamber) we can see a couple of dozen distinguished US Congressmen and women – including John Lewis of Georgia, the last survivor of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders of the 1960s, and Democrat minority leader Nancy Pelosi – sitting on the floor of the House of Representatives, having refused to accept the end of the current sitting of the House until they are allowed a vote on the bitterly-contested issue of gun control.

As I write, their occupation of the chamber has continued for almost 24 hours; and although it will doubtless end soon, the sight of a large group of the nation’s elected representatives so incensed that they are prepared to make such a visible and radical public protest, under the eyes of the whole nation, is remarkable in itself, and indicative of the intense pressure building up on a political system that has for years been besieged, and often bought and sold, by armies of well-resourced corporate lobbyists in Washington.

Prominent among these lobbyists, of course, are those connected to the firearms industry and to the National Rifle Association, which campaigns for generally unrestricted access to firearms for all Americans; and since the horrific shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando earlier this month – and several other recent mass killings – there has been a growing sense of revulsion among many Democrats, including President Obama himself, at the absolute failure of America’s political institutions to confront the obvious fact that countries which have tighter gun controls than the United States, and far lower rates of gun ownership, have rates of gun crime death not just a little lower than those of the United States, but five, ten, even 50 times lower. Excluding suicides, some 13,286 people were killed by firearms in the United States in 2015 alone; the equivalent British figure was around 150. And it has been calculated that total US firearms deaths between 1968 and 2011 – a period of just 44 years – amounted to 1.4 million.

And it’s against the background of this continuing bloodbath that we have to understand the passion of representatives like Congressman Lewis, who made the crucial speech inviting his fellow Democrats to join him in protest. The last surviving veteran of the group of civil rights leaders who gathered around Martin Luther King, the 76-year-old Congressman seemed to be summoning the spirit of those distant days, as he eased his ageing bones on to the floor of the House. “We have lost hundreds and thousands of innocent people to gun violence,” he said, in a voice shaking with emotion, “tiny little children, babies, students and teachers, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, daughters and sons, friends and neighbours. And what has this body done? Mr Speaker, nothing. Not one thing.”


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Yet even if there is enough substance in the gun control issue to account for the vehemence of this rare protest in Congress, there’s also an edge to the anger of this group of Democrats that perhaps reflects some of the feeling behind Senator Bernie Sanders’ remarkable radical campaign for this year’s Democratic presidential nomination; a sense that although the establishment candidate Hillary Clinton may triumph in the short term, the system is nonetheless broken, and needs somehow to be taken back from the massive vested interests that have lobbied and financed it almost to a standstill, when it comes to representing the interests of ordinary Americans.

On the floor of the House of Representatives as in our own recent referendums, in other words, we are seeing the acting-out of a series of explosions of anger and rebellion against a system that increasingly serves not the many, but the few, and that has essentially been raiding our common resources, over the past generation, to increase the wealth of a tiny minority. In Scotland, some of us hoped we could make a difference by breaking our constitutional link with Westminster, and going it alone as a small social democratic country in the European Union. In the United States, voters dream that they can make a difference by voting for “outsider” candidates like Bernie Sanders or – by his own account – Donald Trump. And in the UK as I write, millions are dreaming that they can make a difference by walking away from the European Union, closing our borders to European migrants, and trying to restore a kinder, more convivial Britain that was lost not to the bureaucrats of Brussels, but to an ideology, and a ruling UK elite, that cared nothing for it at all.

The truth is, though, that only a genuine and well-organised international movement for new 21st century forms of social democracy can even begin to restore the power and credibility of our political institutions, and start to re-create a system of government that serves the people first, and regulates large corporate interests so that, in general, they do the same. To ease their anger, their grief and their sense of impotence and loss, people need not guns or the right to buy them, not closed borders and nostalgic fantasies, but the long and patient business of rebuilding a society and economy that truly serves their interests, offering the economic and environmental security, the decent incomes, the affordable housing, and the free healthcare and education, that should be everyone’s birthright, and that all wise governments strive to achieve.

History has already taught us that without these, there is pain, division, social tension and, over time, an ever-increasing threat of violence; and that with them, nations can soar to new heights of conviviality and creativity, and find a new sense of peace. How to get from here to there, though, is the great political question of our time and although this has been a dramatic week in politics on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s unlikely that it will finally do more than sketch part of the backdrop, against which we must continue to search for answers.