by Rab Bruce’s Spider
Most people will be familiar with the famous saying that the one thing we learn from history is that people never learn from history. If you ever doubted the veracity of the remark, look around you and see what is happening in politics.
As a young teenager, I read a lot of books about the Second World War which had ended only a dozen years before I was born. My father served overseas and was severely wounded for his troubles, so it was fairly natural that I should take an interest in those events. At the time, there were plenty of books and films being produced which gave a variety of perspectives on the conflict. One novel I read (and I honestly don’t remember the book title or author) had a comment that not all the Nazis fought on the Axis side. I recall being fairly annoyed when reading that because we were the good guys, after all. We fought the Nazis and defeated them, so everyone on our side must have been anti-Nazi. In one sense, of course, they were, but as I grew older I began to appreciate that the comment was perhaps not all that far from the truth.
Yet my generation still understood the horror of allowing authoritarian political movements to seize control of a nation state. We used the terms Nazi and Fascist but, to be fair, extremists exhibit the same behaviour whether they claim to be on the extreme Left or the extreme Right of politics. Whatever name you care to use to label them, they present a genuine threat to the ideas of liberal democracy which formed the prevailing ethos in the post-war era. Xenophobia, the persecution of minority groups, increasing militarisation, and the accumulation of privilege among a selected few are just some aspects which people of the older generation can recognise as being fascist.
We used to wonder how people in 1930s Spain, Italy and Germany could allow such cruel groups to take control of their countries, yet now we are experiencing the same things ourselves and it is very frightening because of its seemingly inexorable tide as extreme views become state policy, each one going a step further than the last.
At the moment, the USA is the most prominent example of how extremism can take control, but every country has its share of people who espouse authoritarian views, and they are becoming more prominent in places like Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Italy and Spain, while Russia has been an authoritarian state for the past century, with only a brief flirtation with genuine democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union. And, of course, we should not exclude the UK from that list since the persecution of minority groups and rampant xenophobia are all too evident in our own society.
But it is the USA which attracts most attention by virtue of its power, influence and the rapidity with which it is marching towards the Right. You can argue over whether Donald Trump ever really believed he would become President; you can debate whether he is a manipulator or is being manipulated by others; you can deride him as infantile, but however he achieved his current position, he has enabled those who espouse extreme views to voice their opinion and shape policy. Having set this example, people in other countries are, sadly, following his lead.
Many of us ask how ordinary people can continue to support such views, especially when the evidence of history shows us that authoritarian states do not enrich the lives of the ordinary people but instead see the accumulation of wealth by the ruling elite. It’s like turkeys voting for Christmas, isn’t it? This is a question which would probably challenge experts in psychology and sociology, so don’t expect a short, simple answer here. However, we must recognise that there will always be some people who are susceptible to persuasion that everything wrong with their lives is the fault of outsiders, and who believe the promises that any individual can achieve wealth if they work hard enough. Combine this with nationalistic fervour which elevates the nation state above all other states, and you create an environment in which hatred can breed.
But, as we can see from our experience in the UK, such extremism does not need to be as overt as the American example provides. Casual racism and a sense of British exceptionalism has been a part of UK society for centuries, taking a strong grip in the Victorian days of Empire and barely loosening its hold despite the more liberal attitudes of the immediate post-war era. Now we see that xenophobia and persecution of minority groups are state policy as the Windrush and Universal Credit issues show us only too well. Yet even with people committing suicide because of cuts to social security, even with people who have lived all their lives in the UK being deported, even with food banks proliferating, even with Brexit guaranteed to make the vast majority of people poorer and more vulnerable to exploitation, the Tories are still ahead in the opinion polls.
We should always be sceptical of polls which are often described as being used to influence public opinion rather than reflect them, but we must face the fact that the voters of England in particular keep voting for the Tories. Why on earth do they do this when many of them must surely be able to see what harm is being done by Tory policies?
Of course, there will always be those who have benefitted from the system and so will vote to maintain the status quo, but the Tories also derive a lot of support from people who would not, on the face of it, be their natural support base. Pandering to the xenophobia, which UK society has always encouraged even if only in subtle ways, may be one answer, but the other surely lies in the desire that every individual harbours; the desire to improve one’s lot in life. Through our media, we are bombarded with visions of how the wealthy live, and we are encouraged to believe that we, too, could achieve this exalted status with all the wealth and privilege it brings. This is part of the big trick because, although a handful of individuals may well achieve riches, the vast majority will never move beyond the circumstances they were born into. Yet the dream lives on, and allows people to vote for a system they are told will give them a chance to escape their current circumstances. This, in itself, is an example of the Me First society the Tories have promoted since Margaret Thatcher came to power, and it is, perhaps, the essential problem facing us today.
As long ago as the third century BCE, the Greek philosopher Epicurus put forward the view that comparing ourselves to others and wishing for more than we already possess was the surest way to unhappiness. Contentment, he said, came from being satisfied with what blessings you already have. Now, this can be viewed in a couple of ways. You may agree that being jealous of someone else’s good fortune is no way to be happy within yourself, or you may say that simply accepting one’s position shows a lack of ambition.
Indeed, we should all be ambitious, but it is the nature of that ambition which divides our society. Some – perhaps far too many – are ambitious only for themselves. They want fame and fortune for their own personal benefit because that is the way they perceive society operating. They see the world divided into winners and losers, and because they work hard they cannot understand why they are not among the winners. This creates a sense of resentment which needs an outlet; an outlet provided by politicians who direct the ire towards minority groups.
Others, in contrast, are ambitious for the whole of society. This is often dismissed as idealistic since there will always be levels of wealth and status within a liberal democracy. But, while this is true, those of us who grew up in the post-war era can recognise that we were all part of a great social experiment which allowed the working class to greatly enhance their position. Yes, there were still rich people around, but everyone had a chance, through excellent and free education and healthcare, to gain more control over their own destiny. We did not all become superstars or millionaires, but when we look back at the conditions our parents and grandparents grew up in, we were all several notches up the ladder from where they had been.
The difference in attitudes between those who are ambitious for themselves and those who are ambitious for everyone is that the former are quite happy to pull the ladder up after them or stand on the fingers of others who want to climb it, while the latter want everyone to be able to climb as high as they can.
Now, however, thanks to the rise of the Right wing, all of the advances made in the post-war years are under threat. Those who promote division, racism and persecution are in control, and their influence is emboldening that element of the population who believe the jingoistic slogans because they have been taught to believe them.
Where does this leave us, and how can we alter things?
These are difficult questions to answer. Protests on the streets and angry comments on social media can only go so far. Our main weapon is the ballot box and we must use it. Not only that, we must encourage everyone we know to use it and to use it wisely. There will always be some individuals who are beyond persuasion, but many people remain poorly informed and subjected to the mainstream media narrative which is designed to prevent them challenging the status quo. We need to decide which direction we want our society to go, whether that is as part of the UK, a member of the EU or as a normal nation in control of its own affairs. Above all, we need to learn from our history and try to avoid the mistakes of the past. More and more people are starting to realise that Scotland made a huge mistake in 2014. We know now that even the ballot box cannot save us in UK General Elections because the Westminster system is designed to maintain the status quo.
Which really only leaves us one choice if we are to avoid following England down the path towards fascism.
So when we get another chance, please make sure we don’t repeat the mistake we made last time.