It was towards the end of the 1930s that the great Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean wrote his mighty poem The Cry Of Europe, about the competing claims of politics and personal life. He was a young man in his late 20s, a teacher in Portree; and he had been asked to go and join the fight against fascism in Spain, a call he felt the could not answer, not least because of his commitment to a golden-haired woman with whom he was in love.
The poem he wrote in response to this dilemma is a fiercely erotic one, addressed to his lover, about “the song of your mouth, and Europe’s shivering cry”. There is something in it, though, that goes far beyond his personal dilemma, to capture the sense of contamination and despair felt by everyone, when we know that great power has fallen into the hands of those who will abuse it, and that we have not resisted them. “Would your song and splendid beauty take from me the dead loathsomeness of these ways,” he asks, “the brute and the brigand at the head of Europe?”
No one in Britain today, of course, faces a decision as sharp as the one that drew that poem from MacLean, who went on to fight in North Africa during the Second World War. Yet still, there’s a sense that amid the sharp and historic divisions that now define our political lives – over Scottish independence, Brexit, or the character and politics of Donald Trump, who this week risked catastrophic new conflict in the Middle East by reneging on the United States’ commitment to the Iran nuclear deal – increasing numbers of people are trying to push politics away, stop watching news programmes whose content enrages and depresses them, spend less time on social media (which in any case often seems to coarsen and polarise debate beyond bearing), and accentuate the positive by “getting on with their lives”. Indeed there was plenty of online support, this week, for a writer who suggested that Google’s “bring your whole self to work” mantra is nonsense; and that people should in future keep their political beliefs and attitudes out of the office, where they cause nothing but trouble.
Yet today, as in the 1930s, the arguments for taking on the politics of the day, rather than turning away from them, are powerful, not least because the idea of politics as something separate from our everyday lives is, and always has been, a convenient right-wing myth. Almost every detail of daily life that we take for granted, in a developed western country, from the tarmac road outside our door to the pension we expect to receive in old age, exists as result of a political decision, and sometimes of considerable political struggle; and everyone who is not a billionaire should therefore view with great suspicion anyone who tells them not to politicise things, or to keep politics out of some activity or other. Nine times out of ten, those words are simply code for “shut up, and accept things as they are”.
The even greater reason for staying tuned in to politics, though, involves Edmund Burke’s famous dictum that all that is necessary for evil to triumph, is for good men and women to do nothing. For if ordinary, sane people tune out and switch off from politics now, then there is absolutely no doubt about the generation of brutes and brigands who will soon be running our world. Watch Donald Trump shake hands with Kim Jong Un, or Benjamin Netanyahu smile knowingly at Vladimir Putin who smiles back, and Sorley MacLean’s words will come back to mind, along with Burke’s warning; these men are confident of living in an age of unreason, where their lies and manipulations will triumph, and truth, compassion, common sense and justice will not stand a chance.
Yet in every crisis that befalls our society, everyone involved expresses surprise and gratitude at the general kindness of most people, and their willingness to help others in trouble. The truth is that for the last 30 years, we have been suffering from a politics which inadequately reflects that kindly and convivial aspect of human nature, and places too much emphasis on the value of selfish individualism; and now, that divide between ordinary human values and the world of politics is taking an even nastier turn, as political power is increasingly claimed by leaders who not only fail to reflect those values, but who relish the task of mocking them, and smashing the national and international institutions that embody them.
The task that now faces the majority of ordinary citizens, therefore, has to do with insisting on a politics that actually reflects the ordinary care and decency that people tend to show in everyday life. This is the kind of politics that is most often seen at grassroots level, when people come together to campaign for better facilities for their children, better health care for vulnerable groups, improvements in housing, or a safer, cleaner environment for their community; it tends to be practical, consensual, not linked to any one party, and far more likely to be led by women than conventional party politics.
Yet for all these supposedly “soft” characteristics, this kind of activity is also intensely political, often involving a profound challenge to existing patterns of power. And if we are to stage a real resistance to the shameless hate-mongering and ruthless media manipulation of the new generation of world leaders, then it strikes me that it’s in this kind of grassroots politics – and in new forms of national and international politics modelled on it – that we are most likely to find a way forward. In this moment when it would be disastrous to do nothing, in other words, what we do may take new and unfamiliar forms, much closer to home than when the young Sorley MacLean heard the call to go and fight in Spain. And so long as we never deceive ourselves into thinking that our good grassroots causes and campaigns are “not political”, that is perhaps as it should be, in working out the shape of a new progressive politics, for a new millennium.